BBC Proms reviews

Prom 71: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine – Carter, Bartók and Brahms @ Royal Albert Hall, London

7 September 2007

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

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

The Boston Symphony Orchestra thrilled on the penultimate night of the Proms with the European Premiere of Elliott Carter’s Illusions. If the orchestra were slightly out of sorts the night before, they certainly found their form for this daringly programmed, gloriously executed concert under their Music Director James Levine.The BSO must certainly be one of the finest orchestras in the world.

The strings play with a unified sheen that is rare amongst orchestral ensembles, and the brass and woodwind section are second to none. I have been fortunate enough to hear them play on their home turf twice – the last time in an incandescent performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony under Daniele Gatti that still lives in the memory. All those unique orchestral qualities were present in abundance at this, the penultimate concert of the 2007 BBC Proms.

Levine is a huge champion of contemporary American music and when he was appointed to the BSO, one of the first things he did was commission a work from the greatest living American composer, Elliott Carter. The three minute piece was called Micomicon – he then wrote a further two, naming the triptych Illusions. Described as ‘imaginary places of false promise’, these are brilliantly constructed mini tone poems, each dealing with a different ‘illusion’.

The first, Micomicon, is based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, where the eponymous hero is flailing at wineskins with his sword, imagining he is dispatching his enemies’ heads. The piece begins with a fanfare and a crash on the cymbals, then Carter deploys the most kaleidoscopic orchestral palette at his disposal. We hear brass and woodwind interjections, surrounded by shimmering chords in the strings, before the piano and percussion are deployed to evoke the manic Quixote jabbing his ‘victims’. The second Illusion is entitled Fons Juventutis (The Fountain of Youth) and here Carter’s piece is made up of showers and sprinklings gloriously evoked in the woodwind, accompanied by short interjections from the brass. The lower strings play ascending passages, almost trying to reach the illusive violins, in a vain attempt to gain ‘eternal youth’. This is the most lyrical of the three movements, ending with a mini explosion from the entire orchestra.

The third movement, Moore’s Utopia, sees Carter portray an ominous vision of society. Portentous chords usher in this supposed new dawn – there is a dark foreboding in this work, but as this amazing composer reaches his 100th birthday next year, I guess he’s seen a century where any vision of Utopia has been unusually pessimistic. This was an ecstatic performance of one of the most brilliant pieces that I have heard in years.

No less exciting was the performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra – another BSO commission – the work giving manifold opportunities for each department of the orchestra to shine. And the concert concluded with a robust performance of Brahms’ First Symphony. It was fascinating to hear the Fourth and First on alternate evenings and, here, Levine and the orchestra pulled out all the stops. It’s invidious to single out one member of the orchestra but in both the Bartok and the Brahms, the timpanist, Timothy Genis, was mesmerizing – he stood to play the Brahms, investing every note with immense feeling. An encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 was a fitting coda to a glorious evening of top-notch music making.

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