Proms 37; Philip Glass: Violin Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 7

Kremer, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, 13 August 2009 3 stars

Gidon Kremer by Michael Benabib The huge audience that attended last night's late, late Philip Glass Prom made the crowd at last week's celebration of Harrison Birtwistle's 75th birthday (see link at bottom of page) seem desultory. Though the gaggles of revellers – including many excited beer-swilling (in the queue for tickets) twentysomethings – were a welcome sight, it was slightly to be regretted that one of the world's leading composers cannot even come close to competing commercially in his own country and in his birthday year with an American contemporary. Maybe the onstage interview with Glass (conducted by Radio 3's Verity Sharp) was what swung it over Birtwistle!

Still, Glass pulls in the crowds for a reason. It would be counter-productive to reduce his current appeal, as is often asserted, to the consolations of a facile tonality and its corresponding musical forms. Even in his more workaday film scores, Glass' music retains a deep sense of drama and, occasionally, it alleges a captivating enigma.

His Violin Concerto is testament to that. Premiere in 1987 by Paul Zufosky, it was played tonight by Gidon Kremer with backing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies. The work iterates all of the composer's stylistic crutches, from chugging chords and repeating scales over ostinatos to brashly-framed four-chord brass sequences to swinging rhythmic clashes and sudden shifts in time and texture, in quite a brazen way. Yet the design – three movements in the traditional pattern – works well, particularly with the stirring slow movement at the centre. The design and the inner details of the piece conjure some muddled sense of an elided modern-classicist folly.

The performance was somewhat disappointing. Kremer's recording of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic under Christoph von Dohnány was outshone by the Naxos release with Adele Anthony as soloist, and Kremer again displayed the strained tone and lack of fluidity with the line evident on his recording. The solo part is incredibly mechanistic; its gauche arpeggiations repeated at leaping octaves and its profuse figuration require stiff bowing and rigid accuracy in the left hand, and too often here Kremer's intonation slipped, his timings were out of sync with the orchestra, or his gestures were simply garbled.

The slow movement requires very little detail from him, but its unrelenting repetitions of a two-note motto are difficult in their own right, and they need emotional depth in the playing. This was in evidence more in the careful but expressive control displayed by Russell Davies than it was in Kremer's playing, which in fact felt a little too effortful. Kremer struggled to come to the fore of the ensemble, and time and again you felt he and the group were working in a slightly different register of communication. However his performance was not without merit, and his excited playing in the finale, before a lovely conclusion, compensated somewhat for earlier failings.

Glass' Symphony No. 7, subtitled 'A Toltec Symphony', presented a markedly different side of the composer. Based around a (very) loosely programmatic notion of the trinity at the centre of the pre-Mayan Toltec culture's spiritual practices, the work is comprised of three movements, each named for one part of that trinity. The tightly-conceived first movement employs the fundamental elements of Glass-style in a more eclectic and sinewy pattern. Those elements are augmented with very varied scoring – including a liberally employed shaker and some clacking castanets – and a balanced and effective structural design. The second movement has real flair; it expands upon and adds to the frolicking but evocative material of the first through chanting wordless voices (an excellent BBC Symphony Chorus), driving and dancing rhythms and welcome chromatic colourings from the orchestra.

The finale is more adventurous still. Glass uses an unusual syntax where panels of music, each cumulatively building in weight and size, are framed by very loud silences. The stop-start motion could be tricky to make coherent, but Russell Davies excelled, very deliberately managing each outburst before a stunning final climax, and a graceful cadential paragraph. The symphony is an impressive work and it was delivered with real panache this evening, but it does leave you with a slightly odd feeling; the style is as anachronistically reminiscent of Ravel (though, crucially, with much less skilful transitions) as it is any contemporary composer, and its many quirks are never quite enough to dispel the slight impression of emptiness that nags throughout.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Gidon Kremer by Michael Benabib


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