The Proms: British Pride (Finnissy, Ferneyhough, Birtwistle, Elias, et al.)
One of the most appealing and satisfying things about the Proms is the way that they support and showcase British composers. There are a number of commissions each year (a Proms commission is a sort of right of passage moment for up and coming composers), and not first performances of recent works as well. It is very surprising, and a just cause for sorrow and consternation, then, that the Proms Matinee on August 11 at Cadogan Hall, given by Britten Sinfonia, with soloists Nicolas Hodges, Susan Bickley, and Nicholas Daniel, conducted by Clark Rundell, was the occasion of the first Proms performance in twenty-four years of any music of Michael Finnissy. Finnissy, as well as being one of the most vital and interesting composers alive, is undoubtedly one of the major figures of British music, as a teacher as well as a composer, and the absence of his music from the Proms for so long, let alone his not having received a Proms commission, over all that time is simple inexplicable, as well as being sad for all of us who have lost by such an omission.
The Finnissy work included on this particular concert was the 36-year-old Second Piano Concerto, with Nicolas Hodges as soloist. One of the usual memes having to do with the concerto, that it is a piece opposing the soloist as the one against the many in the orchestra is not exactly operative in this case. First of all the band is a small one, strings and two flutes, and rather than opposing the solo part, they pick out and highlight details in the stream of the work’s continuity which is entirely in the almost ceaseless piano part. Finnissy’s music is often thought of as fearsome, and it can be extremely difficult to play (not that you could tell that from Hodges’s beautiful and lucid performance), but the sound of it, when it’s done well, as it was here, is downright beguiling–gossamer and shimmering, and its continuity, a sort of stream of consciousness, clear and convincing, and easy to follow. It is to be hoped that it won’t be another 24 years before there’s more Finnissy on the Proms.
Hodges also presented the UK Premier of Harrision Birtwistle’s Gigue Machine for solo piano. Making the difficulties and complications (and they are considerable) obvious is one of the points of this piece, which is an exploration and deconstruction of the rhythms and phrasings of the old dance form, and they were presented and dispatched both compositionally by Birtwistle and pianistically by Hodges, with flair and aplomb, and obvious relish.
Brian Ferneyhough is often associated with Finnissy as being a proponent of the new complexity. In this concert is was represented by something a little different, a very early piece, Prometheus, from 1967, for wind sextet. However complex and wild-eyedly cutting edge it may have appeared to be at the time it was written, now it seems to be allied with a lot of the traditional values and virtues of instrumental texture and writing and compositional continuity. It is a very handsome sounding piece, closely argued, and easy and satisfying to follow, and this performance was handsome and sympathetic and compelling.
The concert concluded with the first performance of Electra Mourns by Brian Elias, which was a Proms Commission. Scored for mezzo soprano and English Horn soli with string orchestra, it sets a section of the Sophocles play where Electra mournes her brother Orestes, who, she has just been told, is dead. Reports of his death turn out to have been greatly exaggerated, since he appears in the next scene in disguise, and the story goes on from there with a fair amount of mayhem, but at the moment her grief is inconsolable and her fury at her mother who she holds responsible for the death and her desire for revenge are… well, the stuff of legend.
Elias’s setting of the scene is in the original Greek, which raises the question of what it means when a composer sets a text in a language neither he nor the overwhelming majority of people in his intended audience speak or understand. In any case both of the obligato parts are florid and impassioned and are very effective, and the orchestral writing is striking and compelling. The whole work is admirable and impressive on just about every count. On this program, especially coming as it did at the end of the program, it also seemed very conventional.
On August 12 in the afternoon, back in the Albert Hall, the Prom was given by the National Youth Wind Orchestra and the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain (in that order), conducted by James Gourlay and Bramwell Tovey, respectively.. They presented a program consisting entirely of British Music. The Wind Orchestra, along with works by Vaughan Williams (Flourish for Winds), Holst (the wonderful Second Suite), and Walton (Crown Imperial), played works of Gavin Higgins and Martin Ellerby, the former a BBC Commission for this concert. Much of Ellerby’s career has been devoted to working with wind and brass ensembles and he has written many works for those ensembles. Paris Sketches, written in 1994, is a series of vignettes depicting places in Paris, and is very gratefully and expertly written for the medium. The Higgins piece, Der Aufstand (German for ‘riot’), written in 2012, is a meditation on the causes and consequences of the 2011 urban riots which swept over a number of large British cities. It is by turns brooding and muscularly pounding and rhythmic work, in an extendly tonal style which its composer characterized as “a noisy antithesis to a celebratory fanfare.”
The Brass Band also gave the first performance of a work commissioned for this particular concert, Gavin Bryars’s After the Underworlds. Based on material used in a theater piece/installation in the area of Leeds known as the Dark Arches, the work is a slow and solemn processional which concentrates it musical argument and its orchestral sonorities in the lower reaches of the ensemble, using the higher instruments more or less the way one would use mixture stops on an organ. They also played George Benjamin’s Altitude, which was written in 1977 for the conductor Elgar Howarth. It is a wonderful and striking piece, most notably for its sonorities. All of the other works on the program were orchestrated in the usual way that one would think for this particular ensemble, focusing on the richness it makes possible. Benjamin’s scoring, while being equally idiomatic, causes it to sound much cooler and sparer, possibly by leaving more room in the middle registers. In any case he succeeded completely in conveying the qualities he said in his program note he was after in portraying “an imaginary flight at an extreme height”–“cold, solitary, tranquil and yet swift and mobile.” Leighton Lucas was said by the program note–and there seems to be not reason to doubt it–to have been in his day as well-known and well-regarded as Eric Coates and Hadyn Wood as a composer of light music. His Chorale and Variations was very skillful in presenting several different styles in its course, was timed perfectly not to outstay its welcome, and was a pleasure to hear. John Pickard’s Wildfire, described accurately by its composer as being “a scherzo of great collective virtuosity,” conveyed with great accuracy the fury of an unrelenting forest fire. I find it somewhat difficult to believe that the first performance of Derek Bourgeios’s Blitz, Op. 65, in 1981, as the program book said, “remains the stuff of brass band legend.” It is a very difficult, very fast, and fancy piece with a lot of very trickily rhythmic music, and it’s very effective at what it does. One couldn’t escape the sense with it, as with the Ellerby and the Pickard, and unlike the Benjamin, that it aimed to be the kind of modern music one would be comfortable bringing home to mother. The playing of every thing on this concert, from start to finish was poised and spit-and-polish clean and sensationally vivid and accomplished, and altogether a pleasure to hear.