sat 22/06/2024

Prom 36: Hamelin, BBCSO, Roth | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 36: Hamelin, BBCSO, Roth

Prom 36: Hamelin, BBCSO, Roth

Luminous Ravel and cautious Stravinsky in a programme under the shadow of Pierre Boulez

Conductor François-Xavier RothSWR

The pulling power of the BBC Proms was in action last night, as a virtually full Royal Albert Hall settled down at 6.30pm, and braced itself for 22 testing minutes of restless, angular, unforgiving 1960s Boulez.The audience had been lured in by the gentler fare that was to come in the second half, but Boulez's Figures - Doubles - Prismes, under the taut control of its pulse by François-Xavier Roth, definitely left its mark.

This work, receiving its Proms premiere, and constituting the entire first half of the concert, had been the composer's measured and controlled response to Stockhausen's Gruppen, also using three orchestras. Figures - Doubles - Prismes never dithers and never settles. Echoes of the worlds of Mahler and Berg are conjured forth through minimal means, such as a violin solo lasting all of two notes, there are sections of chattering urgency for high woodwinds which alternate with gamelan effects and volleys of aggression from the huge percussion section. The programme note describes the work as “a maze of sonority.” Listeners I spoke to emerged from that labyrinth variously baffled or annoyed. While the whole programme did show the depth and longevity of Boulez's influence, his post-war experimentation phase now feels very dated indeed.

The second half opened with a genuine rarity, Boulez's 2007 orchestration of Ravel's Frontispice [sic], originally written in 1918 for five hands at one piano. The original piano piece has been described as an enigma, which may just mean that it lacks one of Ravel's typically programmatic titles, but in this orchestral version it is a delight, and one that is all too brief, the whole thing lasting less than two minutes. Boulez's orchestration – as might be anticipated – brings forth astonishing orchestral colour.

This set the stage well for the highlight of the evening, Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which brought out the best in conductor, orchestra and the soloist Marc-André Hamelin (pictured left by Fran Kaufman). The emergence of the piece into the light from the woodwind depths, from contra-bassoon to bass clarinet and cor anglais was beautifully handled, and the whole reading had a convincing shape and heft. Hamelin left the strongest impression in the spacious and lyrical sections. His virtuosity expressed itself best through what seemed effortless smoothness in the faster sections towards the end of the work. He is also renowned for his encores, and returned for a poetic yet forceful reading of Debussy's Reflets dans l'Eau, which brought to life the extraordinary power of the Royal Albert Hall (as referred to by other Proms reviewers) to draw the listener's attention magnetically towards a solo instrument. 

The performance of Stravinsky's complete Firebird ballet was beautifully balanced, it showed the level at which the BBCSO is currently playing. It had some marvellous episodes, notably a wonderfully transparent hushed strings moment before the emergence of the final theme, and but as a whole came across as cautious and tame, with a tendency to over-linger on ritardandi, without enough drive, momentum or assertion in the episodes that followed them. Orchestral hero of the night was fourth horn Andrew Antcliff with a perfecty controlled, interminably held long note. This performance had plenty of colour, but needed more hustle and more fleetness of foot.

The whole programme gave cause to reflect on what Boulez's lasting influence here in the UK has been, on the BBC, on its Symphony Orchestra, and on the Proms in particular. His tenure as principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was just four years, from 1971-1975, but the whole story is a far longer and deeper one, going right back to Boulez hearing BBC radio as a teenager, and remembering it as a “beacon of freedom” in occupied France, as the composer/conductor explained  when he received his Honorary Doctorate of London University in 2010.

And the long shadow of this lively nonagenarian remains. Until the Boulez era with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it was the suite from Stravinsky's The Firebird which was heard most often. In fact Boulez gave the full work its Proms premiere in 1972. These days his preference, the 1910-11 complete ballet has won over completely: the work has been performed in this form at the Proms in every one of the past eight seasons. 

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms 2015

The whole programme gave cause to reflect on what Boulez's lasting influence here in the UK has been, on the BBC, on its Symphony Orchestra, and on the Proms in particular.


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


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