Prom 58: Drones of Death

Alhambra Fantasy
Abraham and Isaac
Homenaje a Federico García Lorca
Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death

Sanford Sylvan (baritone)

Sinfonia 21
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Almost a counterpart to Prom 51 in its diverse treatment of the season’s Hispanic theme. Julian Anderson’s Alhambra Fantasy (2000) has made a fair impact in performances from the London Sinfonietta and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and tonight’s was the most vivid yet. Martyn Brabbins powered through the first section with its graphic evocation of the palace ’under construction’ – to the extent that some of the intricate motivic writing was lost in a blur of activity. Yet this heightened both the contrast with, and the intensity of, the work’s second half – an evocation of the Alhambran landscape sensuous yet poignant in its feeling of unreality.

Ostensibly the odd work out, Stravinsky’s Abraham and Isaac (1963) is among the most fully realised and coherent of his late works – a sacred ballad which abounds in subtle musical inference without the need for depiction at a descriptive level. Sanford Sylvan projected the Hebrew text as an unbroken line of lyrical declamation (hence the composer’s priceless term ’bel-cantor’), while the instrumental component – a melodic commentary which is only rarely an accompaniment – was expressive and precise. The gradual assimilation of ’serial Stravinsky’ into the modern repertoire was well served on this occasion.

Good too that Silvestre Revueltas has finally taken his place at the Proms. In contrast to his high-octane orchestral blockbusters, Homenaje a Federico García Lorca (1935) has a chamber-like density of utterance. Varèse-ian extremes of register find a natural interface with Milhaud-esque polytonality in music whose febrile rhythmic energy is shot-through with a wrenching emotion that anticipates the tragedy of Spain in general and Lorca in particular.

And so to George Crumb, whose music is currently enjoying a revival after its popular acclaim in the late ’60s and ’70s. Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968) is the most extended and musically the most wide-ranging of his Lorca-based compositions. Four of the poet’s most characteristic verses, expressionist in their dark intensity, are interspersed with ritualistic interludes whose percussion writing spreads across the ensemble to draw in the singer.

Yet Crumb is as mindful to vary the emotional quality of the songs (compare his ’Song of the Rider (1860)’ with that of Simon Holt’s Canciones – heard in Prom 51) as he is the cumulative intensity of the refrains – culminating in a visceral ’spatial’ cadenza for two drummers and a setting of ’Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water’ which retreats quietly and cathartically into itself. A further impressive showing from Sylvan, among the most versatile singers of his generation, and playing of vibrant energy from Sinfonia 21 – no mean outfit itself when it comes to versatility of repertoire.

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