The Proms–Copland, Barber, Bax, Britten and some more
The logic according to which the Copland Fanfare for the Common Man and the Barber Adagio for Strings make good companion pieces on a concert for Arnold Bax’s Second Symphony and the Bartok Second Piano Concerto eludes me. When you add that that’s just the first two thirds of a concert which also includes the Prokofiev Fourth Symphony, it gets even more curious. That was, however, the content of the Proms concert presented on August 16 by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton. Fanfare for the Common Man is the sort of piece that could be described as Virgil Thomson said about another piece: it’s the perfect hors d’oeuvre: nobody’s appetite was ever hurt by it and nobody ever missed much by missing it; he might have added, in this case, that nobody’s budget was ever broken by rehearsing it. Whatever the merits of the music, and they’re considerable, its title is its big selling point; Copland had good reason to be grateful to Henry Wallace, who coined the phrase, or least brought it to political prominence.
The Barber Adagio has developed a reputation as the saddest music ever and an official mourning piece and just about anything other than a really good and well made piece of music. Andrew Litton, fortunately, didn’t treat it like funeral music; his performance was not overly lush and it moved and had shape. The Bartok, whose soloist was Yuja Wang, had lots of vigor and pep.
The big piece on the concert was the Bax Symphony. One (this one, anyway) hears Bax’s name a lot more often than one hears his music. The Second Symphony is generally in the same sound world as Vaughan Williams, but with a more motoric, driving, maybe even harsh, quality. The agitated quality of this particular work is apparently part of its being a product of his relationship with Harriet Cohen, a pianist who is nowadays known mainly as the dedicatee of the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms of Bartok, but was considerable player and a champion of modern British music, and, apparently, a handful personally. (Glenda Jackson’s last work as an actress, incidentally, was playing Cohen in a short movie by Ken Russell about Bax; this comes to mind as a result of reading in the program that Russell had sponsored the recording of Bax’s symphonies.) The symphony itself is continually interesting and compelling, and well worth hearing.
The Prokofiev Fourth Symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevtizky for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony (along with a bunch of other pieces, including Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms); it’s first version was rather short and consisted of big chunks (directly, apparently) of his ballet The Prodigal Son: either because he was under the gun to get it finished or because he was unhappy with the size of the commissioning fee. In 1947 he revised the work, making it longer, and, presumably, attempting to increase its quotient of socialist realism (which didn’t help him much in the terror the Soviet government unleashed on composers in 1948). The revised version of the piece is about forty minutes long. Its orchestration is brilliant and effective. The first movement, after a lyric introduction, has some manic, almost comic, and appealing music which keeps coming back. I think the Bax is a better piece.
The Prom on August 14, presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus, the Trinity Boys Choir, with soloists Amanda Roocroft, Christine Rice, Alan Oke, and Leigh Melrose, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, of music by Benjamin Britten, recreated a Proms concert that Britten himself conducted in 1963. (There was no apparent reason for why this recreation was being done now). The program consisted of Britten’s Cantata Misericordium, the Sinfonia da Requiem, and the Spring Symphony. The Sinfonia da Requiem has an interesting and rather strange story. It was written in 1939 when Britten was living in the United States, on a commission from the government of Japan, to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese Empire. For some reason Britten thought that a sombre and dramatic work with titles alluding to Christian liturgy for the dead and dedicated to the memory of his parents was just the thing for such a celebration; the Japanese government did not, however, and the piece was rejected on religious grounds. The Sinfonia is a vividly and ferociously powerful piece whose three movements, a slow march leading to an inexorable dance of death and concluding with a consoling final slow movement, move over a single span. It is a quite remarkable piece. On this occasion it received a rather perfunctory, low intensity performance.
The Spring Symphony, commissioned by Koussevtizky in the aftermath of the successful American premiere of Peter Grimes, is a large sprawling jolly piece for three solo vocalist, children’s chorus, chorus and a large orchestra, setting a series poem having to do with spring. Although it is chock full of wonderful music, it has always seemed to me to be naggingly unsatisfying as a whole. The disparate settings are supposed to be arranged into four large movements, but musically they don’t really cohere into anything more than a succession of small pieces, however brilliant any one of them may be. The highlights of the piece include a dramatic introductory choral work evoking the arrival of vernal sun, a setting for tenor and three trumpets of a Spenser sonnet, a setting of a hymn to the morning star by Milton, and the concluding movement, setting a rollicking morris song from The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Beaumont and Fletcher; the least successful part is possibly a clumsy setting of a mangled version of a great poem by W. H. Auden. Still, all in all there is enough really fine music to make it appealing, and, since it requires such large forces, performances or it are not all that frequent, so it’s always good to hear it.
The Cantata Misericordium, written in 1963 to commemorate the centennial of the founding of the Red Cross, sets a text in Latin by Patrick Wilkinson. (The idea of setting a Latin text seems to have been on Britten’s mind for a long time; the Spring Symphony was originally conceived or as a work in Latin; the Cantata Academica of 1959–which, like The Turn of the Screw, makes use of a twelve tone ‘row’–also sets a text in Latin–in that case the charter of Basel University). I’m inclined to think that the cantata is just about a perfect piece; as in many of Britten’s works it is made from a minimal amount of material, ingeniously worked into an extended structure; its rather limited orchestration, for strings with harp, piano, and percussion, is very effective and also ingenious; as in any number of Britten’s works, it does something completely obvious (dramatizing the parable of the good Samaritan–presented in a not specifically Christian manner), but you would never have thought of it.
Britten’s concert in 1963 started with his “orchestration” of the Chacony in g minor by one of his heroes Henry Purcell. For this concert the BBC commissioned a new orchestration by Joby Talbot. Whereas Britten’s version is really just an edited version of Purcell’s original for a modern orchestra, mainly adding dynamics and making decisions about articulations, Talbot’s version really is a reorchestration, adding a full complement of winds and percussion to the strings. Talbot not only reworked the distribution of the notes, he fiddled with them to highlight features of suspensions and other dissionances and making the repetitions of the ground bass more varied; his avowed aim was “to make it sound even older than it is.” It is less audaciously “modern” than the arrangements that Peter Maxwell Davies did in the 60’s of some of the other Purcell pieces, but unlike Davies his goal was not to be cheeky. It works fine
The Prom on August 17, by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, included two pieces of Shostakovich, the suite from The Age of Gold and the first Violin Concerto, with Lisa Batiashvilli, as well as the 1947 version of Petrushka. The Shostakovich Violin Concerto is, it seems to me, one of his very best pieces, unrelenting and harrowing in expression and masterly in every way in terms of composer stuff–including its beautiful orchestration, which, although plenty heavy and forceful, never ever covers the soloist. The performance had the necessary unceasing tension, coupled with a beauty of sound and elegance. W. H. Auden said that masterpieces should be reserved for high holy days of the soul; masterpieces can also by their presence create a high holy day, and Petrushka is certainly one of those masterpieces and had that effect. As good as the performances in the first two of these concerts were, the playing of the Philharmonia with Salonen completely put them in the shadows; all of it had a wonderful vividness of sound and rhythmic vitality and a highly polished style. There performance of the galumphing Polka from The Age of Gold was particularly striking since it had the grace and timing of great burlesque comedians. But the whole concert was memorable from beginning to end.
All these concerts can be heard on the Proms website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms) for a week after the performance. Since the concerts are often rebroadcast, they’re sometimes available for longer.