BBC Proms reviews

Prom 50: Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor; Stravinsky – The Firebird; Novák – Eternal Longing @ Royal Albert Hall, London

21 August 2005

Royal Albert Hall, London

Royal Albert Hall, London (Photo: David Iliff)

After the dubious interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth in Prom 49, it was nice to return to high quality music-making with this, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s first concert with their Chief Conductor Designate, Jiří Bělohlávek. And the signs are good for a better working relationship than the orchestra experienced during the Slatkin years, despite the odd memorable concert under the now-departed American conductor.

Lyricism was the order of the day, with Bělohlávek bringing out the warmth of each of the three works on offer. It was a pleasure to hear the conductor’s compatriot Vítězslav Novák’s Eternal Longing. That it was my first experience of his music is surely nothing to be ashamed of, as his works have only appeared four times before in 111 Proms seasons.

This piece is an allegorical tone poem centred on a Hans Christian Anderson story about a swan. The bird, separated from its flock, recommences its disturbed flight across the ocean after being reinvigorated by the rays of the sun in early dawn. Novák’s score is semi-Impressionistic, with a fabulous range of orchestral colours. The winds were particularly prominent, especially the oboe, flutes and clarinets in the gorgeous rippling of the opening ritornello. Concert master Stephen Bryant‘s solo violin part in the second ritornello showed that the BBCSO have a fine replacement for the well-loved Michael Davis, who left on last year’s Last Night, and Caroline Harrison acquitted herself well in the unusually virtuosic viola solo which represents the swan at the piece’s climax.

Schumann’s Piano Concerto is certainly more familiar fare, and though the orchestra and Bělohlávek gave sensitive accompaniment, I could not warm to BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist Llŷr Williams‘ interpretation of the solo part. He is well-known for staring around at the audience while playing, which is meant to involve us more. Yet he noticeably only does it during technically undemanding passages, and it seems symptomatic of an unfocussed and ostentatious performance style.

The opening movement failed to ignite, despite some lovely singing tone. Williams just doesn’t have the heavyweight muscularity for this High German repertoire. Oh for Alfred Brendel or Martha Argerich! There was more concentration during the middle movement, but the performers clearly didn’t read Adrian Jack’s superb programme note, which reminded us that this is a steady Intermezzo not a slow movement. Here it lost impetus with a ponderous tempo. Atmosphere was to some degree regained in the last movement, only too late, alas.

The concert ended with a roaring performance of the 1945 Firebird Suite by Stravinsky. This is one of the greatest ballet scores of all time, one of my favourites, and it’s easy to see why the concert hall has appropriated it from the theatre. The suite takes the ten most programmatic movements of the ballet and blends them into a skeleton outline of the ballet’s synopsis. Here, the strings murmured in the sinister evocation of the evil magician Kastchey’s enchanted garden in the opening bars, giving way to the sparkling Firebird theme, in which the upper woodwind shone. The Pas de deux was suitably sensuous, and the Infernal Dance of Kastchey’s subjects saw the concert go into fifth gear, introduced by an earth-shattering drumbeat. The finale was brilliantly coordinated and really shining, though I felt the strings used too short a bow in the bars before the coda, lacking tone in an otherwise rousing performance.

I was sitting in front of the Radio 3 commentary box for this concert, and was asked by the technician not to applaud so loudly after the interval as it was causing interference with the broadcast. So my apologies to radio listeners. I enjoyed myself too much not to clap.

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