tue 17/05/2022

BBC Proms: Booth, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Knussen | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Booth, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Knussen

BBC Proms: Booth, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Knussen

Annual musical mystery tour works better in principle than in practice

All aboard the chrome locomotive for composer-conductor Oliver Knussen’s annual magical mystery tour. You may notice rather few fellow passengers in the Albert Hall; that’s a given with this event (though the Proms could have thrown in and advertised one of Olly’s Top 10 OTT Favourites – I’ve heard him proclaim them - to drum up more trade). You may also find rather too many stops for change of crew. But so long as you sit forward to catch the results of his famously acute hearing, second only to Boulez’s, you’ll get something out of a long, unsexy ride.

Part of the pleasure of multi-work programmes like this ought to be that you're teleported from one extreme to another, as in the most imaginative Prom I attended last year, when Thomas Dausgaard and his Danish forces segued straight from the outer limits of Ligeti's space to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. But that just wasn't possible here given the three platform rearrangements necessary between shortish first-half pieces last night - something Knussen might have considered when drawing up what looked like a dream programme on paper. Actually my revised thought is that if all this could have been done in a car park, and you could have wandered off to get more drinks during the scene-shifting, it wouldn't have felt so stuck.

Anyway, Knussen shuffled off after a rather decorous opening performance of Honegger's Pacific 231, no doubt carefully balanced to show us how much real material there is jammed into the steam locomotive's flashy design (a pioneering one in 1923, kicking off a revolution in pieces adopting the so-called style mécanique, Prokofiev's Second Symphony among them). Was it worth the wait for the relatively conventional Alpine nature painting of the same composer's earlier Pastorale d'été? Only, perhaps to show us that there was momentum behind these bucolics, too.


Another adjustment of forces. This time the pastoral soured in Frank Bridge's subtly doom-laden There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook, an exquisitely scored dystopia in which the waterside shimmers are punctuated by woodwind snatches of Ophelia's songs (for it is, of course, Gertrude in Hamlet whose line graces the title). Difficult, though: the better the small-scale piece - and this was probably the high point so far - the more it needs immediate context. And yet we had to wait again for the water to turn into Der Wein, Berg's discreetly heady song-cycle settings of Baudelaire's vinous verse via Stefan George's translations.

Untitled-1_157887tKnussen conjured up immediately the sensuous spider web of sound so familiar from the opera Lulu on which Berg was concurrently working, with its doleful saxophones and spangled velvet night; but the voice - that of Claire Booth (pictured right), usually an admirable performer of new music and much admired on this site in Knussen's own works - was surely wrong, alcopop rather than the old tokay of Jessye Norman whose Proms performances some in the arena might well have remembered. She did what she could with the text, but from where I was sitting the light soprano barely rode the orchestral fabric, and juddered under pressure.

Part Two of the odyssey required fewer adjustments, and a more tantalising balance between the icy high frequencies of Castiglioni's Inverno in-ver and the shifting northern seascapes of Debussy's La mer. A seemingly naive interloper in Knussen's cornucopia, The brittle, charming and sometimes funny winter landscape of the Italian polystylist (who died in 1996) might now seem only a snowball's throw away from the generic, celesta-laden weather music we get on the telly, and it certainly wasn't as Webern-concise as the note promised, but there's a subtle balance between theme and process, dance and stasis, across the 11 miniature pieces. It all balanced well with the deeper distant rumbles and marine cries of the best-known "symphonic sketches" in the concert repertoire, Debussy's.

That they came up fresh after so many Proms outings - still the best, in my experience, Stéphane Denève's with his Royal Scottish National Orchestra - was due not to any special suppleness, surely the first requirement in the piece, but to the way the voices all led independent lives, marvellously so as the excellent BBC woodwind principals all chattered and coasted the sea foam of the central "Games of Waves". And the final charge of Neptune's cohorts was a much-needed adrenalin rush after all that foreplay between the wheels of Honegger's machine and the lash of Debussy's wind and waves.

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