BBC Proms 43 & 44: Delius, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky; Ligeti, Cage et al

Royal Philharmonic/Dutoit; London Sinfonietta/De Ridder

Royal Albert Hall, 17 August 2012 3 stars4.5 stars

Andre de RidderDespite the keyed up reception accorded the Royal Philharmonic and Charles Dutoit following their punchy but broad performance of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony at the close, this Prom fell rather flat on the whole.

The fault lay, chiefly, in the programming. Delius’ Paris (Song of a Great City), admittedly, provided a stunning opening. The piece’s capricious and broiling portrait of a Parisian nightscape was rendered with teeming colour and vivid musical detail, sounding here like a worthy, if slightly more affirmative, forerunner of Ravel’s magisterial La Valse.  

However, the other two items on the programme, the aforementioned Tchaikovsky symphony and Saint-Saëns’ second piano concerto with Benjamin Grosvenor, felt hollow and showy.

Despite some hard-hitting brass playing from the Philharmonic and the best efforts of a charged-up and purposeful Dutoit, for example, the Tchaikovsky flattered to deceive; considered in the context even of Delius’ pestled musical structures, the arguments of the piece, programmatic freighting or no, fell completely flat. Too often haughty restatement of the overarching ‘motto’ theme stood in for cohering substance, whilst the orchestration, all thunking brass and busy strings, did little to mitigate the music’s vacant core. Sometimes I love Tchaikovsky. Not tonight.

That feeling was, perhaps, attributable in part to my irritation at the Concerto, which, despite a formally fascinating and effective first movement, ended up in the same sort of bashing and blustering territory as the Tchaikovsky. Grosvenor was not really to blame, dancing with lightness and alacrity across the keyboard and meeting the music’s marshal fortitude with ample strength of his own as he so often did (though a little more rhetorical subtlety might have helped). It was, besides the piece, more a failure shared between the performers; pianist and band never quite conveyed a unity of purpose or of a productive dialogue. The out of sync fortissimo chords at the end of the first movement were I’m afraid emblematic. Grosvenor’s chic encore of ‘The Swan’ from Carnival of the Animals, in Godowsky’s arrangement, was much more like it.

Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky could have got lessons in economy of idea and execution from Ligeti, whose wonderfully dramatic Poème Symphonique, for 100 metronomes, opened a colourful and excellently conceived late evening Prom, which provided a lesson in modern music programming; mutually complementary pieces, introduced without condescension, and filled with healthy elements of theatre and conceptualism.

Building from the intense, glistening spectacle of Ligeti’s 100 gold-armed metronomes, Byron Fulcher entered from stage left dressed in a garish clown costume to perform with great verve Berio’s interrogation of theatrics, comedy, clowning and the trombone, Sequenza V. As so often with these things, the piece of the apparent greatest levity, much like the Ligeti before it, ended up hinting at some profound ideas about the sadness of spectacle and the fragility of drama.

Although our genial host for the evening, Tom Service, could have done as ever with taking a deep breath and turning his notch down a peg or two, generally the concert came off with aplomb.

André de Ridder provided an engaged focal point for the London Sinfonietta and London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble’s utterly vigorous performance of Xenakis’ naked and transparently dramatic Phlegra. Jonathan Harvey’s stalwart Mortuous plango sounded great thundering out of the hall’s eight channel array, moving stunningly from arresting tonal and hymnal residues to its clanging spectral finale. 

Louis Andriessen’s De snelheid is about as subtle as a punch in the gut, and didn’t even come through on the promised ever-increasing woodblock velocities (changing patterns gave this illusion), but was fun nonetheless, with its distinctive ‘filling in’ form and terse and dry sonorities ensuring everyone in the Royal Albert Hall was kept on their toes. And it’s always a pleasure to listen to Andriessen hold forth wittily; the composer was interviewed by an excitable Service before the performance.

The concert closed with a full ensemble performance of Cage’s 4’33’ (I’ve heard better), and an interestingly conceived but messily accomplished ‘live remix’ of the concert by Matthew Herbert, which involved members of the reconfigured BBC Radiophonic Workshop sending out echoic emissions of the concert just heard, and the audience sending synchronised text messages in order to achieve a digital, participatory sonic mass. It was fun, whilst it lasted, before petering out to not much at all.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Andre de Ridder (Marco Borggreve)