tue 21/08/2018

Prom 34, Matthews, BBC Philharmonic, Mena - Anglo-American mixed bag | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 34, Matthews, BBC Philharmonic, Mena - Anglo-American mixed bag

Prom 34, Matthews, BBC Philharmonic, Mena - Anglo-American mixed bag

Walton, Copland, Britten, Barber in a 20th-century transatlantic assortment

This was Juanjo Mena's final concert as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic© Michal Novak

It was all about the acoustic. Well, almost. Disregarding the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall, there’s a school of thought that believes the Proms is the world’s greatest concert series in the world’s worst hall. Why? Because its problematic acoustic is so ungovernable. It certainly wreaked havoc in Sunday’s Prom of the Brandenburg Concertos – I’ve never heard professional orchestral playing so lacking in ensemble – and in this intriguing Anglo-American BBC Philharmonic concert, the cavernous space proved as much a hindrance as a help.

Initially, it was all gain. Juanjo Mena began his final concert as the orchestra’s chief conductor with William Walton’s rumbustious Portsmouth Point overture. The Oldham-born’s composer’s earliest published work, a broad grin of a piece, shone in the spacious acoustic. Only a brief slip from the tuba-led brass section momentarily out of synch threatened to derail proceedings but otherwise Mena kept everything crisp, not an easy task in what is basically a riot of tricky rhythms.

Following that with Aaron Copland’s intellectually bracing Connotations has probably never been done before and, it must be said, is unlikely to be done again anytime soon. Anyone expecting the uplifting wide-open space Copland of Appalachian Spring or Rodeo is likely to have been as startled as Jackie Kennedy was at the work’s 1962 premiere. Meeting the composer after the performance she managed to say “Oh, Mr Copland…” and not in an “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn way.”

Britten’s sonorous string writing became unusually audible. (You can certainly tell he was a viola player)

Connotations was the first of the composer’s stern, grand-scale works to use serial techniques. The surprise of this unrepentantly dissonant, much-maligned piece is that, undeniably fierce as it is, it’s nothing like as rebarbative as its detractors would have you believe. You can size up the scale of the 19-minute composition when you realise the percussion section alone runs to glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, timbales, cymbals, metal sheet, tam-tam, triangle, claves, temple block, woodblock, bass drum, conga-drums, snare-drum and tenor drums. That gives considerable punch to the hefty fanfare-like opening with brass and percussion statements hanging ideally in the air thanks to the resonant acoustic. That also allowed the regret-tinged quiet moments to shimmer, not least because of Paul Janes and James Keefe on piano and celesta with ruminative solo woodwind lines adding to the unexpected melancholia.

Those moments, however, are respite from the dense, strident textures surrounding them. Luckily, the orchestra has recently recorded the work as part of its highly regarded Copland cycle for Chandos under John Wilson so the players know the little-played work better than most. But in the final section, which re-uses material from the opening, although Mena drove them to shatteringly loud final bars, a sense of shape and musical logic was missing.

The most transatlantic work on the programme was Britten’s song-cycle Les Illuminations. A setting of poems by the gay French poet Rimbaud, it was started in Britain but he finished it on Long Island. Sally Matthews’ vibrant soprano sound rang through the hall but her lack of diction meant that most of the text was lost. As a result, the rapt, intense “Being Beauteous”, the heart of the piece (dedicated to Peter Pears two months before they consummated their relationship), failed to make emotional impact. The gain across the performance was that beneath so largely generalised a vocal line, the strength and imagination of Britten’s sonorous string writing became unusually audible. (You can certainly tell he was a viola player.) And the blessedly long-held silence at the end of the piece with the quiet, low strings easing inexorably down to nothing was testament to the quality of the playing.

Given that the cycle is in French, Matthew’s favouring of vowels over consonants is slightly more forgivable than in the English text of the two excepts from Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra. As in his earlier Vanessa, currently being resplendently revived at Glyndebourne, Barber’s writing has enviable command of colour and melodrama but the vivid detailing by the players was not matched by the soloist.

The opera, a notorious flop at its 1966 premiere, pretty much killed off Barber’s compositional career. Twenty-one years earlier, Peter Grimes catapulted Britten to success, with its American premiere a year later at Tanglewood conducted by Leonard Bernstein who was linked to every composer in the Prom programme. Mena closed the concert with the opera’s Four Sea Interludes.

His phrasing of “Dawn” lacked purpose but everything picked up with “Sunday Morning” which had a real spring in its step. And the uniquely coloured “Moonlight” with bassoon and low strings punctuated by attacking harp and flute and tart trumpet and xylophone, leapt into focus. A shame, then, that the final “Storm” was rushed. Even in the Royal Albert Hall, the writing should terrify rather than race. Like the concert as a whole, the performance was a mixed bag. Yet on the considerable plus side, for all the flaws – acoustic and otherwise – Mena presided over playing musical enough to remind you of the power of the pieces.

Walton’s earliest published work, a broad grin of a piece, shone in the spacious acoustic

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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