thu 24/09/2020

BBC Proms live online: Hough, BBC Scottish SO, Chauhan review - sombre reflections on lockdown | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms live online: Hough, BBC Scottish SO, Chauhan review - sombre reflections on lockdown

BBC Proms live online: Hough, BBC Scottish SO, Chauhan review - sombre reflections on lockdown

A low-key contribution to this year's Proms, acknowledging the dark realities of our times

Alpesh Chauhan: expressive, but never prone to lingerAll images BBC/Martin Shields

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Prom was a sombre contribution to an otherwise upbeat season. The mood was reflective – looking back on lockdown. The concert was given at City Halls, Glasgow, where the privations of social distancing were also more keenly felt than in the Albert Hall.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Prom was a sombre contribution to an otherwise upbeat season. The mood was reflective – looking back on lockdown. The concert was given at City Halls, Glasgow, where the privations of social distancing were also more keenly felt than in the Albert Hall. Where London orchestras are able to spread out into the choir stalls, the BBCSSO had to severely restrict their numbers, even with the stage expanded significantly into the stalls. The result was a chamber orchestra programme, dominated by string elegies.

Thomas Dausgaard had been due to conduct, but the virus deprived us even of him – travel restrictions prevented his coming to Glasgow. But Alpesh Chauhan proved a fitting stand-in. Like Dausgaard, Chauhan is a no-nonsense conductor, expressive but never prone to linger or dawdle. He brought valuable focus to these elegiac works, though not the point of justifying the maudlin programme.  

Lyric for Strings was written by the Black American composer George Walker in 1947. The piece is elegiac, its sombre mood elegantly maintained and gradually expanded though richly textured string writing. But the influence of Barber’s Adagio for Strings is everywhere apparent, and the overall impression is of a pale imitation. Fortunately, Chauhan brought rigour and drive to the reading, carefully shaping the long phrases and skilfully gauging Walker’s gradual build to the climax.Stephen HoughStephen Hough (pictured above) joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This was the most upbeat number on the programme, although it was presumably chosen as the only Beethoven concerto with an orchestra small enough to meet the social distancing requirements. Hough is always authoritative, but he is playful and inquisitive, too – an ideal combination for early Beethoven. Under Hough’s fingers, Beethoven’s textures channel Mozart, a balance of light filigree and unwavering melodic cohesion. Chauhan found less to do with the accompaniment, which felt stiff compared with Hough’s delicate lyricism. When the orchestra slowed to introduce the first-movement cadenza, it stood out as the first moment of rubato. But everything came together for the finale, Hough emphasising the downbeats of the main theme and the orchestra following suit with similar rhythmic engagement.

Jay Capperauld is a young composer from the Glasgow area, and his Circadian Refrains (172 Days Until Dawn), premiered here, is the latest of several collaborations with the BBCSSO. The commission was for a piece about lockdown, an unenviable task. Capperauld’s approach was to link each bar of the work with a day since the start of lockdown, 172 from then onwards to the day of the premiere. The mood of the music is languorous and gently repetitive, with sour harmonies and disjointed figures incessantly recurring. Despite the muted tones, the work demonstrated Capperauld’s impressive ear for orchestral colour. He is obviously used to working with larger percussion sections – here he had the timpanist doubling sleigh bells. The brass also had their work cut out, and the horns struggled with the high-register leaps at the start. The work traces a progression from darkness to light, the illumination achieved through a gradual brightening of the harmonic colours. An effective work, even to fulfil an unambitious commission. But why repeat the opening music the end? That seemed to undermine the narrative logic.The BBC Scottish Symphony OrchestraA question of narrative logic also hangs over Strauss’s Metamorphosen, the work that ended the programme. Chauhan linked the piece more to Strauss’s earlier tone poems through his rigorous structuring and brisk tempos, allowing the modest contrasts of pace and texture to be readily perceived. The playing – of 23 virtuoso string parts – was committed and passionate, although the dotted rhythms of the main Beethoven theme were a little sloppy at the opening. But Chauhan’s structural thinking paid off for the climax, which felt symphonic in its pacing and depth of texture. Even so, this was a dour conclusion to a sombre event, an emotional low point for the already afflicted 2020 Proms season. After this, some levity is very much required – roll on the Last Night!

@saquabote

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters