BBC Proms reviews

Prom 52 review – the Boston Symphony Orchestra makes a welcome return to the Royal Albert Hall

25 August 2023

One of the world’s finest orchestras delivers impeccable Strauss under its inspired music director Andris Nelsons, but Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony lacks the necessary edge and bite.

Prom 52

Prom 52 (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra kicked off its European tour with this judiciously chosen programme featuring works by Julia Adolphe, Richard Strauss and Sergei Prokofiev, under the assured baton of its music director, Andris Nelsons. Of course, the Latvian maestro is no stranger to these shores, having been at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for many years, and he’s made numerous excursions into the pit of the Royal Opera House as well. Not surprisingly he and his players were given an especially warm welcome from the Proms’ audience, and whilst there was much to admire in the first half, the evening’s centrepiece – Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony – failed to set pulses racing as it should.

The concert opened with Julia Adolphe’s Makeshift Castle, here receiving its European premiere. Completed last year by the 35 year old American composer, this fifteen minute two movement work charts the early recollections she has of her father, interweaved with adult memories as his life drew to a close while she was composing the piece. Given the subject matter, exploring the feelings of losing a parent, this is a very personal work, and throughout its 15 minutes, Adolphe draws on a vast and mesmeric orchestral palette, creating a unique sound world that instantly draws the listener in. 

Animated brass and strident percussion evoke the radiance of a sunset, before giving way to a more sombre, subdued mood with muted trumpet and ephemeral strings. In the second section, the music becomes restless, underpinned by a mournful bassoon while the strings scurry relentlessly, creating a whirlwind of sound as the piece reaches its climax, before hesitantly fading away. 

“…he and his players were given an especially warm welcome from the Proms’ audience…”

Prom 52

Andris Nelsons (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Keeping with the theme of life and death, we were then treated to a luxurious performance of Richard Strauss’ early tone poem Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung). Written while still only in his mid-twenties, with its lush, vivid orchestration, this work is like nothing the young German composer had written before, as he expands the scale of what a tone poem can deliver, with exceptional results. Nelsons has recorded all of Strauss’ major orchestral works with the Boston Symphony, and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras, so this music is in both his and their blood. And it showed in every bar. The sheen on the strings was a wonder to hear, while the opening on the flute and harp, mysterious yet evocative, gave notice that this was going to be a performance of immense stature.

All sections of the orchestra excelled, especially the brass, which was never bombastic, and the woodwind. Nelsons had a sure grasp on the work’s structure, allowing the themes to develop and grow organically out of the orchestral textures – each line lovingly sculptured with his natural baton technique. This was exceptional Strauss playing and conducting – quite remarkable in its intensity and depth.

Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony calls for an altogether different soundworld, but Nelsons went for a generic, post-Romantic approach – it sounded rich and luxurious, but smoothed over all the rough edges of Prokofiev’s acerbic score. In many ways the Russian composer appears indebted to Dmitri Shostakovich here, as his 5th Symphony is littered with rough edges, requiring braying brass, and shrieking woodwind. Despite some mesmerising playing, and the percussion section’s valiant efforts to inject some visceral excitement into the proceedings – especially in the second movement – the whole performance just seemed too safe, stately even. Of course, there are many ways to approach a masterpiece like this, but Nelsons’ interpretation took few risks and seemed to pare back the modernity of Prokofiev’s score.

Still, it was good to welcome this magnificent orchestra back to Lonodn after too long an absence, especially given their magnificent performance of Death and Transfiguration will live long in the memory.

Prom 52 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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