Thomas Adès is a phenominal musician. The depth of his musical intelligence and power of his insight are impossible to miss. They knocks you down, jumps up and down on your chest, and spit in your eye, and it’s enthralling. The performances of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony and the Prokofiev Classical Symphony which began and ended, respectively, the Prom concert on August 15, on which he conducted the Britten Sinfonia, were both dazzling and incredible satisfying as musical experiences. Given all of that, I would very much like to like his music, and I’ve tried, but, to use a phrase in circulation in American politics these days, I’m not there yet. Certainly not with Lieux retrouvés, the work for ‘cello and orchestra, in which he and the orchestra were joined by Steven Isserlis, which received its UK premiere on this concert. Originally written as a ‘cello sonata in 2009, it was orchestrated early in 2016. As one would expect, the musical means brought into play are at the very least impressive, and there’s nothing lacking in its production. But there is a certain sameness to the movements which apparently are meant to be varied, and the profile of the material is a little flat and indistinguishable from one movement to the next, and not terribly distinguished. Even the deliberately ungainly cancan that concludes the work isn’t that much different really from the evocation of mountains (or of mountain climbing, considering the difficulty of it), or even the (visionary?) fields… Francisco Coll’s Four Iberian Miniatures, for violin and orchestra, with Augustin Hadelich as the soloist, also has technique and polish to spare, as well as color, both orchestral and geographical. It’s faultless, and ultimately not as much fun as it tries to be.
The Prom presented on August 16 by the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, included the first London performance of Berceuse for Dresden by Colin Matthews, in which they were joined by ‘cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. The work, which is a sort of one movement ‘cello concerto, was commissioned to commemorate the rebuilding and reconsecration in 2005 of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which had been destroyed by Allied bombing in February or 1945. Its material, both melodic and harmonic, is based on the sounds of the eight bells in the church. The ‘cello plays, almost continually, an impassioned and soaring line, under and around which swirls an increasing animated and accelerating texture which eventually culminates in a recording of the bells themselves. Especially in the Albert Hall, where there were coming from all directions, this was extremely effective and affecting. The Matthews and the Berlioz Overture to King Lear were the first half of a concert which concluded with Das Lier von der Erde by Mahler (whose first movement was presented in a reorchestration by Matthews–trying to keep the orchestra from covering up the tenor; there is some conjecture that Mahler would have done some tinkering with it had he lived to hear the piece). I found myself wondering how bad a performance would have to be before the piece would not have its overwhelming effect. This was a very very fine performance, so there was no finding out about that question this time. The excellent soloists were Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano, and Gregory Kunde, tenor.
That Prom was followed by a late night concert given by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, of music by Bach (three of the motets) and works of Arvo Pärt: Nunc dimittis, from 2001 and Triodion, written in 1998, the latter getting its first performance at the Proms. Pärt’s music and its particularly personal sound are both well known, and, for many good reasons, admired. The pieces on this Prom offered no new information about that, merely confirming it. One could not wish for better performances, either of the Bach or the Pärt.
The main business on the Prom on August 17, presented by The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with Martha Argerich as soloist, was music by Lizst (Piano Concerto No. 1) and Wagner (several orchestra excerpts), all of which received magisterial and moving performances. That was all preceded by Con Brio: Concert Overture by Jörg Widmann, with which there was very little connection, either thematically or in character. Widmann was one of five composers commissioned by Mariss Jansons to write pieces “reflecting on” specific Beethoven symphonies; his particular task was to deal with Symphonies 8 and 7. The connection in fact seemed a little tenuous, but the piece was lively and engaging, elegantly and very effectively orchestrated, and thoroughly professional in every way, with near-quotes and maybe even quotes here and there from the works being reflected on. I was reminded of what Virgil Thomson wrote once about the Egmont Overture: it was the perfect hors d’oeuvre: nobody’s appetite was harmed by it and nobody missed much by missing it. That seemed to be exactly the spirit in which it was offered here. This was the first performance on the Proms of the revised version; the original version had been played in the 2009 Proms. The playing of it was in every way beyond reproach.
On August 19 the BBC Symphony Orchestra, along with the BBC Singers, and a cast featuring soprano Karita Mattila, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, present a concert performance of The Makropulos Affair by Leoš Janáček. An opera about the effects and costs of excellence and the diva who goes through three hundred years and innumerable lovers and admirers while obtaining it, the opera is captivating and full of wonderful music, and, over the course of its three acts builds a dramatic and music trajectory that is increasingly intense and ultimately overwhelming. Presumably the unique texture and particular rhythmic quality of Janáček’s music is related to that of the Czech language, but they’re noticeable here, especially for the role they play in driving the span of the piece. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid and compelling performance of the opera, even staged, than this one. Matilla, who was at the center of it all, was spell binding.