BBC Proms reviews

Prom 27: BBCSSO / Runnicles @ Royal Albert Hall, London

4 August 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

Following a night decidedly French in flavour, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra returned last night for its second Prom under Chief Conductor Donald Runnicles, this time boasting works by two German giants, Strauss and Brahms.

First up, however, was a new commission by Robin Holloway, whose Fifth Concerto for Orchestra admits to the influence of another Germanic composer, Arnold Schoenberg. Faced with a stipulation by the BBC that this work ought to be significantly shorter than its predecessor (which stands at an impressive ninety minutes), Holloway turned to Schoenbergs Five Orchestral Pieces to provide the necessary example of vast suggestion in brief duration, as he puts it.

However, while Schoenbergs Five Pieces may have formed the initial inspiration for Holloways kaleidoscopic work, there is no doubt that the influence of several other, chronologically disparate composers is likewise apparent. At times suffused with expressionist intensity, then to the lighter, Neo-Classically glimpsed polyphony of the fifth movement, numerous half-identifiable sound-worlds are somehow strung together and sublimated into a dense colour-canvas of sound. Holloway himself calls the Fiftha sort of colour symphony. Each of the movements is based on a sensory or psychological response to a strong, colour-defined visual impetus. The first movement expresses dense blackness, the second the amorous green of a lawn in summer, the third the intense red of a newly painted pillar box, and so on.

The playing was by turns energetic, brooding and sinuous yet always evocative, responding eagerly to Holloways inventive scoring. While for the most part this was grasped through a densely layered texture, occasionally the music allowed for moments of chordal unity or a sparser use of forces (at the end of the second movement for instance, where Holloway plumbs the depths of a few of the lower instruments). If anything, the sheer density of contrasting sonorities and heterogeneity of textures rendered a rather abstract structure somewhat difficult to grasp. Evidently, structural form is not the most privileged of musical elements here, witnessed by the last-minute alteration in movement order (although one would probably expect the Allegro enfatico of the third movement to come last anyway). Individual movements retained some abstract notions of form: the fourth (and shortest) movement is described by Holloway as the Rainbow: a broad, gentle arc of sonority, while the starkly vivid second movement uses a kind of ternary form in which differences in orchestration give each section its emphasis.

On to the first of the two German heavyweights, and Strauss Four Last Songs, first heard at the Proms sixty-one years ago. The playing was sensitive, arching, expressive, while the singing could certainly have been a bit more emotive. Frustratingly, I found myself in the position of having the conductor completely block my view of soprano Hillevi Martinpelto, whose bold, round tone I only occasionally heard ringing out and pleasantly so whenever Runnicles stepped forward to turn a page in his score.

If not sufficiently buxom in tone, Martinpelto did give a performance that was very musical in its interpretation, giving the sort of attention to phrasing and hairpins that the orchestra demonstrated with the Brahms that followed the interval. Throughout this performance of the Second Symphony (despite nearly always wrapped up in a faint veil of melancholia), the playing breathed with life, and there was a smooth, honeyed sound from the orchestra, especially the strings. Runnicles employed rather bold, broad brushstrokes to guide the melodic line, creating an absorbing breadth of sound.

I could have done with some more zest in the second movement, however. Even if it is tinged with melancholy, the Adagio ought never to be in danger of sounding too languorous. Perhaps those bolder brushstrokes could have done with some finer attention to detail. The contrast formed in the third was more effective: the light, deliberately unhurried main theme meant that its faster variations were placed in spirited relief.

The Finale of the Second Symphony might be the most festive movement Brahms ever wrote, and it was a more than palpable explosion into D major that followed the movements somewhat enigmatic and quietly bubbling introduction. The sinuous brushstrokes were now replaced with a quite vigorous athleticism, which nonetheless was never in any danger of losing control. For the most part perhaps a touch too held back for my liking, but the quality of the playing and the sheer musicality made up for it.

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