On August 13 the violist Lawrence Power and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Susanna Mälkki, presented the first UK performance of Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs… an Amphigory. The title of the work is a reference to the book of the same title by Ulrich Baer, which is a discussion of the varying responses of artists, as exemplified by the poets Baudelaire and Celan, both to the shocks of everyday modern life and to catastrophic historical events: works reflecting desperate seriousness or antic playfulness, but also sometimes combining the two, producing works which are amphigories (defined by the OED as “a nonsensical burlesque composition”).
Neuwirth’s work combines a serious, if not tragic, expressive quality, with a great stylistic variety, ranging from severe, albeit serene, modernity to a what Paul Griffiths in his program note described as “a landscape of brightly colored tonal debris,” somewhat in the manner of the third movement of the Berio Sinfonia, but consisting of generalized material rather than quotations of specific works. The title of the second movement refers to Sadko, the hero of the Russian epic, but the other movement titles, the first “Wanderer,” and the third “..sank to the bottom of the sea…)–“ (the fourth and fifth movements don’t have titles) may imply that the whole work has something to do with that legend. The writing for the instruments, both the soloist and the orchestra, is imaginative and effective, and the balancing of the soloist with the orchestra is controlled in a masterful fashion (including the moments where the orchestra overwhelming the viola seems to be the point).
The whole work is always engaging and powerfully compelling. Neuwirth is yet another composer whose music I have encountered for the first time; this piece makes me want to seek out more of it. The performance of the Neuwirth by Powers and the orchestra was magisterial. The concert also included a performance of the first suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and a magnificent and moving performance of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.
The Prom on August 15 featured the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra with pianist Nelson Freire, conducted by Marin Alsop. After a first half which consisted of the Dvořàk New World Symphony, they presented stirring performances of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1, and then got down to the business of playing works of South American composers, in this case Heitor Villa-Lobos and Alberto Ginestera.
The title of the Villa Lobos piece, Mômoprecóce, apparently is not exactly translatable. It has to do with the suburban children’s festival that parallels the Rio Carnival. Mômo means ‘king’ (of the Carnival) and precóce means “kids.” Mômoprecóce was written in 1929, close to the end of the time Villa Lobos spent in Paris before his return to Brazil; it’s first version was for piano alone, and much of the piano part, we are told, is unchanged in this version. It is a lively and sprawling work in eight movements, which depict either stock characters associated with the Carnival (who resemble commedia d’ell arte characters) of their moods, or, in the later movements, events in the Carnival, ending with “The tumult of the Children’s Procession.” The work, as one might expect, is just brimming with lots and lots local choral, and is it that quality that is its most appealing aspect. The vivid instrumental colors and the high spirits of the piece are its most attractive qualities; the textures are sometimes cluttered and undifferentiated, with everything going on in the middle registers. However appealing it is, by the time the last two movements, which are the strongest, the penultimate one being a rather lovely Ravel-like nocturne and the final one a fast rhythmic free for all, it had already, for this listener, out stayed its welcome.
Ginestera was represented by a suite from his second ballet Estancia, which was written in 1941 for Lincoln Kirstein’s American Ballet Caravan, but, as the company was disbanded soon after that, was not performed until 1952. The ballet depicts scenes of daily life on the pampas, and its plot involves a city slicker trying to win the love of a country girl by proving himself on the ranch. The four movements are packed with more local color, this time Argentinian rather than Brazilian, ending in a fast rhythmic Malambo. It is all done with considerable skill, and, at least at this point in this program, not too memorably.
The São Paulo Orchestra is a formidable group that makes a beautiful and impressive sound and plays with enormous accuracy and verve. Their encore, “Pé due Vento”, from Suite Popular Brasiliera by Edu Lobo, orchestrated by Nelson Ayres, displayed with enormous flair a breathtaking instrumental and rhythmic virtuosity, perhaps most of all from the bassoons, but nonetheless with lots to spare all around. There seemed to be a large contingent of Brazilians, judging from the Brazilian flags that sprouted out of the audience towards the end of the concert, who had come to root for the home team band; in any case the audience went wild for everything
Proms broadcasts are available for listening for seven days on the bbc iplayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/radio.