Friday, 24 August 2012

BBC Prom - Max’s Ninth, fine Delius from Tasmin Little and an Impressive Shostakovich Tenth from Vasily Petrenko

Having been unable to get to Liverpool for the World Premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ninth Symphony last June I was glad to get an opportunity to hear it at last night’s BBC Prom.

Vasily Petrenko was again conducting the work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert that included Tasmin Little playing the Delius’ Violin Concerto and a performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony.

At around 25 minutes this is one of Max’s shorter symphonies yet it proved to be a powerful work. From the richly striking opening with timpani rolls and brass dominating, as the work developed there were occasional quiet passages seemingly trying to fight against the orchestral outbursts.

After an upward soaring melody, a brass sextet intervened with a theme that was lighter though apparently ironic in nature. This was brushed aside by swirling strings, woodwind and percussion yet the ironic theme managed to return, seemingly revealing the absurdity of the world.

After a number of struggles between the brass and the rest of the orchestra the music subsides into a quietly mysterious section dominated by the low strings. Woodwind continue this theme leading to a flute solo. The full orchestra returns with momentary interventions of a quiet brass chorale before a lonely trumpet solo is heard against a hushed orchestra. If the earlier ironic brass passages did not clearly show the feelings being expressed, then this solo with military overtones does. This must be reflecting Max’s feelings concerning his country’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The brass sextet enters again before birdlike calls on the woodwind and sonorous string passages lead to more brass but this time plaintive in nature. There are strange shifting harmonies before the orchestra tries to rise to a climax. The work ends quietly with timpani against the low strings.

These are only my first impressions of a work that certainly has great depth and expression. I look forward to hearing the work again which, thanks to BBC iPlayer, I can.

Tasmin Little’s tone immediately brought a poignantly Delian feel to her performance of the Violin Concerto. The work was allowed to unfold naturally with many orchestral details becoming clear. Vasily Petrenko provided a surprisingly idiomatic orchestral sound and was not afraid to point up occasional little flourishes in the orchestra. A perfectly judged coda with the music quietly dying away ended a fine performance of this most elusive of concertos.

Ending this concert with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was entirely appropriate given the use of irony that this composer also used to express his feelings on his own country’s politics.

Vasily Petrenko has already recorded and performed many of Shostakovich’s symphonies including a much praised recording of the Tenth, so expectations were high on this occasion. What is impressive about Petrenko is the way in which he keeps the long line and flow of the music, such as where the first movement builds to its central climax. This was perfectly judged with a beautifully austere coda.

The second movement Allegro showed the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in fine form where the conductor did not allow the music to become too manic. The third movement was riven with an overwhelming emotional intensity and the fourth had an icily cold and intense emotion that was almost overwhelmingly bleak.

Warmth finally started to appear in the final movement but Petrenko kept the pace, such that it had the feel of a tentative, even false, warmth. The tautness of the playing in the coda was impressive bringing to an end a performance of great depth and insight.

See other Prom reviews:

Last Night of the Proms 2012 with Nicola Benedetti, Joseph Calleja and Team GB’s Olympic medallists

A Memorable Concert from Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms

Subtle Saint-Saëns from Benjamin Grosvenor at the Proms

A Battlefield at the Proms

Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music as they should be played

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