August 8th, 2016


Tchaikovsky Double Billing

It can be a bit difficult to judge weekend Proms, and I was about 40 places down the queue when I arrived. In fact this was probably a good thing, as the afternoon Prom was with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, and consequently there were a number of Small People hoping to be right at the front. Best to leave them to it; still, third or fourth row isn't bad going.

Conducted by Ilan Volkov, they began with a piece denoted by the four infamous words BBC Commission: World Premiere: Helen Grime's Two Eardley Pictures – 2: Snow (the first had been performed in Friday's Prom). For a contemporary piece it wasn't bad at all, though I'll admit Grime found more colour in the painting than I did.

Next - after the appropriate Heave Ho! and the applause for the leader playing the piano's A, we had Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2. Pavel Kolesnikov made light work of this, a clearly virtuosic piece with significant technical demands. I thought I would recognise it, but in fact I only found the last movement familiar. Overall it unsurprisingly looks forward to Rachmaninov (or, perhaps more correctly, Rachmaninov looks back in this direction). Kolesnikov offered June from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons as an encore.

In the second half, Stravinsky's The Firebird showed that a youth orchestra can be equal to most things. I did feel perhaps the first sections were a little slow, but the build-up to and execution of the Infernal Dance the calm, and final euphoric General Rejoicing were superb. At a few points there were offstage performers around the perimeter of the Hall, the space used to great effect.

After a short break, it was time to go round again for the evening concert. This time it was the turn of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. I struggled to warm to Dausgaard last year, so I was a bit concerned, but on this occasion I am pleased to report he was very successful - whether that's down to the choice of music, or just a previous bad day at the office, who knows. The concert began with Prokofiev's Scythian Suite. Perhaps particularly in the Arena, the Royal Albert Hall can provide an unusually intimate performing space (a performance of the Schubert String Quintet springs to mind). However, more obviously, it is a large space for large works, and this suite definitely makes me think Cecil B DeMille, with its gigantic orchestration, martial fanfares and insistent rhythms. Dausgaard, perhaps doing rather too much Dad dancing on the rostrum, pulled out all the orchestral stops with dark yet exhilarating results.

How to follow that? After a short pause for rearrangement of the stage (Heave Ho! again), with Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and soloist Kirill Gerstein. I suppose it's not often this piece is upstaged, and Gerstein made it equal to the Prokofiev. Although this is much more familiar than the second concerto, it was still a fresh performance, as well as being technically accomplished. And yes, after all that, he could manage an encore: Eroica from Liszt's Transcendental Etudes.

The second half of the concert was Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. I'm not very keen on this work, but I decided to stay the course. I think it's the incessantly irregular rhythms that I dislike; when framed, I do quite like some of the more regular passages. Obviously many people disagree with me, and it's on almost every year at the Proms. On this occasion there was no riot, just plenty of applause.