The most recent premières at this year’s Proms have been a pair of arrangements, the first, a suite formed by Robert Ziegler from Jonny Greenwood‘s score to the film Norwegian Wood, the second, a new rendition of Henry Purcell‘s Chacony in G minor, by Joby Talbot.
Greenwood’s music was performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra (with which he is Composer in Association), at last Friday’s Prom dedicated to film music. The augeries were ambivalent; hitherto in this concert, despite apparent energy in spades, the orchestra had proved itself lacklustre and even scrappy under Keith Lockhart’s direction. A notable casualty was John Williams’ Star Wars music, the opening of which was a mistimed disgrace, while the rest became a bombastic showy affair far, far away from the raw power of the original. On the other hand, the quieter music seemed to suit everyone much better, which boded well for Greenwood’s restrained, even reticent soundtrack. It’s not accurate to describe this Suite as an ‘arrangement’; Robert Ziegler, the original conductor of Greenwood’s score (and also for his music for the film There Will Be Blood), has simply extracted three movements to form this Suite: ‘もう少し自分のこと、きちんとしたいの’ (‘I want to get a little better’), ‘草原、風、雑木林’ (The Meadow, the Wind, the Trees’) and ‘直子が死んだ’ (‘Naoko Died’). Ziegler’s own contribution seems to be limited to a small extension of the opening material in the first movement; beyond that, any additional tweaks are too subtle to be noticeable.
All reservations evaporated in moments; the performance was superb. ‘I want to get a little better’ sounded as hypnotic as ever, its basic strand of material cycled round and round at different speeds, woven into an ever more tightly-packed texture. The entrance of the lower strings, a few minutes in, is magical, at first quieting the anxious tone of the upper strings, before getting caught up in their material as well. It’s a case of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it with central movement ‘The Meadow, the Wind, the Trees’; for barely more than 90 seconds a high violin note slowly starts to become a melody, while beneath, a series of rich string chords shift and alter. One’s attention is constantly pulled between the two, which feel connected yet somehow independent. Its brevity is no bad thing; as it is, it becomes a sliver of beauty; a lesser composer would seek to draw this out for considerably longer. Ziegler’s choice of ‘Naoko Died’ to conclude the Suite is a bold and surprising one, abruptly changing the mood from overt lyricism to dark and unsettling texture music. The orchestra tackled the gear change effortlessly, distant bass drum notes triggering a weird network of double bass grindings. Particularly outstanding were the movement’s two soloistic passages, for horn and cello; both emerged as, respectively, desperate and plaintive outbursts from a music that seemed impelled to slide ever down into a dark nadir. Personally, i’d have liked to hear the Suite conclude with ‘クォーター・トーン・ブルーム’ (‘Quarter Tone Bloom’), a rich, at times Messiaenic, movement that would have been a rather glorious conclusion. As it stands, though, it does at least include the best of the soundtrack, demonstrating the range of moods and influences that Greenwood has sublimated into his score.
Joby Talbot’s arrangement began yesterday evening’s Prom, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. Talbot self-effacingly gives full credit to Purcell, describing the music as “fiendishly intelligent and dense”, on which Purcell “brings every ounce of his genius to bear”. But one could and should say much the same of Talbot’s arrangement, which is a masterpiece both in terms of orchestration and compositional timing. The essence, of course, is simple enough; Purcell’s basic material—a triple-time bass melody (repeated with elaborations above, thus becoming a Chaconne)—revolves 14 times. Talbot exercises patience with the orchestra, opening with winds and bells, slowly working in the upper then lower strings, adding weight with the timpani. At this point, just as Purcell himself was wont to do, Talbot tilts the harmonies obliquely, adding spice to the feeling of regularity and thereby momentarily throwing off the listener. He allows himself a few moments of ornamentation, but avoids becoming anachronistic by matching them with glissandi. He also holds back the music’s development, returning to the wind and bells that opened the piece, and even retreating further, presenting the barest shape of the material. and then it comes as if from nowhere, a vast orchestral tutti, crowned by an emphatic brass contour. It’s exciting enough, but what follows this climax is breathtaking. Talbot immediately quietens everything, staccato woodwind tracing the outline of the melody. Ever so gently, the strings take over, softening with every passing moment; and the final iteration goes almost beyond my power to describe: flutes, string tremolos, sliding violin harmonics, almost inaudible chimes, and the most spine-tingling tam-tam strike you’ll ever hear—a staggeringly beautiful conclusion to an unforgettable arrangement.