Prom 65: 8th September 2001- Chicago Symphony 2

Photograph of Daniel Barenboim by Cordula Groth

Augusta Read Thomas
Aurora, for piano and orchestra [UK premiere]
Symphony No.7

Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Daniel Barenboim’s visits to the Proms with the Chicago Symphony have balanced commissions with symphonic classics. Three years ago, Birtwistle’s Exody was paired with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. At this Prom, Mahler’s Seventh followed an UK premiere by Augusta Read Thomas.

Although she studied at the Royal Academy of Music in the late 1980s, Thomas’s music has seldom been heard on this side of the Atlantic. Now aged 37, with a substantial output to her name, she seems to have found a balance between density of thought and expressive flair rare among US composers of her generation. Aurora was written for Barenboim to direct from the keyboard as part of a series of concerto-concerts which featured ones by Mozart – hence the classically-sized orchestra (trombone and temple blocks excepted). Interestingly, the use of single desks recalled the string quartet accompaniment that Mozart had in mind for his piano concertos of 1782-3.

The five sections play continuously for seventeen minutes, with the opening ingeniously combining sustained piano decay with luminous chordal arcs in the wind. The third section elaborates this procedure while, in contrast, the even-numbered sections pursue clipped, toccata-like motion – Varese-like in their rhythmic pungency and clear-cut timbres. The final section attempts a resolution by having an unexpected solo voice (the performer’s presence and name kept anonymous) sing a Latin quotation from Saint Ambrose – “may our souls know no twilight” – which would work better if piano and ensemble had more substance to contribute at this point. What resulted was at best anti-climactic. A pity as this was an otherwise absorbing piece, which confirmed that Thomas is a composer of whom we should be hearing more.

Three years ago, Barenboim’s Mahler Five failed to impress with its combination of superficial excitement and half-hearted grandiloquence. This account of the Seventh had its positive points. The scherzo, though passing over much detail in its onward sweep, had a crepuscular, agitated quality that the Chicago strings clearly relished. The second ’Nachtmusik’ drew a fine line between the intermezzo-like sanguinity of its themes and orchestration, and the uneasy harmonic shifts which ruffle its progress. The first ’Nachtmusik’ had suffered through too generalised pacing of its contrasting tempi, the distinction between march-tempo and ländler largely ironed out, and this lack of perception was even more marked in the outer movements.

The ’Langsam’ opening of the first movement was strong on atmosphere but evinced little emotional involvement, setting the tone for a reading which, for all its underlining of formal junctures, smothered the music’s myriad ambiguities of mood and detail with an all-purpose expression which quickly palled. The fantasia of energy and wit that is the Finale was equally underplayed at a rumbustious tempo that compromised the music’s élan right from the poorly co-ordinated opening bars. The surfacing of first movement material to set up the clinching phase went for little as the movement headed securely but blandly to its close. If Barenboim was trying to bring out the existential cynicism that resides obliquely in this symphony, what came through was a cynicism more in the execution than in the conception.

The Chicagoans frequently gave of their best (though the trumpets often fell short of Mahler’s demands to an extent rarely encountered in the Solti era), here and in the ’Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music that followed as an encore. Detached in expression maybe, but with a suppleness of phrasing and lightness of touch so often lacking in the Mahler.

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