Prom 7: Barcelona Symphony

Concerto for Orchestra
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Cinco canciones negras
El sombrero de tres picos (complete)

Viktoria Mullova (violin)
Jennifer Larmore (mezzo-soprano)
Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya
Lawrence Foster

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Spain, and its musical influence, is the theme running through this year’s Proms, and who better to present a largely Spanish programme than a home-grown orchestra. The Barcelona Symphony is a predominantly young and pan-European outfit whose status, on the basis of this Proms debut, is clearly on the rise.

Opening with Roberto Gerhard’s Concerto for Orchestra (1965) was a challenge which the orchestra, thanks not least to its American Music Director Lawrence Foster’s skilful direction, met handsomely. This dynamic, exhilarating work from the composer’s productive last decade has been sorely neglected – as has Gerhard’s music as a whole – over the last quarter-century. Yet for all the rigour and abstraction of the processes with which Gerhard fills out his sonic canvas, there’s nothing dry or cerebral about the result. This is because the sound of what Gerhard writes, and the visceral and emotional affect of that sound, is his music’s sole motivation and purpose; sustained between passages of febrile activity and others where pulse gives way to a precisely imagined ambient haze: the whole integrated into a 22-minute span of satisfying – because perceivable – coherence.

Even in the ample acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, the impact of Gerhard’s music and the sense of it moving around the auditorium in ’real-time’ was palpable. The more so as the Mendelssohn concerto which followed was even more light-textured than usual, giving a chamber-like dimension to Viktoria Mullova’s lucid playing – effortlessly incisive in the first movement cadenza and plaintively expressive in the ’Andante’, which moved with an attractive, barcarolle-like gait. There was no lack of pathos when required, while the ’Finale’ was put through its spirited paces with no trace of the blandness that so often mars performances of this familiar but strikingly innovative work. Foster accompanied attentively, and it was a pleasure to savour the incidental detail and counter-melodies brought out in the orchestral writing.

A tribute to Xavier Montsalvatge – who died in May this year just two months after his 90th birthday – was certainly in order, and any disappointment at a performance of the Cinco canciones negras (1946), rather than another vocal or orchestral work from his substantial output, was tempered by the voluptuous tone and rhythmic dexterity of Jennifer Larmore. A touch more smouldering intensity in ’The Man with a Knife’ would not have gone amiss, but the atmosphere of ’Cuba Inside a Piano’ was evocatively rendered, while the melodism of the famous ’Lullaby for a Little Black Boy’ had due affection. Despite its restraint, the orchestral contribution came over well – adding a layer of supple charm to the vocal writing.

Not surprisingly, Manuel de Falla is a major presence throughout the season, and a complete performance of The Three-Cornered Hat, his most effervescent work, concluded the evening. Like Stravinsky’s The Firebird (heard at the Proms under Leonard Slatkin the previous night), this is a ballet which benefits from one or two discreet cuts in concert, so as to maintain momentum between set pieces (Slatkin’s editing of Stravinsky’s complete score had proved very effective). Not that there was anything routine about Lawrence Foster’s account, which enabled the Barcelona players to demonstrate a sure technical prowess and idiomatic feeling – a fine tribute to Foster’s seven years with the orchestra in his last concert as Music Director. The ’Fandango’ in part one was duly propulsive, while the dances in part two had the combination of passion and poise so necessary in Falla – culminating in an uninhibited ’Jota’. Thinking back on Gerhard’s concerto confirmed that the stylistic differences between the two composers is much less than their spiritual empathy.

A lengthy concert was topped off by an engaging prelude from a typical, turn-of-the-last-century Zarzuela, one from Ruperto Chapí’s large output of this populist genre. Falla certainly had the feel of this music under his skin, but the vastly greater sophistication he brought to the idiom cannot be doubted.

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