Prom 15 was very interestingly programmed. Squeezed between two masterpieces by Beethoven, the orchestrated Grosse Fugue and the triumphant Fifth, was the palette-cleansing Oboe Concerto by Elliott Carter. If the intention was to cast a different light on Beethoven’s over-familiar symphony it did by and large succeed.
Of the two centenarians this year, Messiaen and Carter, it is the dead one who is getting major time in the spotlight. Against 17 performances at the Proms of works by the Frenchman, there are only four of Carter’s and, less than a fortnight into the festival, three of them have already taken place. Maybe this imbalance is due to a perception of accessibility, with Carter yielding his heart less easily. Messiaen certainly makes his demands but Carter forces the listener to work even harder and with less obvious rewards. He often stimulates intellectually without actually moving the audience. The Oboe Concerto, given a virtuoso performance by Nicholas Daniel, following his popular rendition of Mozart’s K314 on the First Night, is a case in point.
With a background of growling strings and percussion, and limited brass and woodwind, Carter’s soloist pokes fun at the ensemble in a meandering contest that winds through a three-section single movement of some 20 minutes. It’s not a loveable piece, even after multiple hearings, and one can’t imagine it ever entering the mainstream of cherished masterpieces.
Beethoven was such an interesting companion to Carter because his writing is almost equally demanding but has, for the most part, become established in the public consciousness. If there’s one work that has never fully become accepted, though, it’s the massive Grosse Fugue, rejected as the final movement of the Op. 130 String Quartet, which is still too unpalatable and unyieldy for many. It can give us a huge insight into how Beethoven must have sounded to his contemporaries.
The version for string orchestra inevitably takes an edge off the piece and one effect of the arrangement is to make it “sound more like” the Beethoven we know so well. One may regret the loss of some of the incisiveness of the quartet version, but it does shed some light and, as preparation for the Fifth Symphony, via Carter’s exacting piece, was an ideal opener.
After the demanding first half, the familiarity of the symphony may have come as relief but, with a fresh and energetic approach from conductor David Robertson, it was possible to listen with new ears.