qatsi (qatsi) wrote,
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Pomp and Circumstance, and a Concerto for Dancing Bear and Bearded Lady

Prom 26 had a rather odd and disjointed programme, without a clear theme or progression. Nevertheless, it was bound to be a popular concert, as the BBC had been promoting Anthony Payne's completion of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 6 quite heavily, and with the BBC Symphony Orchestra teaming up with Sir Andrew Davis, it was like old times. The other big draw was the pianist Evgeny Kissin, heart-throb for middle-aged, middle-class women up and down the country. Ironically, my interest in this concert was for neither of these directly: it was Davis' orchestration of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue and the rather rarely heard Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra do provide the backbone for the festival, and it showed at the start of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, where the violins did not seem to me to be quite in tune in the first movement. Over on the BBC Message Boards, someone has suggested that they weren't in time: this could be my perception of the same problem.

The highlight of the concert turned out to be Britten's Les Illuminations, and in particular soprano Nicole Cabell. These poems of Arthur Rimbaud, according to Britten, were "the visions of heaven that were allowed the poet", and Cabell indeed sang them in a most heavenly way. No mention of Peter Pears, no, not at all. Well, apart from the fact that Pears (a tenor) sang the American premiere of Les Illuminations. And we shan't mention what Rimbaud and Verlaine were up to in late nineteenth-century Paris. Anyway ...

The second half of the concert began with Elgar/Payne: not a highlight for me, but fair enough as a piece of music. I wasn't persuaded by the rather insistent use of the sleigh bells, nor by some of the more jerky changes in tempo; but a creditable realisation, and I did like the reference in the closing bars to the first P&C. Andrew Davis and Anthony Payne did conjure that infamous Michael White piece about Gay Weddings as they stood together on the rostrum.

Davis' orchestration of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor was rather restrained, although having listened again, and compared it to Stokowski's version, it seems a bit better. I think the opening was particularly weak, and in something like that it's important to start on the right note. It doesn't beat Peter Hurford's recording of the organ at Ratzeburg Cathedral, though.

The final work was Shostakovich's Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings. It is such a mischievous work that it could equally well be called Concerto for Cat and Mouse, or given that the work "circus" is frequently applied to it, Concerto for Dancing Bear and Bearded Lady. I wonder exactly how they arrived at the arrangements on the platform, which, having listened to the Radio 3 presenter, were considered controversial more widely: certainly they seemed bizarre to me, and to the other Prommers around me. Trumpeter Sergei Nakariakov was sat somewhere in the distance (allegedly at his own behest), well behind the piano. This gave the whole performance an awful imbalance in the Hall (it seems to sound rather better on the BBC audio stream, no doubt with judiciously positioned microphones), with the trumpet barely audible. Of course, concertos for multiple instruments are inherently awkward: not only is there tension between soloist and orchestra, but between the soloists themselves. I felt Kissin took some of the passages in the concerto too slowly: Shostakovich himself always played this work with a break-neck pace. To contrast this physical performance, I recall last year's performance of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, in which in some sections, the players serenaded the singers intimately. Humourously, I would like to have seen the trumpet serenade the piano this way in the Shostakovich; but in a more straight-laced setting, at the very least, a small-instrument soloist should stand at the front of the orchestra. Nevertheless, the proletariat seemed to enjoy it.

Those who were able to leave straight away may have been able to get in to Hyde Park before it closed, but they, and radio listeners, missed a spectacular encore: Kissin gave us a movement from Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges suite, an appropriate selection both in the nationality of the composer and performer, and also, having had an orchestration of an instrumental work earlier in the concert, to conclude with a piano reduction.
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