Proms 2018: Philip Venables – Venables Plays Bartók; Laura Mvula – Love Like A Lion (World Premières); Agata Zubel – Fireworks (UK Première)

by 5:4

The last few Proms premières have been, to put it mildly, an extremely mixed bag. By far the most excruciating of them was Venables Plays Bartók, a violin concerto of sorts by Philip Venables, given its first performance last Friday by Pekka Kuusisto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo. As its title suggests, the piece incorporates music by Bartók, inspired by an episode in Venables’ life when, as a teenage violinist, he had a lesson with Rudolf Botta, playing to him a piece by Bartók. The lesson was recorded, and Venables’ rediscovery of the tape evidently led to a enormous burst of Proustian nostalgia.

His response to this nostalgia has been poured into what he calls a “radio music drama”, a kind of meta-composition in which a medley of Bartók’s and Venables’ music is punctuated by a series of reminiscences from both Venables’ and Botta’s lives – the latter involving imprisonment and torture under the Soviet regime – recounted via prerecorded voiceovers played alongside the music (featuring Venables himself with actor Jock Davies delivering Botta’s words).

Unfortunately, on anything other than the most superficial level, it’s impossible to feel either sympathy or respect for such an overblown compositional catastrophe as Venables Plays Bartók. Quite apart from being a complete musical mess, one of its other main problems is that, aside from the snippets of Bartók, the only substance, the only meaning, the only depth in the piece is contained in those voiceovers – and these are diminished and distorted through an excess of mawkish melodrama. Everything else is mere activity, a mixture of treading water and the most basic, cosmetic clichés, leaving the piece resembling a third-rate, bombastic documentary. Rooted as it is in such personal stuff only makes Venables’ approach all the more squirm-inducing (like being forced to sit through someone’s overlong slideshow of holiday snaps with lengthy accompanying anecdotes); it’s such a shame that the authenticity and honesty of the work’s intended air of tribute is so fatally blighted by its unchecked sense of cloying indulgence. Bad quality new music may not be in short supply, but it’s rare to hear such a shambolically misjudged disaster as this in so public a forum as the Proms. Ugh.

By contrast, Laura Mvula‘s new choral work Love Like A Lion, premièred on Monday at Cadogan Hall by the BBC Singers conducted by Sakari Oramo, could hardly have been more sedate. Setting three short texts by Ben Okri, it’s hard not to regard the piece as being quintessentially English which, depending on your perspective, could be regarded as a pro or a con. Certainly, a lot of it sounds very generic indeed, though the second part is much more characterful, with something nicely hypnotic about the pulsing effect running through the music. Perhaps the most interesting moment comes at the conclusion of the final part, where the voices move beyond being boisterous and hectic and pause for a brief, ecstatic reflection. But aside from this, Love Like A Lion tends to just sound overfamiliar and, as a consequence, impersonal.

In some respects, in terms of both its style and title, Agata Zubel‘s new work Fireworks – a celebration of the centenary of Polish independence – would arguably have been an ideal work for the Last Night of the Proms. These are no ordinary fireworks, however. Receiving its first UK performance by the European Union Youth Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, the general demeanour of the piece is full of in-your-face bluster and swagger, Zubel marshalling its huge orchestral forces towards a number of vertiginous yet excitingly off-kilter climaxes. Even to call them ‘climaxes’, though, implies a kind of structural clarity that Fireworks avoids, opting instead for a seemingly improvised continual switching between ideas, ranging from wild clamorous dances to oblique, almost cheeky basslines embellished with spiralling figurations and rhythmic reports. In such a context as this, they’re not so much climaxes as ostensibly unplanned, crashing pile-ups of multiple ideas. But amidst all the mayhem and momentum, it’s the aftermaths of these immense agglomerations that contain some of the most interesting music in the piece, when it moves away from having a concrete focus, chugging and floating through passages where vagueness and uncertainty reign. It’s this lovely, unstable juxtaposition of elements that enables Fireworks to be genuinely celebratory without resorting to cheap, crowd-friendly gimmicks and tropes, to be immediate but also authentically personal.


Philip Venables - Venables Plays Bartók
  • Loved it! (10%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (15%, 7 Votes)
  • Meh (6%, 3 Votes)
  • Disliked it (17%, 8 Votes)
  • Hated it! (52%, 25 Votes)

Total Voters: 48

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Agata Zubel - Fireworks
  • Loved it! (27%, 9 Votes)
  • Liked it (36%, 12 Votes)
  • Meh (21%, 7 Votes)
  • Disliked it (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Hated it! (15%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 33

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Laura Mvula - Love Like A Lion
  • Loved it! (8%, 2 Votes)
  • Liked it (12%, 3 Votes)
  • Meh (40%, 10 Votes)
  • Disliked it (12%, 3 Votes)
  • Hated it! (28%, 7 Votes)

Total Voters: 25

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Dave Gordon

A serious question: why are you even bothering to review new music at The Proms? Why not throw your weight behind a festival that takes new music seriously?

Chris L

i do agree with the premise of your question, that the Proms doesn’t take new music seriously enough.

It doesn’t even have to be new in the literal sense – Nørgård 3 was premiered around a year before I was born, so why has it taken so long for it to be performed on these shores?! Not only is it, IMO, one of the great symphonies of the past half century, but its musical language should present no difficulties for the average aficionado of, say, prog rock.

It should be no surprise, however, that I agree with you utterly: the shortcomings of the Proms in this respect won’t be remedied in a hurry if no-one publicises what little the festival does do for new music.


I wonder what happened to Mvula’s originally commissioned work “The Virgin of Montserrat” and why it became something else.


At The young euro classics festival of youth orchestras in Berlin this summer there was an audience award for best new composition – and Agata Zubel´s Fireworks won easily as it was about the only seriously modern piece on offer. Many pieces sounded as if 70 years old and others were impossibly cheap (Kristjan Järvi – RUN!) Naturally the audience went wild with the Järvi stuff, but Agata Zubel got them too, and you just had to like her for achieving this without compromising the dignity of her craft.


“one of its other main problems is that the only substance, the only meaning, the only depth in the piece is contained in those voiceovers”

More obviously the music of Bela Bartók is one of the only things of any depth in this piece?!

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