Proms 2013: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Frieze (World Première)

by 5:4

It’s rare for the Proms not to feature music by Mark-Anthony Turnage (he’s only been absent from five of the last twenty seasons), and this year’s commission comes from the Royal Philharmonic Society, requesting a work to sit alongside their most famous commission, the climactically hysterical behemoth that is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When pieces begin in such a way as this, it’s always interesting to see how the composer squirms and wriggles around the legacy to which they have been connected; in Turnage’s case, there have been somewhat mixed messages emerging, Turnage expressing both love and dismay at the Beethoven.

In fact, both inspirationally and aurally, Turnage’s new work, Frieze, bears little connection to Beethoven’s Ninth. The primary inspiration—from which the piece derives its name—is the sumptuous Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt, painted in 1902. Turnage’s 20-minute response is cast in four movements, the first of which primes the canvas with broad, arching primordial shapes based on the interval of a fifth (a reference to the opening of the Beethoven). From this comes a string of emphatic melodic intentions, typically angular over hopping basslines. This is familiar Turnage territory; at times, the music is barely a hair’s breadth from jazz and big band hyperbole, both hurried along and brutalised by punchy, hard percussion. It’s a very engaging exercise in complex counterpoint, something that initially appears to be extended in the second movement, nominally a scherzo (mirroring Beethoven). However, fragmentation and hesitation prevent its bullish phrases from attaining a firm foundation, undermined further by some decidedly ominous deep bass glowering. Instead it seemingly turns in on itself, becoming a soft and lyrical chorale of sorts; interspersed with intimate asides, it demonstrates vividly, like so much of his music, how lovely is Turnage’s unique take on harmony, past and present intermingling in passages that move freely between austerity and luxury.

The sudden end of that movement comes as a surprise, which is then compounded by the delicate, folk-like simplicity that pervades the third movement. It grows from a high, searching melody into something rather redolent (both in terms of material and orchestration) of Shostakovich, meandering and rocking back and forth, but always with a strong sense of momentum and purpose. The lyricism is sufficiently strong to withstand a concluding series of harsh outbursts that do little more than instil a little briskness. However, this eruption does foreshadow the final movement, which begins with a similar cluster of heavy thwacks. Rapid and betraying multiple personalities, it even offers some curious oblique glimpses of Walton-like material before retreating into slow, distant, muted music, and a low melodic proposition. It goes nowhere; instead, a vast madcap carnival procession strikes up which, for all its size, turns out to have all the dependability of the Keystone Cops. In this way, Turnage overwhelmingly keeps the spectre of Beethoven’s Ninth (or, at least, its ludicrous final movement) at a far distance, ending Frieze with music that repeatedly trips over itself like a drunkard trying and failing to stand up, stumbling to a conclusion. Hardly an ode to joy—but all the better for it.

Having raised a few eyebrows in his last two Proms premières, it’s gratifying to witness Turnage return to such strong form in this piece. The first performance—which, like the famous première of the Beethoven, also didn’t always seem entirely secure—was given by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Vasily Petrenko.

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.


Mark-Anthony Turnage - Frieze
  • Loved it! (27%, 4 Votes)
  • Liked it (33%, 5 Votes)
  • Meh (33%, 5 Votes)
  • Disliked it (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Hated it! (7%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 15

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