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BBC Proms 4 & 5 September 2022 – Two Concerts: Strong Women

  • September 10, 2022
  • 4 min read
BBC Proms 4 & 5 September 2022 – Two Concerts: Strong Women

Royal Albert Hall

The inclusion of a Proms commission for the BBC Symphony Orchestra from Betsy Jolas was a real cause for celebration. At 96 she is the last of the first generation of true Modernists, though her music is not as challenging as that of Boulez or Elliot Carter, roughly her contemporaries. It was great to see her in the Royal Albert Hall for the world premiere of her bTunes. The hall’s technicians picked her out with a spotlight at her seat so she did not have to trudge round to the stage to take her bow.

Jolas is Parisian but with strong Anglo connections – her father published James Joyce and the family spent the Second World War years in America. Perhaps as a result there is a mischievous wit to her writing, which might have perturbed her more sombre French colleagues. In bTunes, a pun on iTunes, she was challenging social media’s habit of only communicating in brief snippets. There was comedy too, with the leader pretending to start conducting the work before the solo pianist and real conductor rushed on stage: perfect slapstick for the Proms. To my surprise, though, I found that this slightly undermined Jolas’s otherwise tightly argued composition. The solo piano part was oddly unvirtuosic too, so that the main interest was in Jolas’ inventive orchestral combinations.

Imaginative orchestration is also the hallmark of Alfred Schnittke’s 1985 Viola Concerto, heard the night before, but in that case the solo part is not only virtuosic, it is dominant. Schnittke was, for two decades Shostakovich’s successor, both in style and in being distrusted by the Soviet establishment. His way of using the orchestra, though, was much less traditional. In this concerto the violist plays with a harpsichord, celeste, harp and piano behind her, and a string section of only a few violins, cellos and basses to her left. The textures are dark, the music anguished and reflective by turns. It was written when Schnittke himself, like Moscow’s politics, was ill and is one of his most profound works. Tabea Zimmerman was the ideal interpreter, producing a forceful but full-bodied tone that was, as one would expect, beautifully supported by the Berlin Philharmonic.

After Betsy Jolas bTunes, the BBC Symphony Orchestra tackled Mahler’s First Symphony. In terms of precise ensemble and immaculate teamwork they are not as absolutely reliable as the Berlin Philharmonic – there are some rough edges, especially when the orchestra is expanded beyond its normal size with extra players – but they are prepared to take risks. For the first two movements of Mahler’s First Symphony the occasional glitch seemed to make the orchestra unsure but under the taut and clear baton of Karina Canellakis, things settled down. New York born Canellakis is a rising star, now Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic, and the enthusiasm is fully justified. There was genuine tragedy and affection behind the Klezmer satire of the symphony’s third movement, and the sheer momentum and physicality of the last, swept all before it. In the right hands this is one of the most powerful of all symphonies and Canellakis made sure of it.

I wish the same could have been said about Daniel Harding’s stewardship of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony the night before but in almost everything he achieved the opposite. Of course, the Berlin Philharmonica’s playing was silky smooth, polished within an inch of its life, varnished and shiny. The pianissimos were astonishingly quiet, the wind and horn blending immaculate, the strings without a bow hair out of place. With Harding’s wafty and indefinite conducting, though, the symphony was confined to a genteel sitting room. It had all the energy and grandeur of tea and cakes with the parish priest. Bruckner’s music is Alpine. Harding raised it to the height of the South Downs.

Prom 65

Tabea Zimmerman     viola

Berlin Philharmoniker

Daniel Harding           conductor

Prom 66

Nicolas Hodges           piano

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Karina Canellakis       conductor

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Simon Mundy

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