BBC Proms reviews

Prom 40: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Boulez @ Royal Albert Hall, London

15 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

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

On paper, Prom 40 was one of the most promising concerts in the 2008 season: Pierre Boulez conducting an all-Janacek programme, including two of the composer’s most exciting works, The Glagolitic Mass in a newly reconstructed version. Certainly, the hall was full and the arena packed-in the largest number of prommers I’ve seen so far this season.

Boulez has long been passionate about Janacek and last year he had a massive hit in Europe with the Patrice Chéreau-directed From the House of the Dead. For those for whom Boulez can do no wrong, this prom probably shed new light on this amazing composer. For those for whom Boulez can do little wrong (present writer included), this was an occasion when not everything came off. Maybe because we are so used in the UK to Charles Mackerras’ ebullient approach to the Czech composer, Boulez’ idiosyncratic account of the Sinfonietta seemed drawn-out and lacking in sparkle. It was all a little earnest and controlled, the energetic drive of the piece largely missing.

If Boulez wanted us to hear Janacek with new ears, he was helped by the (slight) unfamiliarity of the “original version” of the mass, which made up the second half of the concert. No claims are being made that Paul Wingfield’s expert reconstruction is definitive, as Janacek expressed satisfaction with both this and the revision we’re used to, but it was good to have the opportunity to hear it.

It was difficult to discern how much was down to the new-old version and how much to Boulez’ individual approach but everything sounded out of kilter. For a piece that already skews one’s aural sense, the strangeness was turned up a notch or two. There were bursts of magnificence, particularly in the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, and Simon Preston’s thundering-out of the jazzy organ solos was thrilling. Soprano Jeanne-Michéle Charbonnet was powerful but a little squawky and all other vocalists tenor Simon O’Neill, bass Péter Fried and mezzo Anna Stéphany gave what was needed to their lesser parts.

Slipped in between the stark affirmations of the outer pieces was a strange little chamber composition, the Capriccio for piano (left hand) and wind instruments, Defiance’. Written in the same year as the two better-known works (1926), it meanders through four movements, using the unusual combination of brass band, flute doubling piccolo and piano. Written for the pianist Otakar Hollman, who lost his right arm in the First World War, the dominant piano part (played here by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) often resembles the composer’s haunting solo works for the instrument. Flute and brass, in the midst of a busy evening for them, made telling contributions.

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