Tonight’s Proms première found itself nestling among an assortment of contemporary works, each vying for attention. Given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oliver Knussen’s direction, the concert opened with Stockhausen‘s 1977 work Jubilee, a 16-minute work hysterically described by some as an ‘overture’ (!!). Of course, it’s nothing of the kind, but is rather a broad orchestral tapestry, burgeoning with richness, fragranced heavily with the aroma of ritual. It begins, and remains for some time, with a fairly solemn demeanour, although the incessant high percussion tantalises and hints at more beyond. As it develops, increasingly soloistic strands start arcing out from the texture, highly virtuosic, and the latter half of the work seems to pass in almost no time at all, growing in scale and scope with each passing minute, culminating in a vast hymn-like mass of sound that is utterly thrilling. A splendid example of Stockhausen’s well-worn ‘formula’ compositional approach in action.
The second part of the concert opens with a genuine overture: Harrison Birtwistle‘s Sonance Severance 2000. The material seems to want to spill beyond its brief three-minute span, hefty deep layers muscling their way forward as a filigree display of melodic fireworks bursts in all directions.
And then comes what presenter Martin Handley generously calls the ‘meat in the sandwich’, the London première of Colin Matthews‘ Violin Concerto, a work that was first performed last September in Birmingham; the remarkable Leila Josefowicz again takes centre stage. The start of the first movement is, to my mind, redolent of Alban Berg (although i’m not thinking specifically of his violin concerto), casting ominous shadows in the space, its deep tolling sounds establishing a rather unnerving atmosphere (Matthews marks it ‘Sognando’ (‘dreaming’), so perhaps there’s a hint of nightmare here). In no time at all (rather too quickly), faster movement emerges from the darkness, the violin part frantic with a kind of nervous energy, propelling the work for a while before sliding back to its opening sedate pace. By now the violin line has calmed into something more plausibly melodic, although no sooner does it do that than the orchestra starts getting restless, their support promptly disintegrating and forcing the violin into a surprisingly bland series of meandering arpeggios, bringing the movement to a weird close.
The second movement opens similarly to the first, the orchestra not quite so looming, but heavy, melancholic and subdued, repeating notes obsessively. The violin, though, is much different, finally setting out on an expansive, rising line that really does sing (which, together with the chiming accompaniment, brings to mind moments from Schnittke’s first violin concerto). Eventually, a pulse is established, woodwinds rocking back and forth, rather insistently, whereupon the heavy brass initiates a ponderous eruption that makes one realise the solo violin is entirely (if momentarily) lost. It attempts to find its place, only to be heaped upon by the orchestra once again, and this time it’s a rather dull collection of double- and triple-stops that ensues. Whereupon there’s frenetic movement everywhere, but rather than build to a climax, the orchestra seems to collapse into a rather rude heap, the violin flopping on top. It’s a strange piece; Matthews seems to have complete command of his argument for about two-thirds of each of the movements, after which things rather go to pot, seemingly relying on clichés and effects rather than real substance. But it’s worth hearing, as the openings of both movements are often stirring and exhilarating.
Last up in this portion of the concert is Luke Bedford‘s short work Outblaze the Sky. The opening presents a queasy contrast of transfixed chords superimposed with swooping glissandi, an idea taken slightly too far, as it quickly starts to pall. Aside from this, Bedford creates a very attractive texture, glowing with tremolos and flutter-tonguing, in a kind of 21st century impressionism. It’s all a bit superficial, though, and the orchestra’s occasional surges forward seem to happen at rather arbitrary moments (which can work perfectly well; Richard Strauss’ sunrise in the Alpine Symphony takes one by surprise but seems entirely right). The conclusion’s rather nice—it just about approximates a blaze—but again, i didn’t find it terribly convincing.
The last contemporary item in the concert was Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s highly amusing Rheinische Kirmestänze (Rhine-Church Festival Dances). Anyone familiar with Zimmermann’s music will be surprised at the mood of these delightfully earthy little confections, each piece throwing around the folk-like melodies with utter abandon, tonalities clashing (think Milhaud) with a substantial glint in its eye, although thankfully with none of the rather unpleasant sarcasm (masquerading as irony) that often accompanies such pieces.