On this day, in 1966, Dmitri Shostakovich turned 60, and the evening brought a birthday concert including the world première of his Cello Concerto No. 2. The piece is well worth singling out for celebration, partly because to my mind it starts to resolve the very real difficulties that confront listeners when they engage with his music on anything more than the most superficial level. Put simply, there’s a problem, and it’s one i mentioned in a recent review (on Bachtrack) of his first Violin Concerto, composed over a decade earlier:
The challenge for audiences is to accept the fact that the composer had essentially just two modes of expression: slow, circling clouds of intense anguish and fast, flippant exercises in military precision. The challenge for performers is to find something fresh and vital within this variegated tautology, in order to locate and extract the essence of a man who, on his own admission, felt a compositional need to “resort to camouflage”.
Without wishing to get into an argument with myself, this problem by no means prevents one from enjoying and, more deeply, from grasping the acute intensity of feeling and distress that doesn’t merely underpin the music but burns within it like a molten core. Yet the problem remains, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, even downright annoyed, in Shostakovich’s company, at how entrenched these twin aspects of his compositional personality seem to be. (It would be arrogant, i think, to criticise his circumspection; one suspects he simply wanted to stay alive.) The Second Cello Concerto, though, moves beyond this, into broader and less certain waters, quietening down the grotesque jauntery in favour of an immense dive into the darkest depths of introspection. Through three movements lasting a little more than half an hour, Shostakovich tapped back into some of the radical spirit of enquiry he explored much earlier in his life (from the time of the Fourth Symphony and earlier), and began to develop a new way forward. Read more
Following on from Emily Howard’s Torus, two further Proms premières have continued the relationship with the orchestral concerto archetype: Bayan Northcott‘s Concerto for Orchestra and Thomas Larcher‘s Symphony No. 2, which began life as one but developed in a different direction. Larcher’s symphony was commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, but far from being celebratory, the piece, dourly subtitled ‘Cenotaph‘, is bound up in thoughts and feelings instilled by the ongoing refugee crisis. Although not programmatic, Larcher has used the symphony to compose an ‘outcry’ at the sense of helplessness he felt.
Three Proms, three world premières, three concertos, one for violin, two for cello, all lasting around 25 minutes. The similarities between them go little deeper than these most basic facts, though, each occupied with a very particular soundworld, aesthetic, and relationship between soloist and orchestra. The results were similarly mixed. Read more
Violin Concertos are a regular feature among the new works premièred at the Proms, and the first of this year’s came from Michael Berkeley, given by violinist Chloë Hanslip with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. Berkeley’s work remains somewhat underappreciated in the UK, despite his prevalence over the years on TV and radio, maybe because he’s viewed as a traditionalist. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is, i think, more subtle. First of all, Berkeley is abundantly open to new ideas, and his support for the music of other composers has been considerable (his tenure directing the Cheltenham Music Festival, where every concert included a contemporary work, is one of the steepest apogees in its history). As far as Berkeley himself is concerned, his work thrives on a balance between a soundworld broadly steeped in richly complex definitions of consonance, from which he is prepared to depart as and when necessity dictates. Aesthetically speaking, Berkeley always makes this tension a comfortable one, in the sense that he is clearly at ease going where he likes (and as such, makes an interesting contrast with James MacMillan, whose work often sounds ill at ease balancing its inherent tendency to convention with extrinsically imposed urges towards modernism). His new Violin Concerto arguably embraces and makes a feature of that tension more than ever before.
It’s Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag) in Denmark today, the closest the country gets to a national day, so i thought i’d mark the occasion with a piece by one of the country’s best-known composers that i’ve been spending time with lately. It’s a re-thinking by Per Nørgård of one of his earlier works, Remembering Child, a viola concerto written in 1986 in commemoration of Samantha Smith, the 13-year old American girl who became famous for contacting Yuri Andropov to express her fears about the possibility of a nuclear war between Russia and the USA. Material taken from that piece, in conjunction with some “nocturnal sketches”, resulted in a new double concerto for violin, cello and chamber orchestra simply titled Three Nocturnal Movements.
Concertos, whether composers intend them to or not, inevitably raise the question of the nature of the relationship between soloist(s) and orchestra, with concomitant aspects of influence and power-play, the individual pitted against the mass. But in the Three Nocturnal Movements, the answer to this question is obvious: from start to finish the two soloists are emphatically at the helm of the entire musical argument. This stems directly from a generalised atmosphere of somewhat lugubrious vagueness, from which even the soloists are not exempt. On the one hand, it’s apparent that violin and cello have something important to say, from the outset tripping over themselves to articulate it (literally, the two lines overlap each other throughout). Yet on the other hand, it’s also apparent that a predetermined sense of direction is seemingly very far from anyone’s minds. Pensivity reigns. Read more
Homage, allusion and evocation have all been heavily foregrounded in many of this year’s Proms premières, and the most recent pair are in no way an exception. Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson has turned to the Greek god Pan for inspiration in his eponymous latest work for organ and orchestra (not, according to Andersson, a concerto) while British Jazz musician Guy Barker has turned to an early 15th century tract classifying the seven deadly sins as the basis for his new trumpet concerto The Lanterne of Light. Read more
The concerto form is a popular one for new works at the Proms, and the most recent, Luca Francesconi‘s Duende – The Dark Notes (originally intended for the 2014 Proms), has, i think, set the bar higher than any of the last few years. ‘Duende’ is a somewhat complex Spanish term implying aspects of heightened emotional response to artistic stimulus, which the work’s soloist, violinist Leila Josefowicz, summarises as a “hypnotic, demonic zone in which a performer loses themselves in the feeling and emotion and in the physicality of what they’re doing […] and it can also be angelic”. To tap into this, and also partly to obviate the pitfall of rehashing conventions, Francesconi has sought to revert “back to primal matter […] something which is hidden energy; [an] unknown, uncharted land which is within each one of us, beyond originality”. Read more