Saturday, 31 August 2013

Bantock, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Strauss: orchestral works

Royal Albert Hall
30 August 2013

Sibelius' Pohjola's Daughter. 
A classic performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky. From here.

A fascinating survey of late-Romantic attempts to organise orchestral works dramatically only let down by an innocuous concerto.

Three roughly contemporaneous tone poems comprised the significant portion of this Proms concert, though as tradition demands a concerto when a programme is not dominated by one big work, Prokofiev’s third piano concerto was drafted into use.

Dating a decade or so later than the tone poems, it made an interesting historical contrast, being neo-classical rather than romantic, the idiom of the other works. What this amounts to is that the concerto has a different sense of momentum from the other works. Although Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra is in many sections, these are carefully linked to give a sense of progression, whereas even within the concerto’s three distinct movements Prokofiev produces jarring stop-start effects.

In this performance, the piano was simply one instrument in the orchestra; I don’t know whether this was the intention, whether it suggested a lack of power on the part of soloist Anika Vavic or poor balancing in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. It muted the impact of what – on recordings at least – can be a dazzling pianistic display.

Tone poem is an unhelpful term for what is basically an orchestral piece without a prescribed method of musical organisation. The three pieces on offer seemed to cover the range of possibilities.

I found Bantock’s Witch of Atlas to be an insipid piece of perfumed exoticism, a lovely tune lovingly orchestrated but stretched out far too long. Over-refined, the occasional suggestion of menace on the percussion seemed tame, and did nothing to increase the low level of dramatic tension. Perhaps Debussy or Rimsky Korsakov are evoked, but both of those composers knew how to incorporate drama within atmosphere.

Bantock’s friend Sibelius certainly knew how to convey drama. The climax of Pohjola’s Daughter emerges effortlessly from the first notes. Typically Sibelian, I can’t imagine anyone else managing to maintain tension as easily. A greater contrast with Bantock’s wholly atmospheric piece is unimaginable.

Strauss’ Zarathustra might have been written for this venue. The climax of the famous introduction, incorporating the Hall’s mighty organ, rattled my bones. If the composer was inadequate to the challenge of Nietzsche’s poetic attempt to transform our lives, but so too was Nietzsche himself. It is a cruel irony that Strauss’ score may reflect the philosopher’s actual achievement, a ‘gorgeous failure’ and so on.

There is a lot to enjoy, though, and something of the author's struggle to be a ‘yes sayer’ rather than a ‘no sayer’ does come through, building up to the joyous finale, itself then partly undermined by the threatening coda. It’s not a work to change my life, but it deserves to be heard in full, and not just the great sunrise.

Late Romantic tone poems completely suit conductor Vladimir Jurowski’s approach. I wonder if the low impact of the Prokofiev confirms that outside of his fach, Jurowski is less competent?

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