This Prom had a distinctly ‘school night’ feel to it. Whether that was due to the sadly ill Oliver Knussen or the unusual programme, the Albert Hall was at best a third full for a set of music mostly based on this year’s ‘fairy tale’ theme.
It was never going to be easy to create an atmosphere in such a sparsely populated, cavernous venue, but Knussen’s replacement John Storgards brought a wonderful shimmer to the surface of Liadov’s orchestral miniature The Enchanted Lake. This is the second of three such pieces that have suffered unjust neglect in the concert hall until recently, and it was impossible not to think of the exquisite shadings Knussen would have undoubtedly brought to them. Storgards did well, though, overcoming difficulties of rhythm at the opening of Baba-Yaga, and securing a nice throwaway ending to Kikimora.
The main work was another concert favourite of Knussen’s, and loosely marked the bicentenary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. Stravinsky’s balletic ‘reinterpretation’ of Tchaikovsky piano pieces and songs The Fairy’s Kiss drew excellent performances from the wind and brass of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in particular wonderful phrasing from the clarinet of Richard Hosford. The cheery village fete struggled to get to its feet with enough vigour but was nicely coloured nonetheless, and Stravinsky’s hypnotic closing bars, one of his ‘timeless’ endings, gave a captivating close to only the second Proms performance of the work.
One performance fewer than that, even, was Detlev Glanert’s Theatrum Bestiarum, the BBC commission receiving its world premiere. Like a monster waking from sleep, the contra-bassoon and double basses made a good job of spelling out the work’s main material, coming off the back of an ear-shattering opening chord. The ambitious work threw out reminders of Mahler, Shostakovich and the rending chords of Mars from Holst’s Planets, but Glanert managed to exert some distinctive thematic material, using the organ to produce a wonderful subterranean bass note at the uneasy close. At times it veered towards cliché, but the piece made an impact despite this.
Knussen’s exquisite orchestration was the highlight of the solo work on offer, his four settings of brief Whitman poems sung with great athleticism by soprano Claire Booth. Initial signs were not encouraging as it proved difficult to hear her above the orchestra, but these were mostly rectified in a characterful performance. Knussen’s setting of A Noiseless Patient Spider would have had a few arachnophobes peering nervously under their seats, for sure!