Proms 2022: Julian Anderson – Symphony No. 2 ‘Prague Panoramas’ (World Première)

by 5:4

Almost exactly 10 years ago, i coined a new adjective, ‘Faberian’, in reference to Faber Music, to summarise what i later described as “the kind of thing one hears all too often in works from the more mainstream protagonists of that particular publishing house”. On that first occasion i elaborated the word as meaning “hectic but directionless”; looking back at some of the other times i’ve used the word since, the definition of Faberian would be a combination of the following:

“the acceptable face of orchestration, incessant hopping woodwind parts, strings and brass capturing notes and holding them, then a melody emerging to offer something in the way of contrast, all wrapped up in a cosy kind of consonance … it’s predictable, it’s safe, it’s easy, it’s hackneyed and it’s very, very boring indeed”

(Colin Matthews, Turning Point)

“textbook angular melodies with woodwind pointing”

(Gavin Higgins, Velocity)

“A trivial escapade through clichéd territory … a fast octave-unison melody with assorted accents”

(James MacMillan, Symphony No. 4)

“forgettable froth”

(Julian Anderson, The Comedy of Change)

“sits in a furrow that’s been excessively ploughed before … [with a] gaudy sense of technicolor clarity”

(Tom Coult, St John’s Dance)

“repetitive, angular staccato … Like Stravinsky but shorn of all wit or seductive charm”

(Julian Anderson, The Imaginary Museum)

“a … dollop of yesteryawn, all telegraphed structures and ideas outlined in the aural equivalent of black marker pen”

(Colin Matthews, Contraflow)

“incessant outlining of the vocal line and also in the embellishments and accents surrounding and punctuating it”

(Luca Francesconi, We Wept)

“a terribly tired collection of … staccato and pizzicato plinky plonks – about as overtly mainstream as it’s possible for new music to get”

(Daniel Kidane, Woke)

“a mix of over-meticulous, upbeat, octave-doubled and -punctuated primary-coloured fanfares and twiddles”

(Haukur Tómasson, In Seventh Heaven)

It’s interesting to note the presence of Julian Anderson on a couple of occasions, especially as one of those works was a Proms première. Last Friday’s Prom included another Proms première from Anderson, the first complete performance of his Symphony No. 2. On this occasion, Anderson has chosen to be ‘inspired’ by a series of panoramic images of Prague by the renowned Czech photographer Josef Sudek, composing this work as a response, hence its somewhat on-the-nose subtitle, ‘Prague Panoramas’.

Julian Anderson

As i’ve pointed out previously, Anderson actually defected from Faber Music in 2014, but nothing has changed. So it’s entirely appropriate that i should have begun this article with a lengthy requoting of things i’ve said before, as this is precisely what Anderson has (in)effectively done in this ‘new’ symphony. There are three movements, the first characterised by nominally energetic music with periodic accents, broken up by brisk, nebulous material and some contrasting episodes of pseudo-pretty plinkyplunk. Its assorted ideas come and go in a way that doesn’t seem remotely focused, as if laying out thoughts to be expanded upon later (but which aren’t).

The more lengthy middle movement is Anderson returning to the world of his godforsaken 2017 Proms work The Imaginary Museum: floating vagueness, populated by trills and twiddles, dominated here by breathy flutes, with a classic Faberian™ melody appearing partway through, as always with its notes heavily reinforced. The very mild climax suggests the piece might finally contain something to focus upon – but it turns out to be a damp, flaccid, televisual fizzle.

Both of those first two movements were premièred earlier this year, so the only thing making this a première of any kind was its hitherto unheard final movement. It actually seems potentially promising in its opening moments of low, quiet, indistinct growling. Yet what follows is another carbon copy retread of traditional Faberian family values: endless spritely staccatos, peppered with whip cracks; rhythmic lolloping, the instruments flowing and blurting (at times sounding remarkably like cartoon music); with a familiar schizoid demeanour, veering into bursts of ostensible lyricism, its flow coated in sugary glitter. All of it, whether crash-bang-wallop or softly-softly, completely lacks a sense of either spontaneity or authenticity, both the mayhem and the tenderness being heavily regulated and formalised, ever determined to stay put in the work’s metric grid as if its life (such as it is) depended on it. Which of course it does. During the last few minutes, Anderson reduced by this stage to just churning out scales and yet more hopping staccatos, it doesn’t merely beg but loudly implores the question: What’s the point of carrying on?! Musical diarrhoea? A need to pad out the running time? Deluded / narcissistic self-belief?

i honestly can’t help feeling i preferred it when Anderson sank to the nadir that was his piano concerto The Imaginary Museum. It was complete shit, but in some respects, it was at least capable of surprise. There’s literally nothing surprising in this cheap, meretricious, formulaic symphony. So it seems fitting, as an earnest homage to Anderson, to conclude not with new words but a complete verbatim repeat of what i wrote in 2017 about that concerto, words that apply equally to his Symphony No. 2: “[T]his is the basest flogging of a rotted carcass that may once have resembled something equine. One has to wonder: beyond laughing all the way to the bank, is it genuinely satisfying creatively to write this stuff?”

The first – and, please, let it be the last – complete performance of Julian Anderson’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Prague Panoramas’ was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov.


HAVE YOUR SAY

Julian Anderson - Symphony No. 2, ‘Prague Panoramas’
  • Loved it! (26%, 11 Votes)
  • Liked it (30%, 13 Votes)
  • Meh (21%, 9 Votes)
  • Disliked it (5%, 2 Votes)
  • Hated it! (19%, 8 Votes)

Total Voters: 43

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Ben

for those interested in orchestra comparisons, the (minus last movement) premiere with Czech Phil is also on youtube. Whatever one may think of the piece- -the Czech Phil makes more somewhat interesting colours than the BBCSO, and plays in a more conducive venue.

A Listener

Well who could deny this review is pretty intemperate? The Symphony on first hearing contains many impressive sounds (I think even you acknowledge that), some magnificent sounds even. And if the content is initially a bit cryptic (which seems to be your beef, put more politely), then welcome to much of contemporary music! By the way, it’s not very persuasive to trash The Imaginary Museum while saying it’s a guitar concerto. Um, it’s a piano concerto.

A Listener

Oh, I thought you were giving him a tip of your hat with “bursts of ostensible lyricism” and “potentially promising in its opening moments of low, quiet, indistinct growling”. Which actually reminded me of moments in your own fine Study no. 19.

BTW easy mistake to make about the concerto (Julian Anderson – Joby Talbot: same difference).

A Listener

Yes you were very complimentary about Incantesimi, another fine piece of his. Gushing even. I think I detect some similarities with your later Studies, at least in the sonorities (rather than the content) – is there an influence perhaps? Not sure in which direction.

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