Proms 2011 – BBCSO/Robertson – Isabella & The Planets … Christian Tetzlaff/Birtwistle’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra [UK premiere]
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Holst Singers (women’s voices)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroDavid Robertson rounded off his contribution to this year’s Proms with this wide-ranging concert of British music – taking in an established classic alongside the revival of an early work by a still under-appreciated master and the first UK hearing for a major contemporary figure’s rare excursion into musical abstraction.

Although works featuring an instrumental soloist have long been a part of Harrison Birtwistle’s output, the composer has fought shy of designating any one of them a ‘concerto’. Perhaps the nearest instance came with Antiphonies for piano and orchestra, but now Birtwistle has bitten the proverbial bullet and come up with a Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2010) for Christian Tetzlaff – who undertook the world premiere in March with Marcelo Lehninger and the Boston Symphony, and whose reading certainly suggested his intention to establish the piece within a modern repertoire that has had no successor since that of Ligeti.

Christian Tetzlaff. Photograph: alexandra-vosding.deBirtwistle has spoken of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as an indirect catalyst in his endeavours; yet, other than overall length and the tendency (noticeable in the composer’s other orchestral works from the past decade) towards relative transparency of texture, the similarities are remote. Formally, too, this piece continues the line of ensemble interplay which has been a mainstay since his early maturity, but a sequence of five duos – each featuring the violin soloist – that run across its length offers the likely key to its underlying construction. The phrasing of the title, moreover, draws one’s attention to the consistency of the relationship between soloist and orchestra: one in which the former is always, though more than, first among equals. While this ensures a high degree of integration at all levels, it risks minimising the expressive diversity within that unity – such that the closing section, with its laconic pizzicato gestures from the violinist, feels strangely out of context and thus not the outcome of a methodical evolution. Hardly the fault of Tetzlaff, who played with keen assurance, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra which responded with alacrity to Robertson’s unforced direction – yet the impression, at least on first hearing, was of a work that represents less of a new departure than might have been supposed.

The Birtwistle was thrown into greater relief by being preceded by a work from Frank Bridge’s formative years. Based on a lurid – and not a little ludicrous! – poem by Keats, Isabella (1907) was not its composer’s earliest orchestral work but its Proms premiere in that year certainly helped to establish his reputation. Understandably so, given the music’s surging ardour during its initial third as it evokes the love of the heroine and Lorenzo, before the central span effectively summarises the latter’s murder and the disappearance of his head after being hidden in a pot of basil with a violent span given impetus by a nagging woodwind rhythm. The glowering climax is less of a reprise than the recollection of initial material, intensified by the skilful play on tonalities. Focussing on purely musical issues enabled Robertson to establish no mean momentum, underlining why this unlikely though effective fusion of Tchaikovsky and Franck won the plaudits it did just over a century ago.

The Planets (1917) has never wanted for performance since its incomplete premiere almost 93 years ago. Nor have many Proms seasons these past six decades gone by without a hearing, of which Robertson’s ranks with the very best. One of its assets was a willingness to point up those composers whose example, if not always their music, influenced the content of these ‘Seven Pieces for Orchestra’. ‘Mars’ thus emerged bracingly if unpredictably on its way to a seismic climax (made more so by the hush immediately before it), while ‘Venus’ tempered its gentle radiance and rapt harmonies with those very English qualities of transience and regret. ‘Mercury’ was as deft and lithe as needed (not least its airborne fugal section), but ‘Jupiter’ was a little deadpan in its ebullient outer sections while, in its central trio, Robertson was hardly the first conductor to fight shy of extra-musical associations. ‘Saturn’ was an undoubted highlight (as of the Suite itself), passing through remoteness and tragedy towards a rapturous leave-taking, to which ‘Uranus’ was an admirable foil in its abrupt contrasts and (via a scintillating organ glissando) sudden implosion. ‘Neptune’ was then a marvel of interweaving textures, the Holst Singers emerging imperceptibly then evanescing away magically at the close.

Overall, an impressively realised account that made the most of the work’s originality and the suitability of this acoustic in capturing its arresting qualities. There was intrusive applause between each movement (except the last two), but also a commendable silence while they were in progress suggested not a few people out there were listening.

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