BBC Proms reviews

Prom 56: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bělohlávek – Britten, Martinu, Prokofiev @ Royal Albert Hall, London

26 August 2007

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

A programme of mid twentieth century works by the Proms resident orchestra saw their Chief Conductor Jir Belohlávek do greatest justice to one of his fellow countrymen.

Martinu’s magical Fourth Piano Concerto (“Incantation“) sparkled under the fingers of young Czech soloist Ivo Kahánek, while Britten’s Sea Interludes and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony lacked necessary depth.

With so many high-profile performances of Shostakovich’s symphonies in recent years, those of his near contemporary Prokofiev have been rather neglected (although the Fifth does seem to appear on the Proms schedule with great regularity). While the older Russian’s examples of the genre may lack the varied complexion of Shostakovich’s, there’s much to enjoy throughout them and the Fifth Symphony of each composer has its fair share of affirmative declaration.

Prokofiev’s wasn’t written under the same numbing strictures, with the authorities’ attention more on the Great Patriotic War in 1944 than on what its errant composers were up to. He had more freedom to express himself than Shostakovich had had eight years earlier and was able to include material that might have sent his political masters into an idealogical spin during arguably more peaceful times.

The Fifth’s opening Andante blazes with the sort of positivity that Shostakovich’s ends with but, under Belohlávek, the BBCSO began rather muddily and took a while to find its feet. The scherzo, sounding as though it was snatched from the ballet score Romeo and Juliet was more successful, dazzlingly chirpy before its wonderfully dissonant and whirlwind ending.

Dance comes to mind again in the final movement but the lighter vein soon gets clogged leading to a failure of heart in the sardonic ending which resembles nothing more than the crazy circus-antics that close Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony. Throughout the work, the orchestra found a brilliance in the lighter sections (a nice flute solo in the third movement), while not quite plumbing the depths that lurk not far below the seemingly-blithe surface.

The concert began with Britten’s four Sea Interludes in a performance that evoked a sleepy seaside village more than the boiling and febrile landscapes, external and internal, that make Peter Grimes such a masterpiece.

In an auspicious Proms debut, Ivo Kahánek whipped up more of a storm as soloist in Martinu’s Fourth Piano Concerto, full of typical percussive brilliance and an astonishing stabbing solo part. Maybe patriotism, or the yearning for the homeland that characterised Martinu’s later works, accounted for Belohlávek’s really coming to life for this highly entertaining work by an underrated twentieth century Czech master.

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