Prom 51 – Woolrich’s Winning Mercurial Musical Metamorphoses

Young Apollo
Helios [London premiere]
Double Mercury [BBC/Britten Sinfonia co-commission: world première]

Paul Lewis (piano)

Nicholas Daniel (oboe)

Britten Sinfonia
Nicholas Cleobury

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After perhaps the longest break of Late Night Proms I have ever known (almost two full weeks), the tradition burst brilliantly back to life with this wonderfully themed concert, regrettably played to an even smaller audience than Mendelssohn’s Antigone (Prom 8). I reckon that the audience could have fitted into the Purcell Room, although the music could not – the Britten Sinfonia was at its fullest extent and amply filled the platform.

Perhaps the most organically constructed programme around the Greek mythology theme of all this season’s concerts, each of the four works concentrated on a different god or myth and brought together three British scores, one receiving its world première, together with one of Stravinsky’s Greek-inspired ballet scores for Balanchine. However, presumably following the maxim ’there’s no pleasure without pain’ this concert demonstrated the potential problem of late-night events.Despite starting bang on time (Mark Wigglesworth’s cogent and speedy way with Brahms’s First Symphony had brought the ’earlier’ Prom in under time), the concert finished over 20 minutes later than estimated.

The Stravinsky – lyrical Orpheus, lovingly crafted by Nicholas Cleobury as far as my mind could concentrate on it – was marred by the inevitable worry about missing last transport links home (thankfully the blackout happened the following night!). These four pieces would have been perfect for a main evening Prom, but for its late-night spot, ’less is more’ should have been the watchword. We could have done without the Stravinsky – then the concept would have been even more focused: three British composers’ assimilation of mythology.

It was good to see Paul Lewis in Britten’s virtuosic occasional piece, Young Apollo – backed by string quartet and strings – revelling in the sunlight caught in the fanfare music that had so inspired Britten when he arrived in Canada, pre-war.[Paul Lewis, you know, is associated with Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme – R3 presenter John Shea rammed this info down our throats every time Lewis was mentioned. Maddening! – Ed.]

Oboist Nicholas Daniel, resplendent in red jacket, impersonated the sun god in Thea Musgrave’s Helios, which Daniel premièred in 1994, but here made its belated London appearance.With wind, horn and trumpet cohorts, raised in a V shape around the orchestra, and standing at the work’s climax, there is a visual sense of the god’s chariot racing across the sky, which you simply cannot get from hearing the work on disc (an old Collins release, now rescued by NMC). This is a world away from Nielsen’s gentle evocation of sunrise, and it was great to see Thea Musgrave take the applause for this, only the third work of hers to appear at the Proms.

John Woolrich has only had one work performed at the Proms before – coincidentally in view of the previous piece in this concert, his Oboe Concerto played by Nicholas Daniel. Double Mercury as a title is never really explained – although its appropriation of a Roman god’s name (as opposed to the Greek counterpart, Hermes) is elucidated by Woolrich’s inspiration, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (bringing us back to Britten, his Metamorphoses after Ovid, for unaccompanied oboe).

Double Mercury is a brilliant, vibrant work, immediately likeable, with myriad orchestral details that caress and amuse the ear.Seven tales are encompassed, the first six flashing by in kaleidoscopic virtuosity. The final tale – the death of Pentheus (decapitated by his own mother who, in Bacchanalian frenzy, tore off his head thinking he was a wild boar: two percussionists, raised at the back on either side of the orchestra, having a field day here) – lasts more than the other six tales put together. Themes from all return, tumbling over each other as the piece fragments towards the end.

Woolrich’s musical imagination and ear for intriguing sonority was always on display. The woodblock duet imitating the woodpecker that King Picus is transformed into was followed later by not only the braying woodwinds for King Midas being turned into an ass but also an inventive use of the Lion’s Roar (perhaps it should be renamed the ’Ass’s Hee-haw’ in future!). Actaeon, pursued by the hunter Diana who she has changed into a boar after he refused her love, is killed amidst the welter of horn baying.But there are contrasting moments of quiet, solitude and mourning, as well. Between woodpecker Picus and ass Midas comes Canens, a girl who sang – here a solo flute lament – and, after Actaeon, Niobe’s tears for her children slaughtered by the gods, which turn to stone, are imitated by cor anglais.

The anticipated 20-minute commission lasted 27 minutes, but didn’t outstay its welcome. Now we need to hear it again.It is a shame that late-night concerts don’t automatically get a Radio 3 repeat, or that BBC Music Magazine doesn’t release a collection of new Proms works on CD.However, with Woolrich’s Arcangelo and Bitter Fruits Suite already premièred this year, perhaps NMC could bring these and Double Mercury together on disc?

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