Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Prom 24: Sibelius/Britten/Varese/Debussy (RAH)

A strange one, this. Four pieces, all well played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. First up is Sibelius' last major work, Tapiola, which Ilan Volkov took at a fair speed that emphasised the driving wind through the forest rather than the brooding stillness that I find difficult to contemplate without thinking of Sibelius' 30-year compositional silence that followed it. There does seem to be something very monumental and absolute about it that precludes the possibility of anything after. Considering he spent many years attempting to write an eighth symphony, it seems to have a very strong sense of a final word, after which nothing more can be said.

There is plenty more to be said in this concert, however, and the next is Britten's Piano Concerto. Again, the orchestra dispatches it with aplomb, and soloist Steven Osborne plays beautifully and engagingly, but, as with quite a number of Britten's pieces, I find that my attention keeps wandering, then is dragged back by something arresting, then wanders again.

The second half also features two pieces. Varèse's Ecuatorial features retro-chic electronics in the form of two ondes martenots, to evoke an ancient past. it's a strange and powerful piece, the swooping of the ondes contrasting with the guttural sounds of brass and percussion, as well as the strange alien chanting of the male singers. There's really nothing very much to compare it with, even in Varèse's own output, and it lingers in the mind long after it finishes, an unsettling presence.

Finally, we hear La Mer by Debussy, a performance that evokes foam flecked, salty air.

So, four works, four good performances... and yet I leave feeling slightly dissatisfied. It's something to do with the two major stage shifts, one in each half, that inevitably drain the momentum from a concert (I work on a theory that one should always try and avoid such things, one large move is manageable, more disrupts proceedings too much). It's also to do with the choice of repertoire. These are all pieces I either know and love, or would be more than happy to hear again, yet I am left with a feeling that I don't really know why they were programmed together. Four big-ish pieces leave a lack of a sense of a core, so that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It's a shame, because each of these performances deserve to be remembered fondly. But they won't be remembered as one concert, which is the difference between good playing and good programming.

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