Prom 54

I can’t work out if it was surprising or to be expected that Maxwell Davies, part of the New Music Manchester group that included Birtwistle and Goehr, should have become Master of the Queen’s Music. The earlier output of all of these composers now dates in its avant-garde leanings but this extraordinarily talented group of composers have all matured to become rather different to each other and their younger selves. Symphony no. 9, performed here at its London premiere, is an unusual piece; it’s score
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I can’t work out if it was surprising or to be expected that Maxwell Davies, part of the New Music Manchester group that included Birtwistle and Goehr, should have become Master of the Queen’s Music. The earlier output of all of these composers now dates in its avant-garde leanings but this extraordinarily talented group of composers have all matured to become rather different to each other and their younger selves. Symphony no. 9, performed here at its London premiere, is an unusual piece; it’s scored for symphony orchestra with additional brass sextet whose music begins as non-sequitur interruptions to the narrative of the orchestra. Initially its verbose intrusions – generally fanfares and marches in a folksy but jingoistic style – are comic and perhaps confusing but as the piece develops the sextet’s material is mollified by the orchestra. All elements become unified and to hear that process play out is satisfying. When finally the muted brass began a phrase which the orchestra developed in sympathy, Vasily Petrenko coaxed the ensemble to an exciting climactic ‘crush.’ Hearing this, I was more excited by a Maxwell Davies piece than I have been for a while. The performance was not without some balance issues – low strings straining to be heard against the joint force of orchestral and sextet brass sections (probably to be expected!). Nonetheless the variation of tone and colour was delightful and there were some exciting moments for a percussion section (particularly marimba and snare) that must have relished a programme combining this with Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony.

Before we could reach the showpiece symphony however Tasmin Little joined the orchestra for Delius’ Violin Concerto. I’ve not heard Little before and I now regret the missed opportunities to do so – from the first moment she played with a clean, clear tone that cut above the orchestra – credit to Delius’ sensitive scoring too. The near continuous part for violin had moments of exciting, if reserved, virtuosity and woodwind in particular blended fabulously in their delicate, glittering melodic responses which showed off huge variations of colour, sounding even synthesised at particular, fascinating points. This piece, in its delicate style and scoring and more traditional language, was a good foil to a programme that may have been a little too rich had it included another piece more similar to the knotty language and dense orchestral writing of Maxwell Davies and Shostakovich.

With any orchestral piece, and particularly Shostakovich, I’m a great advocate of playing the loud bits loud and the quiet bits quiet! Pleasingly – oh so pleasingly – Vasily Petrenko went with this and Shostakovich’s piano opening strings were worth straining for. Symphony no. 10 is undeniably a masterpiece and not for the reasons most programme notes insist. I would dearly love to disassociate Shostakovich’s music from its Soviet context and connotations so that his achievement as a non-programmatic symphonist were appreciated in their own right (rant over!). So much is made of a few, short themes whose development is punctuated by the trademark languorous woodwind solos, in the Tenth focusing more on clarinet and bassoon than oboe/cor anglais. The woodwind section was particularly impressive. The programme told me that the Liverpool Philharmonic under Petrenko are gaining a reputation for their Shostakovich Symphonies and on this evidence I’ll be buying their complete cycle and queuing for their next concert as they exploited the rawness of the second movement – the ever exciting snare drum flailing inclusive – and bombast of Shostakovich’s personal assertion in the repeated musical autograph DSCH (the German note names: D, Es (Eb), C, H (B)). The audience broke into rapturous applause as the final note had barely sounded and Liverpool Philharmonic with Vasily Petrenko lapped up the applause for the best Prom I’ve seen this year.
Programme
Maxwell Davies, Peter (b. 1934), Symphony no. 9 (London première)
Delius, Frederick (1862-1934), Violin Concerto
Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975), Symphony no. 10 in E minor, Op.93
Artists
Tasmin Little, Violin
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko, Conductor
To celebrate Her Majesty’s
Diamond Jubilee, the Master
of The Queen’s Music has
written a one-movement
work for orchestra and
additional brass sextet,
promising ‘a dramatic and
virtuoso challenge to all concerned’. While 1934
saw the birth of Sir Peter, it was also the year
in which we lost three key players in Britain’s
musical renaissance, Delius not least among
them. His Violin Concerto has no more ardent
champion than Tasmin Little. Finally, the
symphony often rated Shostakovich’s finest is
renewed by tonight’s famously high-voltage
Liverpool partnership.

Royal Albert Hall

Kensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP