Prom 70:The UK première of Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto makes a potent impression at the Proms
September 8, 2011
United Kingdom Prom 70: Bridge, Birtwistle, Holst: Christian Teztlaff (violin), Holst Singers,BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson. Royal Albert Hall,London, 7.9.2011 (MB)
Bridge – Isabella
Birtwistle – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (United Kingdom première)
Holst – The Planets
More odd programming at the Proms. It is not irrelevant to see Birtwistle in an English context, there being a strong vein of melancholy in his music to trace back at least as far as Dowland; it was nevertheless unclear that Frank Bridgeand Gustav Holst were best choices as supporting composers for the British première of the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. (The first performance took place in Boston earlier this year.) This is the first piece Birtwistle has explicitly named a concerto, despite forerunners in pieces such as Antiphonies for piano and orchestra. What I shall say is based upon but a single hearing, with all the caveats that must imply, but I was left in no doubt that we heard a masterpiece. The increasing importance of strings to Birtwistle’s tonal palette, as remarked upon in Jonathan Cross’s model programme note, was in evidence from the outset. Cross notes the precedent of Mendelssohn, of whose concerto Birtwistle is fond, in particular its ‘sparkle’ and the way in which the soloist throws the listener straight into the work. I also heard surprisingly strong echoes of Berg, both intervallic and harmonic, and not just at the opening. There also seemed to be reminiscences, whether conscious or otherwise, of Gawain, not least in terms of Birtwistle’s very personal use of metallic percussion. The violin part was performed throughout with outstanding musicality and virtuosity by Christian Tetzlaff; it is in many respects soaringly lyrical, though doubtless it will not have seemed so to tone-deaf reactionaries. For a composer who has long been associated with his native woodwind, it was delightful to realise how gratefully written for the instrument the piece is. Solos spark off orchestral strings and indeed off the rest of the orchestra; there is, needless to say, some haunting woodwind writing too. There is an especially exquisite – yes, Birtwistle can be exquisite – not-quite-duet between violin and bassoon, the latter more shadow (Boulezian ombre, albeit in a non-electronic context?) than partner. Rhythm is a predictably strong driving force, but we also hear ravishing oases of reflection: bizarre though this may sound, I was put in mind of the precedent of Szymanowski. At other times, however, the listener is treated to a post-Messiaen world of wind and percussive sonorities, which never sound, however, as harsh as much of the composer’s earlier writing. Above all, as one would expect from the greatest English musical dramatist since Purcell, there is a true sense of the violinist as Faustian protagonist, at least as much so as, arguably still more so than, the soloist in Henze’s Third Violin Concerto (which presents three portraits from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus). A subsiding, moving, tuba line leads us to the final solo pizzicato, completing a tapestry of unusually gorgeous quality. Teztlaff and David Robertson, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who were on excellent form, presented the work as the repertory piece it must become.
It is difficult to begrudge an occasional performance of Bridge’s symphonic poem, Isabella, not least since it was premièred by Sir Henry Wood at the Proms in 1907 and has not been heard in these concerts since. On the other hand, I cannot say that I am surprised by its absence. A quiet opening for violas and kettledrums sounds promising, if a little blatantly modelled upon Liszt’s Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, the final symphonic poem written by the form’s inventor. Influences thereafter come thick and fast: Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Strauss, Debussy. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is clearly a model for much of the brass writing, but Bridge has none of the Russian composer’s melodic genius. The form appears to follow quite closely the example of Keats’s poem, Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil. I wished that it had done so rather more quickly.
The Planets received a good performance: at its best the BBC SO sounded very good indeed, though there were moments when it sounded a little lacklustre, if never so much as it tends to under its principal conductor. ‘Mars’, surely the finest movement in the score, was also the finest in performance: seething in its menace, mechanical in its barbarism, a true premonition of war so swiftly to come. The Royal Albert Hall organ, here and elsewhere, made a fine impact. Alas, elements in the audience elected to applaud after this and every other movement – save, of course, ‘Uranus’, though I am not sure that I should have put it past them at that point also. ‘Venus’ and ‘Mercury’ benefited from a nicely French sound, perhaps more Ravel than Debussy, and an excellent solo from leader, Andrew Haveron; both movements do, though, tend to overstay their welcome. We heard a bright and breezy ‘Jupiter’, bringing jollity as required; if parts of the score sounded a little like a concerto for orchestra, then that is really Holst’s doing. The ‘big tune’ hit home, sounding noble rather than mawkish. Robertson handled the onward tread of ‘Saturn’ well, also pointing up intriguing consonances with Parsifal. ‘Uranus’ mixed jovial magician with sorcerer’s apprentice to good effect. Perhaps, however, after ‘Mars’, the highlight was the expert, imperceptible way in which the off-stage female voices of the Holst Singers stole into the hall: that was really rather beautiful.