Prom 72: Bruckner, Tansy Davies, Wagner; Prom 73: Panguin Cafe

BBC Symphonyu Orchestra/Belohlávek

Royal Albert Hall, 9 Septmber 2010 4 stars

Tansy DaviesAnother eclectic evening at the Proms tonight, with a highly engaging BBC Symphony Orchestra concert being followed by a very well attended and fondly received Proms debut for the reincarnation of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra (with the last term absent), now led by Arthur Jeffes, in place of his sadly deceased father, Simon.

The earlier concert was dominated by two works; the first, a world premiere by one of Britain's most interesting young composers, Tansy Davies, the second, Bruckner's seventh symphony. Before these two we heard the prelude to act three of Lohengrin - a curious, somewhat incongruous opening that was nevertheless discharged with suitably invigorating brass steam.

The Wagner seemed incongruous because, detached from its original context, the work's short shrift comes off a little brusquely and a little without direction, whilst, meanwhile, its pairing with the Davies seemed a little ill considered, the two differing so distinctly in general rhetorical aspect.

No matter: the Wagner barely had time to register on an audience just in the door from work (it seemed - the concert began at 1900) before Davies' Wild Card settled them into twenty minutes of sonic refinement. The work is based around a sort of trans-narrative journey through the 22 Tarot cards of the Major Arcana, each attached to a distinct musical theme or passage, with the guiding Fool's motif providing a sort of commentary throughout (though each emblem, indeed music itself, can hardly be separated from the function of commentary entirely).

I was initially a little unsure how applicable the concept was to an extended orchestral narrative, feeling that the topic and its related material were perhaps more suited to something like a shorter caprice or divertimento than they were to an extended tone poem. Despite a little timidity from the musicians (who otherwise performed with a great deal of sensitivity), however, the conception came off extremely well; I had great fun alternately trying to trace the appearances of the archetypes, using Davies' programme notes, and, intermittently realising that this was a little bit of a fool's errand (owing to the pace of change, lack of ordination, and sheer number of the things), giving into the fascinating soundworld of the music, which was alternately grindingly and boisterously dance-like, and supple, dreamy, enchanting. Wild Card is perhaps most distinctly characterised by Davies' incredible handling of orchestral sonority, with windy white noise nestling captivatingly alongside and around resonating vibes, ornery shakers, and thrifty winds. And how refreshing that, reversing the usual pattern of mainstream concerts, it was the Wagner that lasted four minutes, and the Tansy Davies twenty!

The concert's rather short first half was matched with an extended second dedicated to one of Bruckner's most visionary symphonic canvasses, his Symphony No. 7 in E major. Bruckner's distinctive epic sonata style was never more compelling than here, with two mammoth movements leading into a (for Bruckner) concisely wrought Scherzo, and resolving, with total persuasion, into the themes and, finally, last crowning of the tonic in the Finale.

Penguin CafeThe performance was grave, acute, and thrilling, though not without its problems. I felt the first theme could have been played with more beauty of tone, and perhaps been shaped with more purpose by Jiri Belohlávek, whilst I thought a little more could have been made of the climaxes at the end of both the first movement and the Finale. However, the Adagio, that most remarkable of symphonic movements, came off with total authority; gorgeously full bodied strings returned again and again to the rising third at the movement's (and symphony's) heart, this then being thrown around, discussed throughout the ranks of the band, before coming to an emotionally overwhelming, almost transfiguring climax which yet wasn’t all; the minor key transformation of the motif now sounded with a nobility made all the more intense by the retro-audible synthesis which resounded so strongly in the hall. After an obstinately characterised Scherzo, the Finale offered a highly enjoyable last dalliance with the main themes of the work, with the first now finally ascendant.

The Penguin Cafe's Late Night Prom drew a large crowd, as I have mentioned, with a great deal of people staying from the first show and a rank of clearly dedicated fans filling out their number. Playing through 16 tunes that ranged in disposition across African, Gypsy, British Isles, and American folk traditions, plus a rather moving solo encore from Arthur Jeffes (who played an appropriate style amalgam of a piano piece originally written for his father's memorial thirteen years before), the group overcame a somewhat shaky start on its first number to achieve a performance that oodled with charm.

The Cafe featured amongst its ranks of eleven musicians a number of adaptable and gifted multi-instrumentalists, typical amongst whom was the former Suede musician Neil Codling, who adroitly switched between guitar, piano, ukulele, harmonium and cuatro (leader Jeffes managed a similar mix more at the fore of the texture, even playing whistles on the final track of the main set, the rollicking Bluegrass hoe down Salty Bean Fumble). Guest Kathryn Tickell showed herself no less adaptable. She merged her fiddle into the quintet of bowed strings at the heart of the ensemble (indeed their massed, teeming buttressing of the texture was one of the key elements in the warmth of the sound) for four separate numbers, and ascending the ranks with the distinctively intimate strains of her Northumbrian smallpipes for three others.

Tickell's smallpipes were heard in Organum, an original collaboration between the first Penguin Café and the musician, and in two new pieces, the slow burning five-time Landau, and the more dynamic Bramble May, both of which boasted the same alacrity of melodic line (the latter more than the former) and subtle use of ensemble as did the pieces from the pen of Simon Jeffes heard tonight. Of these, the famous Telephone and Rubber Band, Music for a Found Harmonium (which, out of a quality field, glowed the most), and the knotty, 15/8 time Perpetuum Mobile, drew the strongest reactions from an appreciative crowd. I myself felt the set could have done with a few more fast numbers to balance the flow, but this is only a minor complaint when set against the facility of the performances, the radiance of the tone-colours, and the economy of the material, which rested after all almost entirely on repeated ostinatos and building textures, or, alternately, on subtly graded cyclical thematic structures. A highly enjoyable show.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Tansy Davies and Penguin Cafe


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