Stockhausen: Jubilee; Colin Matthews: Violin Concerto; Luke Bedford: Outblaze the Sky; Zimmermann: Rheinische Kirmestänze;Schumann: Symphony No. 3

Josefowicz, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Knussen

Royal Albert Hall, 29 July 2010 4 stars

ToradzeAnd so to the Proms again, for another evening of sometimes dazzling new music and sometimes blank audience stares.

I have long held on to the conviction that more and more contemporary composition should be included in the Proms' programmes if it is to have any claim to being a genuinely relevant festival, but tonight's concert gave me pause on the matter. With its reputation as a fun and cheap cultural night out in London, the festival attracts a significant number of tourists and walk-ups, much of whom seemed to constitute the audience this evening. And with five pieces of contemporary or modern music only giving way to Schumann right at the close of a long, strangely organised, two-interval concert, it made for an uncomfortable experience, at leas tin some respects, with creaking seats, flagrant talking, and bored faces obvious all around, at least where I was sitting. But what could possibly be done about this I do not know, other than a total root and branch reformulation of music education in Britain, or perhaps a rewiring of human DNA.

Despite these complaints, I rather enjoyed much of the concert. As I have said, the programme, selected by conductor Olly Knussen, was strangely organised. A sixteen minute Stockhausen lead to an early interval; three British pieces formed the middle; whilst two Rhenish works, one a wickedly humorous arrangement of German folk tunes, and the other Schumann's stunning third symphony, brought us to a close. The programme was thus thematically bitty; each section worked fine on its own, but felt strange when considered as part of the whole.

The Schumann at the end suffered most from this effect, I think, with its booming, flowing themes losing some of their power not only through the acres of acoustic dead air in the hall, but also as a result of their sheer sonic conventionality when placed against the inventions of the other music. That's not to deny the symphony’s innovative elements, nor its highly satisfying textures and forms; particularly effective here was the Lä ndler, to which Knussen gave a fantastic swaying momentum, pausing just so between the main thematic phrases, and the opening movement, which promised a roaring river that we never ultimately got.

The performances were sensitive and committed everywhere else, as you'd expect. Stockhausen's Jubilee is a wonderful piece, working like a vast mensuration canon mixed with Lutoslawski indeterminacy and Ivesian textural division, but sounding like a carousel from an impossible past, or a possible future. The logical working through of the work’s monolith formula was given with clarity across the texture, though the rainbow jumble of glockenspiel, celesta and piano perhaps blazed brighter than the rest, even when slowed for their turn with the main thematic statement.

Birtwistle's micro-piece Sonance Severance roused the hall with unexpectedly Shostakovichian-clamour, whilst Colin Matthews' Violin Concerto got over its somewhat subdued first half to hypnotically outline a Louis Andriessen-style expansion from one pulse to two chords, and back again, and again, in its final second movement. All the while soloist Leila Josefowicz rode atop the bass-heavy orchestra with alternately sustained and leaping violin lines, confidently issuing forth bold salvos, standing in rock god pose with legs apart and back arched, generally playing out of her skin, technically assured and emotionally powerful all the way. The piece is clearly indebted to Berg in its scoring, though the composer adds a beguiling inner restraint all of his own, saturating the orchestra in a sort of sonic enigma that made attempts to pierce what they were they were playing all the more compelling.

Luke Bedford's Outblaze the Sky played with similar effects, displaying all its composer's native limpidity in scoring and fluency of emotional contour; the six minute efflorescence focussed on short flutters, vibrations, and slides, coming off like a more disciplined, more darkly burnished Gloria Coates (though I thought Knussen could have made more of the last section, particularly the surprising final gesture).

The apparent highlight of the evening for most in the hall, and I can't say I blame them, was B.A. Zimmerman's Rheinische Kirmestänze. Written for chamber ensemble of primarily brass and wind, with two duelling piccolos and a contrabass tuba featuring strongly, the piece's five movements spread across about as many minutes, drawing three large laughs from the audience along the way, and lots of smiles. Anyone familiar with the composer mainly through his famous modernist/proto-postmodernist opera Die Soldaten (as I was) was in for quite a profound shock; recalling Hungarian-period Ligeti occasionally, and Oom-pah bands and pipe and drum music (albeit in a wicked, wrong-note configuration) frequently, the peregrinations of the arrangements, and those of piccolos and tuba/trombones particularly, made for utterly droll, though genuinely pleasing, listening. It was all given with a dash of sardonic glee Knussen, who was clearly enjoying the fiendish little twists and turns as much as the rest of us.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Leila Josefowicz


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