The Proms concert on August 17 was presented by The Manchester Collective. The group apparently has different manifestations, but in this case it was an almost twenty-member string orchestra, led by its music director, violinist Rakhi Singh, performing a more usual sort of new music concert, featuring harpsichord soloist Mahan Esfahani. Adam Szabo, the organization’s Chief Executive, also participated as a sort of MC for the evening, introducing and commenting on the program. Like the concert highlighting Abel Selaocoe two days earlier, it had a piece featuring, or at least referencing Jean-Phillipe Rameau, this one being Suite in Old Style ‘The Court Jester Amareu’ by Dobrinka Tabakova. The suite evokes Rameau’s music to “present a series of glimpses of the life of an imagined 18th-century aristocratic household,” including a return from a hunt, a (anachronistic) waltz “through the opulent corridors of the imagined stately home,” a conversation between the solo violist and members of the orchestra in the slow movement, and a fugato fast movement which presents a ‘riddle,’ embodying Rameau’s name in the main melody. The whole suite is symmetrically framed by a fanfare appearing at the beginning and at the end. The solo violist (in this performance Ruth Gibson, playing with enormous bravura), appears from offstage after the fanfare as the returned hunter, who then dominates the action of the rest of the work. The performance was marked by a beauty of sound and a rhythmic verve, as well as a great enthusiasm for the music.
Maahan Esfahani, harpsichordist, who has a prominent part in the Tabakova work, was the soloist in the works that began and ended the concert, the Harpsichord Concerto, Op. 40 (1980) by Henryk Górecki and the Jazz Harpsichord Concerto (1965) by Joseph Horowitz. The Górecki begins with the orchestra playing a slow unison melody over an continuous and unrelentingly frantic stream of notes with very little recognizable pitch in the harpsichord for the entire first movement. By contrast the second movement’s writing for the soloist makes the pitches and the harmonies of the harpsichord clear in a sort of folky dance-like exchange with the orchestra. The recognition that pitches on the harpsichord in modern(ish) music can be not at all clear, and the use of that fact in the realization of the work is one of the chief elements making the nine-minute long piece so funny and enjoyable. By contrast the Horowitz, which is about twice as long, is almost completely lacking in profile and shape, and left this listener with the impression of a more or less endless stream of vague and vaguely jazzish stuff in three movements. In the Horowitz Esfahani was joined by bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer Alan Taylor. Esfanni’s playing in both pieces was magisterial.
Following the Górecki, and before intermission (a concert with an intermission seems to be something of a rarity in this season’s concerts) were The Centre is Everywhere by Edmund Finnis and The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc by Julius Eastman. The Eastman was first performed, and is usually done, as a piece for 10 ‘cellos. This performance was by the whole of the group. Most of Eastman’s scores are general enough in their notation that it’s possible to perform them with different instrumentations than that of their iconic recorded performances. This performance certainly lacked nothing in terms of its concentration, its rhythmic precision and energy, or its forcefulness of character. The brash energy of the Eastman was a striking foil to the Finnis, which preceded it. Starting almost inaudibly, it consisted of shimmering, ever changing, overlapping lines which gradually coalesced into a glowing motionless aggregate. It would be hard to imagine a more lovely or persuasive performance of it.
In fact, every work on the concert including the encore, Orawa by Wojciech Kilar, was given a performance whose obvious understanding of and enthusiasm for the music and generosity of music making was matched by the meticulous preparation and flawless performance. The whole concert was enjoyable and memorable.
The Prom on August 22, presented by The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, consisted of three works of Stravinsky, each of them with title ‘Symphony’, which gave some insight on the development of the composer’s thinking about the term. The concert, which was done without an intermission, began with Symphonies of Wind Instruments in its original 1920 version. The work was not published until 1947, when Stravinsky revised it, mainly its orchestration; the original version was not published until 1991. The piece is not only one of Stravinsky’s most striking and original works, it was also the work with which he crystalized his personal formal constructive methods, which E. T. Cone called stratification, interlock, and synthesis. The work is dedicated to the memory of Debussy, and an earlier small memorial piece which Stravinsky had contributed to the periodical La revue musicale, a sort of chorale which in that version was a little piano piece, appears early on and gradually, for lack of a better term, takes it over, becoming the summation of the work. I think Rattle was trying to play to the plaintive quality of the chorale, but without the crispness and incisiveness , and, frankly, speed, of the other music, that quality doesn’t exactly read, so this performance had a slightly soggy quality about it, despite the fact that in practically all ways, the playing was beyond reproach.
That incisiveness and precision of rhythm and attack was also lacking in the performance of the Symphony in C. By the time he wrote that symphony Stravinsky was very intent on assuming the mantle of the great “classical” composers, and the piece aspires to that kind of structural scope, but without the tonal workings that underlie what those masters were up to. It’s very interesting to experience the first movement’s approximation of what a classical first movement does without those qualities. There is a further consideration of the work in that the first two movements were written in Europe at a time of great stress in Stravinsky’s life due to the deaths of his wife, his daughter, and his mother more or less at the same time. The final two movements were written after he was in the United States, initially to deliver the Norton lectures at Harvard, but eventually, due to, among other things, the second World War, for the rest of his life. He certainly spoke of that creating a divide between the qualities of the first and second pairs of movements. The final movement, which initially seems to evoke Tschaikovsky, is in itself problematic, at least it’s always seemed to me. This performance’s lack of rhythmic drive and attack, pretty much throughout, didn’t help anything. The Symphony in Three Movements, which dates from the very end of the second World War, seems to be a more successful match of Stravinsky’s intention with its character and musical materials, and the qualities of attack and incisiveness and rhythmic dive which the piece needed were there in abundance in the playing, so the performance realized, at least it seemed to this listener, the scope and breadth and particular specialness of the work. It should be added that the audience seemed to have no reservations at all about any of the performances, all of which were enthusiastically, if not ecstatically, received.