tue 21/05/2024

Prom 4, Simpson, BBCPO, Mena review - terrific Lindberg, brooding Shostakovich | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 4, Simpson, BBCPO, Mena review - terrific Lindberg, brooding Shostakovich

Prom 4, Simpson, BBCPO, Mena review - terrific Lindberg, brooding Shostakovich

High-spirited clarinet concerto set against dark symphonic drama

Clarinettist Mark Simpson plays Lindberg at the PromsBoth images BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The fourth Prom of this season featured only two contrasting pieces, pitching the unabashed joyfulness and good humour of Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto against the angst and defiance of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. It was the former that left the greater impression.

Lindberg’s concerto was written in 2002 for his friend and long-time collaborator Kari Kriikku, who has performed the piece widely, including at the Proms in 2007. But here it was taken on by the British clarinettist Mark Simpson, who combines performing with a glittering composing career. It is ferociously difficult – running the full technical gamut – but must never sound it: at the piece’s heart is its warmth and melodic generosity.

Simpson took the opening – for clarinet alone – very spaciously and very softly, the first note barely audible. The first bars set out a motif that becomes the melodic basis for all that follows, through twists and turns and climaxing twice in passages of glorious Gershwin-style brilliance. Simpson captured the spontaneity of the music, finding the lyricism in the broader passages, and the wit in the fantastic cadenza towards the end. His control of the tremolandos, wild glissandos and vocal multiphonics was thrilling, but never meretricious.

But while the clarinet is the central focus, the orchestra is more than accompanist: the detail of the orchestration, the teeming organic life below its surface, is a marvel. Juanjo Mena (pictured below), in his penultimate concert at the helm of the BBC Philharmonic, balanced the textures well, allowing individual players to emerge for fleeting moments from the group – there is one moment where the orchestral clarinet and soloist dovetail deliciously.Juanjo Mena conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the PromsAt the final big climax Simpson, with his clarinet raised to the gallery to deliver the stratospherically high, bluesy tune, felt fully in control of the hall, and in possession of the piece in his own right. He is a fine composer, but perhaps an even better clarinettist.

The second half took us to very different territory. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was written, at least in part, during the siege of Leningrad in 1941, and was famously performed by a scratch orchestra of starving musicians in the city in 1942, and broadcast in defiance of Hitler’s onslaught.

It is a monumental work, usually lasting about 75 minutes (although Mena brought it in at a speedy 70), in four massive movements. Shostakovich was unwilling to describe the symphony in purely descriptive terms, but the militaristic horror of the first movement speaks for itself.

That was the best part of the performance. The central passage, in which a quotation from Hitler’s favourite operetta composer is given the Boléro treatment, built from imperceptible strings to blunderbuss orchestral tutti, always bound together by an insistent snare drum tattoo. Subtle it isn’t, but Mena and the BBC Philharmonic conjured up some proper ferocity, especially from the strings.

The central movements are diffuse and – despite Mena keeping a constant forward momentum – contain passages of musical treading water (and some minor co-ordination issues in the third movement). They are almost anti-symphonic in their episodic avoidance of development, and Mena’s attention to detail, and the impassioned work of the first violins in particular, couldn’t disguise some shuffling and coughing in the audience.

The final movement had a real sense of propulsion and the triumphant ending was driven forward by the brass. Elsewhere the woodwind section provided some terrific solos, notably flautist Alex Jakeman and bass clarinetist Colin Pownall – and I was pleased to see even the bass section getting its own call at the end.


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