After a few days’ break, new music returned to the Proms this evening with the world première of Robin Holloway‘s Fifth Concerto for Orchestra, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles. His previous quartet of orchestral concerti have been diverse, making it difficult to predict with any certainty what Holloway would do on this occasion. The beginnings of an answer come quickly; Holloway has jettisoned all conceits of programme music—indeed, he goes to great pains in his accompanying note to emphasise how ‘abstract’ it is. But this is undermined to an extent by the lengthy quasi-synæsthetic description Holloway offers instead, suggesting the five movements explore a variety of colours and hues, which may be abstract in one sense, but in another is arguably no less demonstrative in the way it describes to the listener what the music is ‘about’. This is not a complaint, though, and the prospect of exploring colour in sound – such a richly-mined concept in the 20th century – is an intriguing one, particularly in the hands of Holloway, who always takes such a filigree approach to orchestration (heard so captivatingly in his re-working of Schumann performed at last year’s Proms, the song cycle RELIQUARY).
Speaking in detail about the five movements individually (and they are heard in a different order from that listed in the programme note) seems somewhat redundant, for two reasons, both of which will seem, at first, to be negative. The first is that the differences between the movements are not as great as is suggested by their descriptions; Holloway’s “blackness … settling into still deeper darkness than ever”, heard in the opening movement is dense but does not shy away from drawing on bright, resonant percussion, from the outset onwards. And despite being marked ‘Adagio molto’, the density of the lines, and the way they intertwine as they collapse gives the impression of activity of far greater pace than that tempo indication would suggest. In short, Holloway’s ‘black’ is not necessarily how i hear ‘black’, and this subjectivity is heightened by the similarity in the movements. The second reason is that there isn’t actually anything particularly memorable in the piece as a whole; one is caught up with it while it’s happening, but as soon as the last notes die away, nothing remains apart from feelings growing vaguer with each passing second.
Those remarks seem negative, but Holloway’s skill entirely prevents the work from becoming a bland, forgettable experience. Being called a ‘concerto for orchestra’, it will come as no surprise that Holloway uses the different sections of the orchestra as single entities, blocks of timbre that are made to work en masse. Despite occasional soloistic forays, for the most part these sections work as teams, taking turns to pull forward into the foreground; in practice, the effect is almost like one almighty hocket expressed with huge lashings of klangfarbenmelodie (and Holloway refers to his own Concerto as a “homage in idea, not style” to Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces). This underlying aspect of the piece is complemented with another, material-based, where the work’s assorted, ever-evolving musical ideas regularly seek to ascend to ever higher registers. Together, these two simple notions present a strong sense of unity in the piece, making the similarity between the movements more of an asset than anything else (despite what the programme note says).
Essentially, the Fifth Concerto for Orchestra is one that lives in the moment, jam-packed (almost over-stuffed) with invention, from complex melodic games in the first movement (wherever you glimpse a melody, it escapes as soon as you concentrate on it), to rising string and celesta spirals in the second, to lilting, almost ländler-esque material in the fourth. Climaxes are suggested and averted, one section’s music is ‘captured’ and resonated by others, musical glottal stops break up the flow when least expected… And what’s with all those rather incongruous major triads at the end of most of the movements? For all its surface emphasis, Holloway has created a highly entertaining, even mischievous work; the colour references come across like a red (or is it scarlet?) herring, and one forgets it all soon enough once it’s over, but for 25 minutes it contains not a single dull moment, which is no slight achievement.