One of the themes of this year’s Proms season is the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. As part of this celebration the BBC commissioned Huw Watkins to write The Moon for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales whose Composer-in-Association he has been since 2016. They presented the first performance The Moon, in their Prom concert on August 8. In this performance, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka, they were joined by the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the Philharmonia Chorus. Watkin’s work, setting texts of Shelley, Larkin, and Whitman, begins with the consideration of the moon as an object of wonder observed from the earth, but moves, with a fragment from Whitman about the moon viewing the dead after a battle, to the idea that the moon is an observer of earthly events. In its being a poetic anthology with a structure of seemingly episodic sections that turn out to be part of a tight and compelling overarching form, The Moon is following in a tradition going back to Britten’s Nocturne, and it’s material evokes the sound world of that piece as well. The writing for both chorus and orchestra is always sonorous and skillful. In the hall the lack of clarity of the diction of the chorus was problem, although it was less so in the recording on the BBC website.
The concert opened with a performance of Twill by Twilight by Toru Takemitsu, written in 1988 as a memorial piece for his good friend Morton Feldman. The work had been first presented on the Proms by Tadaaki and this orchestra in 2004. There is speculation that some of the texture of this 13 minute long piece is what the Twill of the title refers to, as well as being a possible allusion to Feldman’s interest in woven carpets. As might be expected, given both the composers involved, the work is meditative and highly non-directional.
The Prom on August 11, presented by The BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Smyon Bychkov opened with the UK premiere of Weites Land (‘Musik mit Brhams” for orchestra) by Detlev Glanert. The piece has a rather traditional shape, involving episodes of ever increasing intensity and speed leading to an explosive climax with a quiet aftermath which has a sense of receding into a distant, ever quieter, infinity. The material is all derived from the first eight notes of the tune of the first movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, and Glanert asserts that there are two voices, his (atonal) and Brahms (tonal), at work throughout the piece. Setting aside the question of exactly what “tonal” and “atonal” might mean, the two voices are not terribly clearly differentiated and neither strand of music is particularly distinctive on its own. All of the technical aspects of the work–the writing in and of itself, the writing for instruments, the orchestration, and so on, are pretty much beyond reproach and the trajectory of the shaping of the piece is clear, convincing, and compelling. So it is in a way extremely successful and impressive. For this listener, however, it is also not particularly memorable.
The first half of the concert also contained Glanert’s orchestration of Einsamkeit by Schubert. Schubert’s work, setting a poem by Johann Mayrhofer, is a long–just over twenty minutes–continuous song in six sections, each reflecting a stage of life. Glanert chose to use a Schubert sized orchestra–double winds, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings–evoking Schubert’s orchestral writing as well. The singer for this work was Christina Gansch. She sounded wonderful. She returned, with a costume change, in the second half, which was the Mahler Fourth Symphony, where she was radiant in the finale.
The Prom on August 6, presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dalia Stasevska, included, along with the Sibelius Karella Suite and the Tschaikovsky Sixth Symphony, the ‘Cello Concerto of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, the centennial of whose birth in being commemorated by several performances on this year’s Proms. The soloist for the concerto was Sol Gabetta. Born in Poland, Weinberg, escaped the German occupation by fleeing to Russia. He was a protégé of Shostakovich, and survived the turmoil of the Stalinist purges, including his imprisonment, to live til 1996. The ‘Cello Concerto, written in 1948 but was held back by Weinberg until 1956 when it was re-orchestrated in performed with Rostropvich as the soloist. The work is in four movements. The first wistful melodic movement, is followed by a sort of klezmerish habanera. The third movement is vigorous and folky and features a long brilliant cadenza. The final movement starts vigorously, but returns to the beginning tune and its reflective character. The performance was eloquent and convincing.
The performances are available for a month on the BBC Sounds website https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097.