Among the focuses of the Proms this summer are the centennials of Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen and the eightieth birthday of Karlheinz Stockhausen (due to his death in 2007, the celebration of his birthday was fused with a commemoration of his life’s work). Although the first night concert included the first performance of a Proms commission from Carter, the piano piece Caténaires, he is only represented by three other works, the Oboe Concerto, Night Fantasies, and Soundings, as opposed to eighteen works of Messiaen, several of them, including the opera St. Francis of Assisi, to be played on September 7, major works of considerable length. The Stockhausen celebration included a Stockhausen day on August 2, which included performances of Gruppen and Stimmung, among other pieces, as well as a performance of Punkte on August 22, which was his actual birthday.
Carter’s Soundings, which received its first UK performance on August 18 on a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, was written in 2005 as a present for Daniel Barenboim when he left the post of music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since Carter’s intention was to celebrate Barenboim as a musician who regularly directs performances of Mozart piano concertos in which he is also the soloist, he cast the work for piano and orchestra intending that the piano soloist would also be the conductor. It goes without saying that the rhythmic and ensemble difficulty of Carter’s music is greater that that of Mozart’s, making the realization of the idea of a conductor playing along with the orchestra a challenge. Although there are certainly ways that could have been devised to deal with this problem, Carter chose to side step it altogether by, basically, never having the piano and orchestra play together. The piece begins with a piano solo, there is a short interjection by the orchestra, the piano plays a little bit again, then there’s a long stretch of orchestra music; there is a very brief exchange of single notes on the piano (the notes, D and Bb, being, of course, Barenboim’s initials–in fact, D is also the first note of the piece, and Bb the last), and then the piece ends with a piano solo. In a performance where the soloist and the conductor were the same, the skimpiness of the interaction might not be so noticeable, but in this performance where the piano, moved off to the side of the orchestra, was played by Nicholas Hodges and the conductor was Illan Volkov, it was not only noticeable, but a little strange and unsatisfying. I have to admit that I found myself wondering if Carter charges by the minute for his commissions, and how much he got paid for this one.
Although Carter’s program notes didn’t explain the title, I assume that it probably refers to the practice of using sounds and echos to measure underwater distances. In this case bursts of fast notes, usually in the winds, are answered by sustained notes, usually in the strings, outlining the boundaries of the registers used. Carter is a master, and in Soundings, as in all his other music, both the instrumental lines, which are always wrought in a masterly fashion, and the unfolding of the music through time, are always skillful and elegant. There’s no question of it being anything other than first rate music. However, it is clear that the piece is, to say the least, not one of Carter’s most important or profound works. Virgil Thomson’s comment on the Beethoven Irish folk song arrangements seemed applicable here: it’s like getting a letter from somebody who can really write, about nothing in particular.
One of the installments of the Messiaen celebration was the performance of his Messe de la Pentecôte for organ, movements of which were interspersed with movements of the Missa ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ by Pierre de Manchicout. Paul Griffiths’s program note didn’t explain how a piece for solo organ, none of whose movements correspond to the usual movements of the ordinary of the mass, would be called a Mass. I got some enlightenment about this after the fact from my friend Mark Dwyer, who’s the organist at the Church of the Advent in Boston. There is something called an organ mass, which is music intended to accompany a virtually silent, mediatative going through the mass by the priest and the congregation (that would probably have the usual movements); there’s also a tradition in big French churches, Notre Dame for instance, where there are two organs, that the organ at the east end of the church will accompany singing for the ordinary of the mass and the organ on the west end will supply music for the parts in between. The movements of the Messiaen (Entrée, Offertoire, Consécration, Communion, and Sortie) correspond to those parts; so it made sense to alternate them in this performance with movements of a setting of the ordinary. In the case the musical contrast between the Messiaen and Manchicourt was also interesting and, somehow, invigorating. The performances, both by organist James O’Donnell, and the BBC Singers, conducted by Andrew Carwood, were splendid.
Punkte by Stockhausen was scheduled on August 22 to mark what would have been his eightieth birthday. It is a relatively early (1952 ) and much revised (in 1962, 1964-6, and 1993) work for a big orchestra, lasting about 27 minutes. The strongest impression of Punkte is of a very tightly and carefully organized argument, whose logic is convincing and irresistible; the sound of it is always arresting and attractive and appealing (it might not be going to far to say beguiling). The performance was extraordinarily clear and clean and confident and compelling; the playing was beautiful. Hearing it was a bracing and exciting experience.
Punkte was in a concert by the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, conducted by Markus Stenz, which included the Mahler Fifth Symphony and replicated the program of the concert in which it had received its first performance (except for the Stockhausen, of course), which also included four songs by Schubert and Beethoven’s Leonora Overture #3; in this concert there was an intermission after the Mahler, then the Stockhausen, then another intermission, with the Schubert and Beethoven concluding. In the original concert the Schubert songs had been done with piano accompaniment, and performing them that way here might have added another element of timbral variety to what was already an interestingly varied concert. However, for this occasion the BBC had commissioned four composers to orchestrate them: David Matthews (Ständchen, D920b), Manfred Trojahn (Bei dir allein D 866/2), Colin Matthews (Nacht und Träume, D 827), and Detlev Glanert (Das Lied im Grünen, D917). All of the orchestrations were expert and all were a pleasure to hear; mostly they were fairly straightforward. David Matthews, unadvisedly, it seemed to me, added a coda which was in deliberately in a later, Wagnerian, harmonic style. Colin Matthews may have had the hardest assignment, since Schubert’s undulating chordal accompaniment for Nacht und Träume, which in the lower register of the piano all the time, would not work very well in a direct translation from the original to orchestra; it was necessary, therefore, for him to change the figuration into something more idiomatic for that ensemble and to open it up regestrally; what he chose to do, though, seemed a little anachronistic and off the mark, however fluent it was. The singer in the Schubert was Angelika Kirchschlager, joined in the first song (not the very well know Ständchen, but some other one) by the women of the Apollo Voices. Their singing was gorgeous, as was the playing of the orchestra all the way through. It was a genuinely exciting concert.
All of the Proms concerts are streamed as they happen, and are also available on the Proms website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2008/) for a week after the concert. The concerts are also rebroadcast a few days later, and those rebroadcasts are also available for a week, so there are ample opportunities to listen to them.