Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Prom 24: Smyth, Rachmaninov et al.

Ethel Smyth- now there's an interesting character. She cut a singular dash in the early 20th century, a force of nature who mixed with the foremost musicians of her time, when she wasn't in prison for throwing bricks through the windows of those who wouldn't support the suffragettes. Her memoirs are about to be republished to celebrate her 150th birthday, and they're well worth reading - sharp, perceptive and funny.

I wish I could say the same about her music, but the fact is that her Concerto for violin and horn, which formed the main part of the first half of yesterday's prom, isn't very good. I'm perhaps being harsh here - there are some lovely moments, particularly in the slow movement and the opening of the finale. But overall it lacked any real sense of purpose, meandering on in a somewhat directionless and verbose manner, before finishing fairly arbitrarily.

On the other hand, there are plenty of crap pieces by male composers of the period that get a regular hearing, so why shouldn't Smyth be allowed out now and then?

I wonder how much the performers had to do with my perception? Richard Watkins is a wonderful horn player, but I don't like Tasmin Little's sound at all - it's very wobbly, with an excessively wide vibrato that somehow reminds me of Edith Evans, and makes me rethink Roger Norrington's viewpoint on the use of vibrato in early 20th century music. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra play well, though.

Talking of crap music by men, the two arrangements by Sir Henry Wood - of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor an Rachmaninov's Prelude in C sharp minor - that began the first and second halves respectively were the sort of orchestral lollipop that was once commonplace, but has largely died out, and thank god, as these muddy, overblown orchestrations did nothing to serve these two very famous keyboard works, both of which I'd far rather hear on their intended instruments than this way.

But that's not to say it's not worth hearing all these things now and then - it's important to have a chance to realise why some things get left behind, and other endure. Rachmaninov's music was dismissed as schmaltz in his day, and critics regularly opined that no-one would want to listen to it in 50 years. Well, they were wrong, and the reason, as made clear by the wonderful performance of the Second Symphony the SSO gave here, is not because audiences have no taste, but simply because this is very powerful, taut and well made music. Tchaikovsky used to be dismissed the same way, and just as he has survived and his reputation has had to be reassessed, perhaps it's time to give Rachmaninov his due too.

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