Prom 52: 29th August 2001 – Late Night Lambert

Ian Bostridge
Photographer: David Thompson
© EMI Classics 24/4/01

Prize Fight
Farewell to Arms*
Lambert, orch. Easterbrook and Shipley
Piano Concerto (1924)

Ian Bostridge (tenor)*
Philip Fowke (piano)

Britten Sinfonia conducted by Nicholas Cleobury

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Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 29 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Thankfully the Proms got it right this time – this concert finished on time thereby not making it necessary to rush off for public transport before the end. The Britten Sinfonia commemorated anniversaries of two British composers – the 50th since Constant Lambert’s death and the centenary of Gerald Finzi; as well as giving a rare outing to Britten’s Nocturne.

Lambert’s early death robbed British music of one of its outstanding talents – conductor, composer, writer. Had he lived would he have attained the prominence of his close contemporary, William Walton? On the evidence of the two works heard tonight he might have been in with a good chance.

Lambert called Prize Fight a ’realistic ballet’ – Vaughan Williams of all people suggested that he base a ballet on a boxing match, but the term ’realistic ballet’ suggests the influence of Satie (Parade) and Milhaud (Le boeuf sur le toit); indeed, the work of these composers does hang over Lambert’s score, along with curious allusions to English folksong, dance-band music and, perhaps, a sprinkling of Petrushka. All this is done with much skill; one is carried away by the piece’s energy and wit, certainly in aperformance as good as this – it would be fun to see it staged.

Astonishingly, both Prize Fight and the Piano Concerto werewritten before Lambert reached his twentieth birthday. The Piano Concerto was discovered and orchestrated by the late Edward Shipley and Giles Easterbrook (and is not be confused with the later Concerto for piano and nine instruments) and is an even headier mix. Delius puts in an appearance in the slow movement; the combination of trumpet(s), piano and strings reminds of Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto – Lambert’s work (1924) pre-dates that by several years. In his wonderful book, “Music Ho!”, Lambert speaks of good second-rate composers – this is perhaps what Lambert himself was. The concerto, whilst hardly being a lost masterpiece, is far beyond a student effort and, like all his music, worthy of revival. The solo part is demanding without being virtuoso; Philip Fowke’s account was efficient – more energy and rhythmic precision would have a made a fair performance into an enjoyable one.

Though I know I risk being attacked in the street, am I the only person in the world that doesn’t understand what all the fuss about Ian Bostridge is? [No! – Music Editor.] Truth to tell, I did find his manner slightly less affected at this concert, but his voice is just not interesting enough to sustain attention through the eight songs of similar tempi that form Britten’s Nocturne. [Nor to justify the detail-covering, closer-than-usual balance afforded him on the Radio 3 relay, which also blights his commercial recordings – Music Editor.] His diction is superb, but there is no variety of tone or colour – everything is too refined and beautiful. There is a fairly restricted register – low notes have no support or depth, high notes are reedy and feeble. Despite the best efforts of the Britten Sinfonia’s distinguished soloists – Nicholas Daniel’s cor anglais making a particularly beautiful contribution to the Owen setting, ’She sleeps on soft, last breaths’ – each song sounded the same. The death of Tennyson’s fearful monster of the deep, ’The Kraken’, had no effect whatsoever. Only in the last, the best, song (Shakespeare’s 43rd Sonnet) did Nicholas Cleobury manage to whip up something verging on passion.

Finzi’s Farewell to Arms was a little more varied but failed to touch the heart in the unique way this composer can. Thankfully we did have a short and wonderful bonus in the same composer’s wistful Romance (for strings) – a tiny classic, beautifully played, which I could have listened to all night!

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