thu 25/07/2024

Prom 30: Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Noseda | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 30: Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Noseda

Prom 30: Bavouzet, BBC Philharmonic, Noseda

Russians dance at the Italian conductor's command, but is there any place for an invertebrate BBC commission?

Gianandrea Noseda, a spring-heeled master of the dance© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

It was mostly Russian night at the Proms, and mostly music you could dance to, as a hand jiving Arena Prommer rather distractingly proved in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony. Even Prokofiev’s elephantine Second Piano Concerto was transformed into the ballet music Serge Diaghilev thought it might become in 1914. Much of this was thanks to the fleet feet and mobile shoulders of febrile BBC Philharmonic conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

But even he could do very little with the odd man out in every way, Edward Cowie’s Earth Music I.

One blunt question has to be asked: why a BBC commission for a composer whose music, however connected he says it is with science and visual art, has hardly touched a wide public across nearly 40 years? Partly because it’s Cowie’s 70th birthday. But if this had been the result of a young composer’s chance, we’d still be questioning the corporation’s judgment.

We had eight unforgettable song and dance themes in 25 minutes

The first of Cowie’s Earth Music canvases, The Great Barrier Reef, impresses only in its brevity. The composer comes across as arrogant when he tells us in the programme note that this is a piece of "great energy and timbral richness". The timbres, chords and sea-splashes, atmosphere in search of foreground ideas, seemed to me curiously unoriginal until the earcatching last few bars of calm, the large percussion array engaged until then with a far from discriminating ear. As for "great energy", doesn’t it usually come from the firm rhythmic backbone which this invertebrate lacked, and which was so apparent in the three other works?

Noseda cannily kicked off with not just the Overture from Borodin’s Prince Igor but also its Polovtsian Dances minus chorus, both owing their special vitality to more than a little help from Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. The sequence meant that we had eight unforgettable song and dance themes in 25 minutes. Just as in the previous evening’s Overture and Venusberg Music of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, we first heard the noble – in this case a widescreen picture of old Russia – and moved on to exoticism, which with Borodin means depiction of the eastern tribe about whom, unlike Wagner with Venus's sexy realm, he was so unjudgmental. Noseda shoulder-shrugged the overture’s vigour and bounced the more pungent dances into vivid life, but gave plenty of time to Igor’s aria melody, coolly sung by first horn Andrew Budden, and the wistful undulations of the Polovtsian women.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet by Guy VivienThe conductor’s spring-heeled manner found a perfect mate for Prokofiev's killer concerto in the mercurial shape of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (pictured right by Guy Vivien), a surprise interpreter better known for his gleaming Ravel and Debussy. This was the perfect antithesis to heavier, fast-vanishing performances from the likes of Gergiev and the heavy-footed Falstaff at his court Alexander Toradze.

Having started with crystalline brightness in right-hand octaves, Bavouzet hit a galaxy of wrong notes in Prokofiev’s outlandish first-movement cadenza, but he did it with such style that you believed in it. The scherzo flashed past with greater velocity and nimbleness than I’ve ever heard before, while the cavalcade of third-movement monsters found Noseda and Bavouzet playing naughty boys rather than carnivorous dinosaurs.There was poetry at just the right point in the rather prolix finale. What a shame Bavouzet couldn’t have given us a cooling Debussy etude as an encore.

Tchaikovsky’s patronizingly nicknamed “Little Russian” Symphony – the alien subtitle sticks -  could only charm us with its rhythmic vivacity after Cowie’s jellyfish. A little poker-faced in the first movement’s fusion of folksong and Beethoven, and over-brittle in the miniature march Tchaikovsky uses to replace the expected slow movement, Noseda’s players dazzled in the last two movements, culminating in a ferociously articulate account of the finale’s variations on a Ukrainian folk song. The last delicious joke was how the merrymaking danced out unhindered from under the heels of the severe tam-tam, prince among Tchaikovsky's demons of opposition, and whirled their way to an irrepressible victory tattoo.


Good gracious, I only tuned in for Prokofiev's Second and how excruciating it turned out, Bavouzet nowhere near the credible interpreter from two years ago, when his Bartok was the only good one out of all three. Now, I wouldn't judge any pianist having a bad day performing this concerto, but blundering - almost indifferently, too - everything that wasn't parallels or glissandi aside, some of his interpreting choices were also odd, plus his sound - melded or not with the acoustics - was truly dire. Prokofiev's Second, taking yet another toll!

You may be right about the many heavy passages, Viktor, and from my seat to the right - not a good place for either first violins or cellos, facing away - I was making some allowances for the strange sound, but don't you think there was some poetry and a great deal of interesting musicianship? Bavouzet would never be in my top five for this impossible piece, but it was at least an interesting take full of personality.

Your reviewer (hardly the write word) of my Prom piece, Earth Music 1, is hardly accurate when he imputes that I'm unknown, with festival performances all over the world in the past 4 decades, numerous CD recordings and residencies with ensembles like the BBC Singers. Indeed, his ignorance seems to hover on the edge of prejudice and it would be well for him to check my web-site for details of a career that has hardly been remote! And since his review seems to entirely miss the point (not missed by the professional critic of The Times), I might close with a similar question about HIM, namely how wise is it to publish on line views by someone competely unknown!!!

Unwise comment on David Nice's qualification to comment, whether you like his opinion or not. He is a long-established music critic - Guardian, Gramophone, Music & Musicians - and a frequent appearer in Radio 3's Building a Library, which is not for amateurs.

You are probably right, I too hadn't done my homework on the critic. However, it still remains that his judgements on my status were in ignorance. I had no dispute with his review of the MUSIC..each to their own....but to question an organisation like the BBC for its wisdom about selecting my work doesn't accord with decades of unstinting support for it. I should also point out that from a technical point of view his comments about rhythm and other dynamic forces in music being as he hears them is quite wrong. The Epode from Messiaen's Chronochromie is embedded in deep and highly complex rhythms which blurr and cancel yet is still some of the most dynamic music ever written!

You misunderstood me, Mr. Cowie. When I wrote, however presumptuously, that I thought your music had "hardly touched a wide public" over 40 years, I meant to imply that I wasn't sure it had communicated (I was well aware of your first Proms commission in 1975, as that implies).

Believe it or not, I respect your interdisciplinary approach and would even like to know more about it. What worries me is that the intentions and the obvious skill in craftsmanship may not translate into a result that reaches out to a large audience. This is a thorny question, how much a composer adapts his or her style to acknowledge that a large-scale orchestral commission reflects, or in my opinion should reflect, not just the taste of the commissioners but the immediate impact on a wide range of listeners.

As for the question of rhythm, I don't doubt it is there - but without playing a foreground role, how is it to be perceived by the audience?

Far too late in responding, forgive me. I'm not actually qualified to go further on how widely I am heard or understood, Certainly my choral works for the BBC Singers particularly have been sung many times and indeed a cross-section recorded and released on Signum Classics last year, which received warm reviews to say the least! I understand your angle on writing for what you call a 'wider audience' but have to say that I write not for any audience of a particular widness. After several decades of composing music, I'm aware that WHAT I write may be elusive to many but captivating to some! On many walks with others, I have been able to observe how many and with what depth people actually perceive what they are seeing and hearing and have reluctantly come to the conclusion that a deep understanding of the forces of nature is about as rare as a friendly audience for my music might be. I would be only to happy to talk with you about the interdisciplinary aspects of my work and perhaps you'd like to contact me through my web-site? Curiosly, I have no fears about the endurance of my music. Recent years have seen increasingly in-tune performers and promoters coming to grips with just WHY and HOW my music does what it does. The rest is for history- provided that our species tries to govern the earth in a better way!!

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