BBC Proms reviews

Prom 15: BBCSO/Knussen @ Royal Albert Hall, London

28 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

An unbelievable performance from Leila Josefowicz made this one of the greatest Proms of recent memory. The wildly mixed programme was cooked up and conducted by the house-brick of British musical life: Oliver Knussen.

Stockhausen’s Jubilee opened the Prom with a beautifully tangled knot of metallic percussion juxtaposed with a comic trudge of brass at murkier depths. Over the course of the work Stockhausen’s hive kept on buzzing, with a novel brass group appearing offstage, but never really took off into the stratosphere; which is where Stockhausen has his audiences expecting him to dwell after to many startling masterpieces of the 20th Century.

Sonnance Severance 2000 was a tiny Proms premiere from Harrison Birstwistle – only three minutes long, it seemed to inhabit a larger space with its darkly burgeoning, animalistic breathing and with a witty final trumpet chirrup.

The music of Collin Matthews’ Violin Concerto was dazzlingly expressionistic and not a bit abashed at being a good old-fashioned concerto- with protagonist role (violin) and commentators (orchestra) squarely fulfilling their duties. The orchestra tumbled gently through the first movement, while the violin skipped shyly around pungent orchestration. The second movement was tender and moving, with gradually increasing stabs of the fearful and bold.

Leila Josefowicz as the soloist was more of a revelation than any of the music at this Prom (which is saying a lot among a Stockhausen and Birtwistle premieres). Having won the MacArthur Fellowship in 2008 (a.k.a. The Genius Award) she’s not exactly an unknown, but this was the first time I’ve experienced her playing. She inhabited the music physically, expressing each detail with a newly inflected timbre and deeply felt nuance. In her playing there are none of the copied gestures of so many musicians who think that pulling faces makes for a good performance, this was something far more genuine- introverted, extroverted, abandoned and lucid all at once.

Another Proms premiere was 31 year-old Luke Bedford’s Outblaze the Sky, the work floated and lurched through hot and cold swamps, and where Mathews’ Violin Concerto had a narrative of its own, this piece seemed to be accompanying some absent tale. A very interesting work, sailing on a logic quite separate from every other piece at this concert, but still holding its own.

Zimmermann’s Rheinische Kirmestnze was all Bratwursty jibes, elbows and custard pies, while Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, ‘Rhenish’, made little impact, but then it never has done compared to his (admittedly incomparable) songs.

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