BBC Proms reviews

Prom 55: BBCSSO/Runnicles @ Royal Albert Hall, London

26 August 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Music from a grand Romantic, a reconstituted jminimalist, and the evil side of Mozart was a chocolate-box of a Prom. Conceptual cohesion was absent, but there was great orchestration in abundance and fun amid the hubbub.

Adams’ tribute to scholar Nicholas Slonimsky whooshed around itself in a display of self-consciously vivid orchestration, hovering between lushness and spriteliness. There were undoubtedly moments of inflated trivia, but Adams’ work was adept at making the point of being repetitive, but without ever entirely repeating itself. The piece seemed a happy cross-pollination of minimalism which has developed from its early, uncompromising stance and the world of orchestral showpieces. Of course there is rhythmic consistency, or at least a strong feeling of consistency, but Slonimsky’s Earbox never wallows in the factory line timekeeping expected of other minimalists. The 13-minute piece is well proportioned, with an exciting glitter-and-drums finale, brought out feverishly by Donald Runnicles.

The jewel of the concert was Mozart’s Piano Concerto 20; his most devilish and stormy concerto. Runnicles was able to give real individual shape to the string phrasing here, and also made certain that the woodwind, sparse as it was, made a distinctive impression. For pianist Shai Wosner there was the old question to tackle: Is it anachronistic to play an 18th Century work like it’s a 20th Century barnstormer? Despite the piano’s big, bright tone and the fact that the music is among Mozart’s most dramatic, Wosner only flirted with dynamic extremes. Musically speaking his playing was mercurial and sparky, loosening up as the music progressed and ultimately turning into a deft and virile reading of the piece.

Programme music isn’t as much of a problem as classical scholars lead you to believe. The basis for a composition is secondary the actual music itself, so whether Strauss based Sinfonia Domestica on the life of Moses, Cleopatra or himself (as was the case) only comes into question once the music fails to provide sufficient fodder for discussion. As with Mahler’s orchestral works there are many foreshadowings of later works in this piece, but in Strauss’ case all the references are to musical ideas that he later improved- for such works as Der Rosenkavalier and even Metamorphosen. Mistimed horn and oboe entries didn’t help the work get off to a convincing start, and despite the thrill and occasional dramatic heft of family life, this symphony is perhaps best suited for domestic use only – if that.

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