Proms 2011 – David Robertson conducts Beethoven’s Choral Symphony … Yo-Yo Ma plays Graham Fitkin’s Cello Concerto

Composer Portrait
Graham Fitkin
Musicians from the London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 61
Cello Concerto [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Christine Brewer (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor) & Iain Paterson (bass-baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Proms is an (almost) annual tradition which has survived the best part of a century of upheaval, the question nowadays being what to programme in the first half that might place it within an enhanced context. Here it was for a newly commissioned cello concerto providing appreciable yet not unmeaningful contrast.

Yo-Yo MaWhile not a newcomer to the Proms, Graham Fitkin has not been represented by anything so substantial as the Cello Concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma – its 30-minute span pitting its soloist against sizable but, for the most part, sparingly used forces. The austere opening bars build tension gradually, arriving at a rocking motion which admits of greater emotion en route to the initial climax whose impetus holds good through an intensification of this section – culminating in a climax of rhythmic unisons hammered out by the orchestra against the imploring soloist. From here, tension subsides to a recall of the rocking motion, now suffused with greater melodic directness as the music returns to its introspective origins and a sense of finality not so much tragic as fatalistic in import. All very coherent and considered in its drawing on aspects of the post-minimalist idiom associated with Fitkin, while opening-out its expressive range with discreetly applied rhetoric. By turns thoughtful and incisive, Ma was in his element throughout and this is one new concerto he should certainly consider adding to his repertoire.

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroThe path by which Fitkin came to his Cello Concerto was tellingly illustrated though the three works heard beforehand at the Composer Portrait. Sciosophy (1986) was among his first characteristic pieces in its energetic yet also playful repartee for four pianos, while Hurl (1996) drew from saxophone quartet an overtly ruminative dialogue with each of the constituents locked into a process whose harmonic and melodic concerns maintain an equable accord. Most distinctive, though, was Sinew (2008) – its diverse sextet (clarinet, horn, string trio and piano) pursuing an intensive discourse in which held chords added to the accruing intensity. Committed performances by musicians from the London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble.

In hinting at an elemental aspect, Fitkin’s concerto established a link (however tenuous) with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. David Robertson has given arresting accounts of the Fifth, Seventh and Eighth of the cycle during his tenure as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and his approach to the present work was defined by real textural clarity as well as lithe though not unyielding tempos. Thus the opening movement eschewed overtly metaphysical overtones, but its contrapuntal intricacy and cross-rhythmic impetus were much in evidence; qualities equally relevant to its scherzo successor, in which all repeats were observed and Robertson made a virtue out of maintaining an unbroken tempo through the trio section, nimble if a little lacking in pathos. The Adagio then found a viable accommodation between rapt inwardness and the lightness of touch now most often favoured, drawing its themes into an eloquent discourse whose focus was only offset by less-than-immaculate wind-playing, and a seeming uncertainty as to how the coda should prepare for what follows.

Christine Brewer. Photograph: Christian SteinerIn spite (or perhaps because) of this, Robertson secured a largely convincing traversal through the finale – for all that the seismic opening gestures were underwhelming and the cello and double bass recitatives went for little in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. A distinct plus-point was having the four vocalists in front of the chorus at stage-left, making them intermediaries rather than soloists per se. Iain Paterson was laudably expressive in his initial calling, and Toby Spence had the necessary ebullience for his ensuing march-past, but the female singers were less assured – Christine Brewer, in particular, sounding uncharacteristically out of sorts during the quartet passages. The combined BBC and Philharmonia choruses lacked little in dynamism or, in the introspective music after the central episode, that sense of awe which opens out the work (indeed, the symphony as a genre) into new and still misunderstood ways. The BBCSO responded with alacrity to the purely orchestral sections, and if the coda seemed incisive rather than exhilarating, perhaps it is unwise to expect transcendence every time.

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