BBC Proms reviews

Proms 2020 Live: LSO / Uchida / Rattle @ Royal Albert Hall, London

30 August 2020

A programme of contrasts in the latest Live BBC Prom. Barry Creasy explains.

Prom 30

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

On paper, Sunday evening’s live Prom looked to be a bit of a lucky dip of works that, understandably, had been put together quickly. The performers, though, managed to pull several connecting strands out of the works to present a highly enjoyable evening’s listening. Sir Simon Rattle is, of course, a master of diverse programming, and his inclusion of two Gabrieli Canzoni (‘Sesti/spetimi toni’ and ‘Noni toni’) arranged by Eric Crees as an early example of the use of a big empty space was inspired, and the brass of the London Symphony Orchestra provided some crisp accounts that gave Gabrieli’s cori spezzati concept a new purpose.

Another work making use of an empty hall was György Kurtág’s … quasi una fantasia …. The composer originally required players to spread themselves throughout the performance space because “I wanted for musicians to not be able to discuss how bad the music was during rehearsals”, but, again, the necessity of social distancing provided an excellent motivation for its inclusion in the programme. It’s a complex piece that begins with rustling percussion and slow, deliberately placed piano notes that then moves to more agitato playing, some solid orchestral statements and a brass chorus. Rattle, Mitsuko Uchida and the LSO gave an atmospheric rendering that pulled the diverse instrumentation (that includes bicycle bells, a harmonica, a recorder and a cimbalom) together into an affecting whole.

The Kurtág followed an equally moving performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (also marked ‘quasi una fantasia’). In her introduction, Uchida remarked that her maxim for performance of the work was “play it as if there is no tomorrow”, and what resulted was an eloquently contemplative account.

“The performers… managed to… present a highly enjoyable evening’s listening”

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Mitsuko Uchida (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The programme also included a première: Thomas Adès’ Dawn. Representing not so much dawn over a landscape, as the concept of dawn across the planet being a continuously advancing phenomenon, the work calls on minimalist techniques: a simple four-note phrase is repeated and amplified – both harmonically and instrumentally – such that counter-melodies play through it, not unlike a modern-day fantasy on a ground. The initial slow ‘harp and piano’ statement grew, through a shimmer of strings, and the arrival of woodwind and brass, into a triumphant dazzle of sunshine in a brilliantly paced performance.

Rattle is not a conductor who immediately springs to mind as a go-to interpreter of British Romanticism; the performances of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, though, caused a re-evaluation, as both were given  accounts that brought out their luxuriant qualities, redolent of lost ages. From the initial thrum of the low strings, the Elgar was given plenty of contrast in dynamic and tempo that allowed the piece to breathe, while the appearances of Elgar’s insouciant theme appeared and disappeared. The string intonation in the work cannot be anything less than perfect, and so it was, especially in the tightly controlled fugal material of the Allegro.

Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony is often thought of as a peaceful counterpoint to the horrors of the war in which it was conceived. And this performance certainly highlighted these elements: the muted horn calls at the opening; the ‘country fair’ dancing scherzo; the lush, string heavy Romanza and the triumphant Passacaglia – the almost overwhelming richness of all of them were pointed up. There are moments of disquiet, though: a flurry of complex disturbance in the opening movement, a sinister note in the modal material of the scherzo, and a brief moment of worry in the third movement. These did not go ignored, and Rattle and the orchestra gave us the mood shifts to perfection.

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