August 5th, 2008


Das Lied von der Erde, and other Light Classics*

Despite the continuing damp weather, I headed into London for two Proms on Sunday. The first was an afternoon organ recital by Wayne Marshall, focused on mostly twentieth century French composers: Messiaen, his teacher, contemporaries and successors. The names on the programme weren't particularly familiar to me; of those other than Messiaen, I think I had heard of Dupré but that was all. The opening work, Demessieux's Te Deum, and Dupré's Organ Symphony No. 2 were the highlights for me. (The programme notes drew particular attention to the use of the "string" pipes in the latter piece, which were clearly recognisable). Marshall finished with an energetic improvisation, starting from a theme of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony.

The evening concert consisted of two works. In the first half, Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 was a reminder of the composer's lighter mood. Like a bit of Haydn, and other contemporaries, this work sounded a little like Mozart, but so much better. The second half was altogether darker, with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. I felt that tenor Johan Botha was struggling to be heard above the orchestra in the opening Das Trinkleid vom Jammer der Erde. This could have been my position in the arena; certainly Botha seemed to be giving his all, so if there was any fault in the balance, it was with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles. His partner for the evening was mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, who didn't really come into her own until the final movement, Der Abschied, which was hauntingly beautiful and poignant. The length of the final movement, about as much as the preceding five movements put together, makes it difficult to feel that the work as a whole is balanced, but the performance was certainly competent.

*Tom Lehrer, preamble to Alma.

Ethel and the Pirate King

Monday's Prom had an intriguing series of connections, if not an overall theme. There was an interesting pre-Prom talk on the life and work of Dame Ethel Smyth (pronounced, we were told, with a 'y' sound, but definitely without an 'e' on the end - not rhyming with "scythe"). What emerged was a rather indomitable character, perhaps a little Margaret Rutherford-esque; the Proms programme declined to give us a photographic portrait, opting instead for a contemporary caricature. We also heard an amusing recorded interview in which she described Emiline Pankhurst's unsuccessful attempts at throwing stones through the windows of 10 Downing Street (other suffragettes were more talented).

The concert began with Henry Wood's orchestration of Bach's Toccata and Fugue BWV565. I've heard the fugue part of this before - at the First Night of the Proms in 2004. Having now heard Wood's entire orchestration, I do think the fugue section works better; I also think the 2004 performance was better. Purists probably hate this sort of thing, but I regard it as both a bit of fun and a tribute to Bach's talent, that such great music can be played in pretty much any conceivable arrangement and still sound so good.

Dame Ethel Smyth dedicated her Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra to her friend Wood, providing the first connection in the programme. Concertos for multiple soloists are always a bit tricky: not only is there the tension between soloist and orchestra, but between one soloist and another, not to mention the logistics of booking a possibly unfamiliar collection of artists. This was a successful work, reminiscent of Brahms with a bit of Late Romanticism thrown in. In the pre-Prom talk, violinist Tasmin Little had talked in particular about the last movement being reminiscent of Uranus from Holst's The Planets and Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and I could certainly here what she meant. She also referred to horn player Richard Watkins having to perform "tripple-stopping" in the cadenza, an effect which I'm afraid I didn't hear at all, though I did hear him reach some remarkably low notes, which went lower, and lower, every time reaching further than seemed possible. I also felt there was a little foreshadowing of some of Shostakovich's demonic marches in the last movement, though of a generally lighter character, perhaps the two-in-a-bar equivalent of Tovey's comment about the final movement of Sibelius' Violin Concerto being a Polonaise for Polar Bears.

For the second half, back to Henry Wood: this time an orchestration of Rachmaninov's Prelude in C sharp minor. This provided an interesting switch from the intellectual quality of Bach to the heavily romantic. This is one of the most difficult pieces I can recall playing on the piano; I really struggled in the final section where it breaks into four staves to be played by two hands. Some of the preludes definitely have an intimate quality that wouldn't transfer to the orchestra, but I think Wood just about gets away with this one.

This linked to the final work, Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2. I thought I would recognise this work more than I did; in fact I only recognised the theme of the final movement. It was interesting to watch the score for the cello parts, marked with a couple of controversial cuts in the final movement. I heard quite a few people raving about the performance; I felt more neutral about it, but it wasn't really the part of the concert I had come to see, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the unfeasibly young conductor Stefan Solyom seemed to have done a fair job.