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Thoughts about Prom 45 (Harvey – Messiaen - Varèse)


Harvey:  Tombeau de Messiaen; Mortuos plango, vivos voco; Speakings

Messiaen: Concert a quatre

Varèse – Poeme electronique; Deserts
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov

Cedric Tiberghien - piano Emily Beynon – flute Alexai Ogrintchouk – oboe Danjulo Ishzaka - cello

Royal Albert Hall – 19 August 2008


This report finds its way into Articles for reasons which will become apparent. Musical Pointers had been denied pairs of press tickets this year under a short sighted policy decision by the BBC, and I am too old to go across London for concerts on my own...

A West Londoner covered this Prom for us, but found himself serously out of his depth and frankly repelled by a lot of the music - - "Perhaps I should admit to being a technophobe, not so much leaving the closet as diving under the bedclothes if electronic music is mentioned. Still everyone has to confront their personal demons sometime and this concert was a useful opportunity - - the evening’s compositions could have been described as relating to the tyranny of the machine. What of the future then – will music continue to be Prospero’s vision of his island of “noises, sounds and sweet airs” or will it be overshadowed by the monstrous Caliban of computer technology?"

He also pointed out that the Albert Hall was so very empty that most of the bars remained closed !

It is appropriate to acknowledge that there are many music lovers who are unready and reluctant to embrace what they see as impersonal electronics into live music making (a parallel in medicine, on TV this week; an agonised discussion about the ethics of robots for brain surgery; a fine thought-provoking and mind-stretching programme; on view for several days still at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00d4bqc/b00d4b1s/).

We missed this ground breaking concert live, but have listened to it on BBC3 Listen Again, which had signal advantages, not least the wide ranging discussions about the music to help orientate listeners.

On my computer the BBC iPlayer sound quality is good enough, even though it is effectively mono, and you have to imagine the surround-sound effect in the Albert Hall, which must have been splendid.

I found Jonathan Harvey's latest major work Soundings engrossing; it needs repeated hearing and no doubt a CD will follow, sad though that the BBC had not been brave enough to film it and put it on TV...

Soundings was premiered in ideal context. Good to have what sounded to have been an ideal transmission of the historic Mortuos plango, vivos voco, long since an established classic of electronic music, constructed from Harvey's small son's treble voice. Messiaen's attractive late unfinished work, which was completed by his widow Yvonne Loriod, ought to have an enduring concert life.

For me, most evocative to hear again was Jonathan Harvey’s Tombeau, composed as his tribute to Messiaen, with electronics and live piano perfectly balanced. That brought back memories of reviewing a Gaudeamus competition in Rotterdam and, indeed, the fickleness of performance competitions. Heather O'Donnell, who failed to reach the finals, impressed us and subsequently became a successful Berlin-based contemporary music specialist, a contributor to Musical Pointers and an e/friend... In 2001 I had written: - - we would certainly have awarded the palm to Heather O'Donnell, who played with easy mastery and very evident enjoyment - - She gave the best performance we heard of the Jonathan Harvey's popular Tombeau for Messiaen, despite the constant balance control by the tape operator, upon which it depends for its full realisation, not having been forthcoming...

Peter Grahame Woolf

See also Musical Criticism's review of this concert