Wednesday night’s Prom was a brilliant demonstration by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under François-Xavier Roth of the way in which 20th-century composers began to push the boundaries of orchestral colour and texture. The evening began with a first Proms performance of Pierre Boulez’ 1958 work Figures – Double – Prismes. The three large orchestral groups filled the stage almost to overflowing, and, beginning with the subdued opening for harp and low strings presented the audience with a demonstration of changing orchestral colour, including muted brass chords, sudden rhythmic flurries of strings and tintinnabulations from tuned percussion. For all its sparkle, though, the work is a bristly product of the avant-garde movement in all its uncompromising intellectuality; it is a difficult work to approach beyond an interest in the sounds it makes, and it’s unlikely that more than a handful of the audience left the concert with a determination to download the complete works of Pierre Boulez in celebration of his 90th birthday.
Maurice Ravel’s 1918 Frontispice is a puzzling work; it was originally scored for five hands and two pianos, and represents an almost-entirely cerebral exercise in dissonant polyphony. Boulez’ orchestral treatment of it is rarely performed (little wonder, in that it uses large forces for a piece that is barely two minutes long) The arrangement, however – through the familiar use of twinkling percussion and muted brass, this time finishing with a series of solid homophonic chords from the full orchestra – brings it to life.
The orchestra was joined by Marc-André Hamelin for Ravel’s 1930 Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, one of several pieces famously commissioned by the war-wounded Paul Wittgenstein. The work is sometimes taken at too rapid a pace, but Wednesday night’s performance was perfectly judged, allowing all of the sonorities to be savoured. Hamelin’s playing was confident and relaxed (although not always completely accurate), and his return (to great applause) to encore with an ethereal rendering of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau was an added delight.
A further delight was provided by the performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, the first of the composer’s musical adventures with Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based Ballets Russes, premiered, to great acclaim, in 1910. The music from the ballet is often performed in a concert setting as one of the three suites, arranged over the years by Stravinsky, but Wednesday night’s treat was to hear the entire 46-minute ballet as originally scored (and without the ‘live-performance’ thumps of ballet pumps on stage that sometimes obscure the quieter, more delicate passages making up much of the work). Again, the varying textures of the music were brought out artfully by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Roth’s direction. Roth eschews the use of a baton, preferring to use his hands and body in a series of jerky gestures to convey what he wants. The technique is not easy to watch, but it achieves great results, such as the delicacy of the haunting bassoon solo in ‘The Firebird’s Lullaby’ or the barely-heard shimmering strings of ‘Profound Darkness’; the measured final triumphant full-orchestral last scene ended the evening on a hugely satisfying note.