BBC Proms reviews

Prom 19: BBCSO / Knussen @ Royal Albert Hall, London

29 July 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

Prom 19 saw the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Oliver Knussen offer a characteristically thoughtful programme of twentieth-century music, of which Henry Wood new music trailblazer that he was would no doubt have been proud. Its rather a shame that the festival founders lifelong dedication to promoting contemporary and seldom performed works isnt shared so much by his festival-going public: certainly an opportunity missed, given the absolutely scintillating form on which the BBCSO finds itself at the moment.

The first half of last nights Prom was comprised of music written in the 1920s, beginning with a pair of works by Honegger. Both were immersive and mesmerizing but offered completely contrasting sound worlds. Pacific 231 submits to a relentlessly hammering locomotion of sound that foregrounds rhythm above all other musical aspects. This futurist evocation of industrial progress never once threatened to veer out of control, and as the train built in speed, the detail of the passing landscape seemed to melt and give way to broader brush strokes, rendered in sound by an emphatic and triumphant brass section bawling out over the full orchestra. Its a world apart, in both time and space, from the bucolic idyll that followed in the Pastorale dt. There was some remarkable piano playing in this piece from the BBCSO, and some wonderfully measured hairpins from the strings in particular. Theres a rather earnest and limpid feel to this music and it was captured quite perfectly by Knussen and the orchestra: never was the playing too delicate, or affected, or seemingly self-conscious.

Much the same can be said of the orchestras rendering of Frank Bridges short orchestral tone-poem, There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook. This pastoral setting, unlike Honeggers, is tinged with an added degree of emotional intensity at its core, taking its cue from Shakespeares description of the death of Ophelia in Hamlet. It revealed some truly compelling and sensitive solo playing from the horn, clarinet and oboe, and the final requiem (with solo violin, viola and cello among muted strings) was full of yearning, as Ophelia is Pulldfrom her melodious lay/To muddy death.

The first half ended with a piece from 1929, when Berg took a break from working on Lulu and turned to the poetry of Baudelaire and three poems celebrating wine as a way of escaping the everyday. Der Wein is actually quite Lulu-esque in a number of ways (in tonality as well as timbre). The first of the three poems (The Spirit of Wine) saw soprano soloist Claire Booth warm from a pure and clean sound into a ringing upper range before producing some characterful (even wearily tipsy) turns in the latter two poems (The Wine of Lovers and The Wine of the Solitary). The orchestra was kept just behind the fore, swaying and brooding alongside the soloist throughout, but thankfully never really prone to any overly Romantic gestures.

The second half consisted of two orchestral depictions: one less well known, one greatly admired and celebrated, and both startling in their use of colour and timbre. Castiglionis Inverno in-ver, dating from 1973 (revised in 1978) is a series of eleven short musical poems evoking a frozen winter landscape. These alternate between more avant-garde sounding impressions and more traditional musical aspects. The opening number (Flowers of Ice) employs a rather common characteristic of Castiglionis stylistic language: very high, brittle, tinkling instrumental sounds and registers, so well articulated by the orchestra. The effect of creeping, glistening ice was at its most compelling in the ninth number (Silence), in which a series of unconnected chords sounded like individual refractions of light caught in a shard of ice: utterly beautiful. The contrapuntal Saltarello of the fourth number provided one example of where more traditional elements are employed by the composer, while the fifth and sixth numbers (Hoar Frost and The Frozen Lake) seemed to combine Castiglionis unique sonic ambience with more diatonic ostinatos that gradually emerged from the within the enveloping texture. Always striving for a purity of sound, and never letting it expand beyond its crystalline confines, Knussen and the orchestra were able to catch glimpses of something truly special here.

Debussys enthralling seascape depiction rounded the night off, and in the wake of everything preceding it I had very high hopes. The articulation was simply brilliant, and never was the sound taut or strained in any way. The cellos melted into their entry at the start of the opening movements second part, pre-empting the horns glorious evocation of sunrise later on. The orchestral playing never seemed as if it needed calming: languid, relaxed (but never lethargic) and alternately handsome and stately, this interpretation always felt and sounded more like a memory rather than any sort of stark depiction of tempest, sea and sky.

As if the BBCSOs opening night, the Czech night (with Bělohlávek) and Verdi Requiem werent enough, last nights Prom certainly goes a long way to show that this orchestra is not to be missed this season.

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Prom 19: BBCSO / Knussen @ Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 54: BBCSO/Robertson @ Royal Albert Hall, London