Prom 50: Ilan Volkov/Chord-Breaking Machine, No other people., Coptic Light … Frederic Rzewski Piano Concerto

John White
Chord-Breaking Machine
Gerald Barry
No other people. [UK premiere]
Frederic Rzewski
Piano Concerto [BBC commission: world premiere]
Morton Feldman
Coptic Light

Frederic Rzewski (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 August, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Frederic Rzewski performs the BBC commissioned world premiere of his new Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIlan Volkov’s Proms have latterly become something of an odyssey through the more experimental realms of music – witness his diverse tribute to John Cage last season – and this late-night event continued such thinking with its finely organised programme featuring four composers central to, while not at the centre of, contemporary musical thought.

First up was John White – in concert terms ever a speculative presence, though whose music has long-established a niche in the domains of ballet and theatre. His (highly) belated Proms debut, Chord-Breaking Machine (1971) is a five-minute curtain-raiser whose interplay of harmonic rigour and rhythmic dislocation amply points up the relationship between the systematic and anarchic which has long been a hallmark of his thinking. Volkov encouraged the BBCSSO to a gripping account of a piece first realised by the orchestra of Wimbledon’s King’s College School. Hopefully Volkov will be scheduling more of White’s orchestral music in due course – there are apparently some 25 symphonies to choose from!

Ilan Volkov conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAfter this, a recent work by Gerald Barry inevitably seemed the more self-conscious in its musical physiognomy – which is not to say that No other people. (2008) made other than an intriguing impression. Inspired by Raymond Roussel’s epic poem New Impressions of Africa, or rather those illustrations which Henri-Achille Zo contributed in enforced ignorance of the text, the piece unfolds as a sequence of paraphrases – rather than variations as such – on the blithely ceremonial music at the opening. Horns (playing in what sounded to be an approximation of just intonation) were much in evidence, while an equivocal dispersal of sound at the close suggested that the piece could have segued into something else entirely.

Frederic Rzewski performs the BBC commissioned world premiere of his new Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWere there many people in the 400 or so audience who had been present for Frederic Rzewski’s first Proms appearances at the Round House in 1974? Any who were might have been caught unaware by the seeming classicism of his Piano Concerto (2013) – its 22 minutes comprising four movements that evoked, without thereby adhering to, familiar outlines; and with the soloist an almost continual presence in the context of an orchestra whose instrumentation was impeccably Classical. That said, subversive elements were never far below the surface, notably the third movement’s opening up of vast spaces within the musical texture. Now in his mid-70s, the composer duly contributed pianism of unfailing poise and eloquence.

Space, temporal as well as textural, is no less a part of Morton Feldman’s output. Three years ago, Volkov introduced his Piano and Orchestra to the Proms, and now brought Coptic Light (1986) – last and most all-encompassing of the composer’s orchestral works. Drawing on Coptic textiles from the medieval era, this is music of a hypnotic intensity – deploying a large orchestra (with tuned percussion only) in an unbroken continuum of sound as intricately scored as it is sensuous in effect. The BBCSSO was unfailingly attuned to its unique aura, with Volkov ensuring the ppp dynamic level was maintained – so endowing the music with a radiance that permeated the furthest reaches of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic.

A mesmeric conclusion, then, to what will doubtless prove a highlight of the current season. Hopefully Volkov has further such programmes planned: indeed, might it be possible for him to bring his Tel Aviv-based Levontin 7 project to these concerts, as its integration of classical, jazz, electronica and rock ought to make the perfect ‘late-nighter’.

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