The Prom concert on August 20, by The Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, began with The Foundry (1927) by Alexander Mosolov. This is a four minute bit of Russian avant-garde constructivism, portraying in the most realistic way possible with an orchestra…well, a foundry. It was first performed in Lenningrad in 1927 at a concert celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The Foundry was originally intended to be the first of four movements or music for a ballet, which was never produced, to be called Steel. The other movements, which have been lost, were called ‘In Prison,’ ‘At the Ball,’ and ‘In the Street.’ It became celebrated and much performed in the US and Europe in its day. Henry Wood performed it on Proms concerts seven times between 1931 and 1940. It makes a hell of a jolly industrial racket; the best moments were the two times when the eight horn players stood and blared out a unison ‘tune’ over the general din, the second time to the accompaniment of one of the percussionists whacking away at a metal sheet.
The concert of August 17, which began with the Pärt Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, included the first performance of Huw Watkins’ Violin Concerto, a BBC Proms commission, played by Alina Ibragimova, with the BBC Symphony, conducted by Edward Gardner. Watkins, who is a professor of composition at the Royal College of Music, is at least as well known as a pianist (and he is a formidable one) as he is a composer. In the composer portrait concert which preceded the Prom, he played his Four Inventions for piano, joined one group of students from the RCM in performing his Sad Steps for piano and string sextet, and conducted another group in a performance of Gig, a seven minute work for the same combination as the Ravel Introduction and Allegro.
The Concerto starts with a sort of bang which generates a lot of energy. The soloist alternates playing agitated arpeggiated music which helps to contribute to the maintenance of this energy and longer lyrical lines which float on top of it. The first movement of the piece is the composing out of the gradual unwinding of the activity generated by its beginning, and finally unfolds itself into the second (the three movements are clearly meant to proceed without a break; it was unfortunate for its effect that the performers chose to make fairly long breaks between them), which is a gently rocking song-like piece. The third movement, not completely successfully, it seemed to me, was intended to regain the energy of the first and carry it further before ending once again with a quiet coda representing its final conclusive dissipation, making all three movements one span. The Concerto, like all of the pieces on the composer portrait, was tonal, with lucid harmony and transparent textures and was thoughtfully made and appealing. As an encore, Ms. Ibragimova, who is a champion of Watkins’s music, played the last movement of his Partita for solo violin, which is an attractive, energetic, and snappy piece.
The late night Prom on August 20, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, presented American and English music of a certain persuasion. These composers are often referred to as experimental (Michael Nyman’s book about them is in fact called Experimental Music), sometimes even by themselves. It seems like a lousy description to me. I’m not sure what is better; maybe avant garde, using it in a historical sense. In any case, the concert included works by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Howard Skempton, and Morton Feldman. The Cage, First Construction (In Metal) for percussion ensemble, was written in 1939 when Cage was just getting himself known and was happy to be called, and to call himself, a “percussion composer.” It is a lively and jolly piece, which, as Virgil Thomson said about another piece of Cage’s, makes one feel happy. Cornelius Cardew’s Bun No. 1, was something I looked forward to with interest, since the opportunity to hear almost any music by him doesn’t come along all that often, especially an orchestra piece, live. It is a relatively early piece, written before the time of Cardew’s intense political activism, when he was studying in Italy with Goffredo Petrassi. He undertook this study in order to “learn a feel for the orchestra.’ It was clear that he had had the full treatment from Petrassi and he had got his money’s worth. The piece is confidently in the postwar European serial style; its orchestration is masterly and its continuity is clear and compelling. It was really a pleasure to listen to, possibly as much as anything because, as the title seems to indicate, it didn’t take itself too seriously–just seriously enough.
Howard Skempton was represented by what is, at least so far, apparently his magnum opus, his Lento for orchestra, written in 1990. I have never understood exactly what it is about Howard Skempton’s music that causes some people to hold it in such very high esteem (Calum MacDonald’s program note offered an example of this attitude: he referred to it as ‘grave and radiant,’ and wrote of it’s ‘luminous grandeur’ and ‘piercing beauty.’) It is, in fact, a very nice, I guess even beautiful, piece which does have a certain compelling presence, which it sustains for its thirteen minute length. I think the most interesting thing about it is that it would, in a blind listening, be very hard to date; one might think it was written in 1990, or if you were told it was written in 1905 in Paris, or, given any one of a number of other possible sites and dates of composition, you wouldn’t think that it couldn’t possibly be that.
The concert ended with Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, written in 1975, in which the soloist was John Tilbury. Tilbury not only worked with all of these composers, he was a very close associate, and has become the biographer, of Cardew. It is possible to describe the operations of a Feldman piece of this period, which involves fairly short patterns which repeat over a short and then a long time span, and what seems as though it might possibly be a free-associational way, but it doesn’t really tell you much about how it actually sounds or seems to make its effect, which is always a considerable one. I generally come away from a performance of a Feldman piece thinking of it in the terms people use for Skempton. Given that this is music of such delicacy, it’s almost inevitable that there would be some shortcomings in the performance, in this case balances and the maintenance of the low level of volume at all times, but it was still pretty beautiful and compelling. W. H. Auden said that masterpieces should be reserved for high holy days of the soul, but sometimes a masterpiece will, by the force of its presence, create a high holy day of the soul. This was one of those times.