Rudolph Botta, as Philip Venables wrote in his program note for his concerto Venables Plays Bartok, had a remarkable life. Born in 1918, Botta pursued, as a teenager, two passions: playing the violin and fencing. He served in the Hungarian army during the Second World War, then was a member of the anti-Soviet resistance. He was sent by the Soviets to a labor camp in 1952, and during the time that he was there, was deliberately tortured and maimed so that he could no longer play the violin. After his release from the camp (as part of an amnesty following Stalin’s death), he started a music school in his hometown of Bonyhád. He was a leader of the 1956 Hungarian revolution before fleeing to the United Kingdom with his family. After a short stint as a window cleaner, Botta became a teacher at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now called the Royal Northern College of Music), where he was influential on the lives and training of countless violinist, including Marilyn Shearn, among whose students was Philip Venables. In November of 1993, when the young Venables was fourteen years old and preparing for his Grade 6 ABRSM violin exam, Shearn took him, along with three other pupils, to play for Botta. Twenty-five years later, when helping his parents move house, Venables discovered a copy of a long forgotten video tape of the masterclass with Botta which his teacher had made. That rediscovery caused Venables to begin a process of research involving Botta’s life and a consideration of the intertwining of lives, musical and otherwise, of teachers and students, and, eventually to the composition of Venables Plays Bartok, a work which could be considered a violin concerto, but which he also describes as a ‘radio music drama’. A BBC commission, it was given its fist performance on the Proms concert presented on August 17th by BBC Symphony, conducted by Sakari Oramo.
The framework for Venables Plays Bartok is eight short pieces for violin by Bartok, including the Six Rumanian Folk Dances, one of which, Evening in the Village, Venables had played for Botta in the masterclass. In between these pieces of Bartok’s are swaths of music, some of which are orchestrations of those pieces, some stretches of original music based on the material of the Bartok, and recordings of the voices of Jot Davies and Venables reading excerpts of Botta’s unplublished memoir, Under a Cloudy Sky, and other texts which trace the histories of the lives of Botta and Venables which converge at the masterclass, and their further confluence with the history of the making of this work. The interaction of Bartok’s music with Venables’s, and of recorded spoken text, both the excerpts and bits of the actual coaching with Botta, with one aspect prominent and then receding as the focus shifts to another (at one point I found myself remembering Stravinsky’s comment about the first time he heard Pierrot Lunaire–that he wished the singer would shut up so he could hear the music–and then at another regretted the music’s making it hard to understand the speaking), the clarity of the time shifts in the stories, and the control and balancing of density of textures, is always engaging and interesting, but the unfolding of aspects of one person’s life and how it and he then go on to impact other lives in various ways is completely compelling and very moving. It was impressive in its conception and its masterly realization, and completely satisfying as a total experience.
Pekka Kuusisto, the soloist, was also a sort of master of ceremonies and guide through the piece, introducing and explaining it at the beginning and announcing each of the Bartok pieces as they appeared. His playing was pretty much perfect. It is common on Proms concerts for the soloist to offer an encore, usually some fancy show piece. Kuusisto’s was perfectly in keeping with the nature of the Venebles work. With the, apparently, extemporaneous, assistance of members of the orchestra, he sang and whistled a Swedish song from the nineteenth century called “We Sold Our Homes” concerning the mass migration of Swedes to the United States, introducing it in a way that made its connection to current immigration issues explicit. It was, as a political statement and as an aesthetic experience, hardly less powerful or enthralling than the Venables.
This concert, along with all the other Proms concerts, is available for listening on line for a month at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bf4kvq.