fri 04/12/2020

BBC Proms: Wang, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Litton | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Wang, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Litton

BBC Proms: Wang, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Litton

An amiably eccentric evening that slightly misses the core of its dedicatee

Roger Wright’s reign as director of the BBC Proms has luckily spared us some of the more desperate themed programming that ran through the seasons in Nicholas Kenyon’s day. "Music and Shakespeare", I remember; music and the sea; and one year of Spain, Spain and Spain. I never wanted to hear another castanet again. But individual concerts still need careful planning. And if you’re hunting for a convenient hook, the name of Serge Koussevitzky – fiery Russian conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 25 years, double-bass player, minor composer, famed promoter of the new – is as plausible a hook as any. Also, this is his anniversary year: he died in June, 1951.

True to form, Wright’s epic evening of Koussevitzkiana, crisply despatched by the Royal Philharmonic and that globe-trotting American Andrew Litton, proved amiably eccentric. Had the concert simply stuck with the works Koussevitzky or his Music Foundation had commissioned, what a juicy pile there could have been: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, Copland’s Third Symphony, Messiaen’s Turangalîla – on and on. 


Instead, this three-hour Prom spent much time darting around on Koussevitzky’s fringe: alighting on a commissioned composer, say, but not the right work (like Barber’s Adagio, and Bartok’s Piano Concerto No 2); or not the right version of the work (the 1947 edition of Prokofiev’s Symphony No 4). Another programme possibility would have been a sampling of Koussevitzky’s output as a composer; or perhaps Wright has something against his double-bass concerto of 1905, a milestone in the instrument’s admittedly small repertoire.

Still, at least the Prom hauled up Arnold Bax’s powerfully turbulent Symphony No 2: not a direct commission, but a work dedicated to Koussevitzky and first performed by him, after two tortuous years of planning, in Boston in 1929. “I was going through absolute hell when I wrote it,” Bax told a friend; “I was certainly not remembering emotion in tranquillity.”

Neither was Andrew Litton. He bounced around like a rubber ball, busy keeping track of the jungle of themes and harmonies constantly metamorphosing through the ambiguous structural arguments in the symphony’s three chunky movements. If this first Prom performance didn’t give the audience a completely happy time, we could at least savour the Royal Philharmonic’s considerable polish and Bax’s extraordinary ear for instrumental textures – first on view in the opening bars where trombones and bassoons grovel across what seems like the ocean floor. Intestinal gurglings from tuba and euphonium; the rumble of the organ’s pedals underneath twinkling winds: the bizarre sounds kept on coming over 40 generous minutes.

Lovers of tunes, rather than fretful gestures, could take comfort in the slow movement, though even here Bax’s interior turmoil – his private life wasn’t neat and pretty – eventually barged in. A more benign composer might have capped these two movements with a contrasting finale of muscular jollity. Tortured by affairs of the heart, Bax plainly wasn’t in the mood. Aggressive posturing leading to exhausted resignation: that’s the third movement’s narrative. A little cautious in the first movement’s storms, Litton here whipped up considerable heat, and the piece's final collapse was moving. Expect another Prom outing for the striking but unwieldy British Symphony in about 2037.

Yuja Wang cBrantWardThe Prom’s second half brought Bartók’s Piano Concerto No 2. It also brought a chance to promote another young star in Yuja Wang: Chinese-born, and 24 (pictured left by Brant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle). Like her contemporary Alice Sara Ott (featured at the Proms last week), she’s signed on the dotted line with Deutsche Grammophon. They do like their classical babes. 

From her CDs to date, Wang might be the more rounded performer, though you couldn’t say the Bartók concerto, brazenly percussive, gave her much chance to prove it. She showed stamina, and some spunky élan, and a gift for quickly turning her score’s pages no matter how hairy the notes. But it took the second movement’s brief dreamier moments for her piano to speak to the listener’s heart. And in her Prom debut she often wasn’t loud enough to conquer the spaces of the Albert Hall. Better luck next time, I hope.

Luckily, the Bartók came prefaced with the concert’s one certified jewel, Barber’s emollient Adagio for Strings. Exquisitely played, this. Litton’s unforced shaping of the opening phrase fostered the feeling that we had joined a work already in progress. Here was music-making to touch the soul; unfortunately not an outcome possible in the concert’s final part, devoted to Prokofiev’s revised Symphony No 4, originally premiered by Koussevitzky in 1930.  

As in the Bax, Litton and the RPO brightly showcased its instrumental quirks, though nothing they did could stem the feeling that Prokofiev's symphony, partly stitched from his 1929 ballet The Prodigal Son, isn’t a necessary symphony. No personal urge drives it forward: it stops and starts, like the score for some lost film whose story isn’t known. Once again, Litton saved most of his force for the final pages, heavy on menace, then heavy on heroism, and unconvincing in either mood. But it made a rousing noise. And, praise be, there weren’t castanets.

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The fast movements of Bartok's 2nd should have spoken just as much to the listener's heart, really - they're neither toccatas or parallel octaves/sixths/martellati etudes. Most music lovers must feel now that this work is nothing but grinding music and maddening verbosity. Sad conclusion to celebrating Bartok with all his piano concertos, as only Bavouzet did something valuable with the 1st.

'This three-hour Prom spent much time darting around on Koussevitzky's fringe' ........or perhaps Wright has something against his double-bass concerto of 1905, a milestone in the instrument’s admittedly small repertoire..." Hear, hear!!!

I was very relieved that this review was not written by David Nice and am grateful to Geoff Brown for reviewing the Bax sympathetically - I thought that it was a great performance of a great work. I found Prokofiev's 4th Symphony oddly uninspiring and it has nothing of the urgency of the Third, Fifth or Sixth symphonies.

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