The music of Graham Fitkin has been featured twice this week at the Proms, both occasions in the hands of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. First came L, a work for cello and piano composed for Ma’s 50th birthday (commissioned by Kathryn Stott, who accompanied the performance), while this evening’s Prom brought the world première of Fitkin’s Cello Concerto.
In his programme note, Fitkin claims L is “occasionally kitsch, often brutal and sometimes a little sensual”, but not one of these epithets seems the least bit appropriate. What it is, rather, is spritely, Fitkin adopting a light, springing quality that’s highly reminiscent of Shostakovich, particularly his cello sonata. Fitkin arranges the instruments in perpendicular compositional directions, the piano tackling the vertical, dominated by chords, the cello preoccupied with the horizontal. ‘Obsessed’ might be a better word, though; for a full five minutes it continues almost unabated, its line given direction from the piano, shifting between short repeated motifs, minimalistic circling and more extended passages of melody. An abrupt change of mood, around halfway through, comes as something of a relief; the music momentarily holds, and when it continues, the cello’s slower movement makes for a nice contrast to the ongoing rapidity of the piano. Fitkin makes the music halt even further, causing the cello to remain on a single note through a series of piano chords, although its integrity is undermined by the clear fact it’s simply a means to an end: a return to the mood and material of the opening. L is pleasant enough, but rather too harmless; it would have been nice for one of the duo to have shown some teeth.
At the start of the Concerto – given its world première by Ma with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson – Fitkin makes it abundantly clear that he’s trying to tap into something a bit different. The cello behaves oddly, presenting a succession of wide rising intervals, the upper note of which remains fixed in place; lower strings groan, upper strings hesitate, woodwinds clash—it’s all a world away from the music of L, and a fair distance from Fitkin’s usual fare. This somewhat leaden mood is inviting, suggestive of something dark looming in the wings, and Fitkin allows it to dig in. A rather abrupt crescendo halts proceedings, but they continue untroubled, whereupon the cello’s stark material suddenly turns melodic, matched with a rocking motif from the orchestra. Instantly, the last five minutes of tension evaporate. It’s a paradigm of all that follows.
Fitkin has structured his concerto as a string of episodes, but they come across as so many non sequiturs, linked only by the common thread of cello and orchestra. The piece certainly doesn’t want for variety—although the range of ideas is smaller than first impressions suggest—but the chief problem is the way this clunky structure stunts one’s attempts to engage with the work on a more emotional level. Just as that intense opening material vanished like smoke, there’s absolutely no sense of an underlying direction or development, and while that’s not of itself a problem (Kevin Volans’ Piano Concerto No. 3 demonstrated superbly how composing by the seat of your pants can be deliriously successful), it’s Fitkin’s determination to strike a more deep and meaningful pose that is the work’s undoing. Not one episode seems to make the remotest impact on the music following it; so we witness fanciful dancing passages in the wake of grave, sombre brooding, vast orchestral climaxes that are simply shrugged aside by mere froth. It’s impossible to take anything seriously in such a context as this; nothing sounds as though it’s in its rightful place, and one’s left with a collection of arbitrary, vacuous and ludicrously bombastic installments that fail to convince on every level. i imagine if you just allow yourself to skim the music’s surface, at each moment forgetting all that went before, the Cello Concerto might prove superficially entertaining (there are moments of striking beauty and weirdness to delight in); beneath the surface, however, there’s simply nothing of any consequence.