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Berlioz, Michael Jarrell and Beethoven

Berlioz: Overture: Les francs-juges (1826/1828)

Michael Jarrell: Sillages (2005/2009) [Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/BBC commission: world première of expanded version]

Berlioz: Symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840)

Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, 'Eroica' (1803)


Emmanual Pahud – flute; François Leleux – oboe; Paul Meyer – clarinet; BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thierry Fischer

Prom 25: Royal Albert Hall 3 August 2009
Prom 25: Royal Albert Hall – 3 August 2009

Premières are always important occasions, all the more so when given within the context of a normal concert and are not ghettoised in purely new music events. I feel that there are two reasons for this: firstly, hearing the new piece alongside established works one can judge the quality of the new piece and hear it as part of the evolving tradition of musical composition and secondly, and this is not a joke, one can tell if it was performed well – if the orchestra plays Beethoven well then one can compare the quality of the performance. It’s rather like in the 1970s, when a composition competition was announced the organiser stated that electronic works were welcome BUT, and I have never forgotten reading this, “notated scores must also be submitted to show musical literacy”!


Michael Jarrell’s new score Sillages passed the test on all counts. In two parts – both containing fast and slow music – here is a work which is rich in lyricism, well laid out for the three soloists, and with a very full orchestral palatte. My only reservation was that, as with so many contemporary works, there was far too much percussion which, in the louder and faster passages, tended to overpower the orchestra and obscure details. Why do composers insist on incorporating such a large percussion section? Jarrell was at his best when using the section in delicate highlighting passages – a brief sound of a bowed tam tam or a gentle stroke on the triangle can be more effective than all the hammering and bashing of the full complement of instruments. That said, this is a very worthwhile piece and it received a stunning performance. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste – how could a new work appeal to the whole audience on first hearing? – but it is to be hoped that many went home and over the next seven days take the chance to listen again, via the BBC iPlayer, and get to grips with the work.


Having written that it is good to hear new music within the context of a “classical” concert of established works, I am not quite sure how I can justify that statement in view of Berlioz’s magnificently insane, not to mention insanely magnificent, Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, which is certainly not a repertoire piece. The sight of eight military drums and eight drummers at the front of the stage, in front of a wind band which contained eight each trumpets and trombones, not to mention four tubas, four bass drums and four sets of cymbals (eight players in all)! If ever a building was made for this work the Albert Hall is it  -  the sound filled every corner. The first movement, which takes half the playing time, is a large scale funeral march complete with drum tattoos, woodwind shrieking like banshees and huge brass and percussion interjections. It was an awe inspiring sound indeed. The slow Oration, the middle movement, featured a very eloquent solo from principal trombonist Donal Bannister and the final Apotheosis rung the rafters! This is a work which, let’s be honest, verges on the very edge of banality but Fischer and his players gave such commitment to their performance that they made it sound like a piece to rival the Symphonie fantastique! It brought the house down, and, really, with such a performance, not to mention the visual aspect, how could it fail?


The evening started with a brisk and well played early Berlioz Overture and ended with the great Eroica Symphony. Here, Fischer employed fast tempi, slightly too fast for the funeral march which lost much of its eloquence and majesty, but which fully suited the other movements, especially the rather weak finale which, let’s be honest, needs all the help it can get.


This was an exciting and very satisfying concert with superb playing and intelligent direction throughout.


Antheil, John Adams, Bartók and Stravinsky

George Antheil: Ballet mécanique (1923/1926 rev 1953)
John Adams: Grand Pianola Music (1982)
Bartók: Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937)
Stravinsky: Les noces (1914/1917 orch 1923)

Tatiana Monogarova – soprano; Elena Manistina – mezzo–soprano; Vsevolod Grivnov – tenor; Kostas Smoriginas – bass; John Constable; Alissa Firsova; Rolf Hind; Tom Poster; Ashley Wass; Llŷr Williams; Philip Moore and Simon Crawford-Phillips (pianos), Colin Currie; Sam Walton (percussion), BBC Singers (chorus master: Stephen Betteridge)/Synergy Vocals/London Sinfonietta/Edward Gardner

Royal Albert Hall Prom 33 9 August 2009

There are some works, such as George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique, which are often read about but which are seldom heard. We’ve all read about the scandal its première caused in Paris, with scoring which included aeroplane propellers and so on. I am sure that there were many at tonight’s concert who felt, as I did, that this was too good a chance to miss. Visually, with its twelve percussionists and four pianos it looked as exciting as we were hoping it would sound but looks can be deceiving. This performance turned out to be of the watered down 1953 revision. By the 1950s Antheil was living in California writing film scores – Angels Over Broadway (1940), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) (staring the unlikely partnership of John Wayne and Oliver Hardy), The Sniper (1952) and The Pride and the Passion (1957) to name but four of the best – and his style had mellowed from the radical chic of his avant garde days in Europe.


I have no problems with his easier style but when brought to bear on one of the most notorious compositions of his earlier career one must fear the worst, and worries were well founded, for here was a piece so tame and dull in its sound that it was quite uninteresting. That the players really threw themselves into the work was praiseworthy but I was left with the feeling that it simply wasn’t worth it. Worst of all, what I suppose was a recoding of aeroplane noises was all but inaudible so even this bit of sensationalism was lost to us. Hind, Constable, Wass and Poster simply couldn’t rescue what was, in the end, a damp squib of a piece.


How refreshing, then, to turn to Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, with its simple lines, easy working out of material (as much as his minimalist style allows for development) and pleasant lyricism. This is for me Adams’s masterpiece, written with such sincerity and obvious love for the material that it cannot fail but to communicate. The first movement, for two pianos and orchestra without strings, consists of an Introduction and Allegro – the opening section being of the most delicate fairy music – and the fast section forthright and brassy. This winds down into a slow movement of great simplicity and beauty. If the finale perhaps lets the piece down – the “big” tune isn’t really big enough to carry the musical argument – then at least the composer gives us a true virtuoso Concerto ending. There’s nothing radical about the harmonies in this work, indeed Beethoven’s op.58 is as far as Adams goes, but you’d never know this from the context of the music for it sounds as new. Constable and Hind were the admirable soloists


Bartók’s magnificent Sonata for two pianos and percussion was given a performance of blazing intensity by four of the best young players around. Philip Moore and Simon Crawford–Phillips make a partnership of dazzling virtuosity and they always display subtle insights into the music they perform and tonight aided and abetted by two of the best percussionists working today – Colin Currie and Sam Walton – everything was in place for a performance which will long live in the memory.


Stravinsky’s ballet Les noces brought about a rousing and rollicking conclusion. Here was everything that was missing from the Ballet mécanique – life force, energy, brilliantly original scoring and a truly individual voice; it also sounded that four pianos were really necessary. Tatiana Monogarova was excellent in the unforgiving soprano part and Poster, Wass, Williams and Firsova was a dream team at the pianos. The BBC Singers, if a bit po–faced as the wedding guests and the assembled percussion of the London Sinfonietta had a really good time. Edward Gardner directed with a firm eye and ear on the proceedings.


David Bird


Hear Rex Lawson discuss the Pianola on line (for a week or so) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00m1b01/BBC_Proms_2009_Part_1/
at 0.20.30 - 0.27.00 and 1.58 -2.03 [Editor]