Friday 19 August 2011

Proms week 5 - All the Russians

Fewer of the tripartite, double intervalled Proms grace this season.  They look good on paper but are hell to stand through and for that reason I wimped out and listened to Prom 43 (Litton/RPO/Wang - Copland/Bax/Barber/Bartok/Prokofiev - August 16th) on the radio.  The programme drew on the musical legacy of conductor and double bassist Serge Koussevitsky who had a hand in commissioning many of the twentieth century's great orchestral works.  A few of the works on show here were only tangentially linked to Koussevitsky - Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony was performed in its longer 1947 version and not the original 1930 version performed by Koussevistky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Barber's Adagio for Strings owed its existence (in orchestral form at least) to Toscanini.

It was a long but nonetheless enticing and unusual programme, particularly for the Royal Philharmonic, who must have relished being allowed away from Beethoven and Mozart for a night.  The highlights were a rare outing for Arnold Bax's Second Symphony, which grew on me after a second hearing, by which time the initial over load of post-romantic harmony and complexity had started to reveal a compelling journey.  The original version of Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony is a favourite of mine and while I'd not claim it to be one of his greatest works, it does include a couple of wonderful episodes dropped for the more symphonic spread of the revised score.  Litton is a fan of the later version, telling Radio 3 that he thought Prokofiev had 'fixed' the first version's problems.  I hope he fulfils his promise to play it more often.

I stood for Prom 44 (Salonen/Philharmonia/Batiashvili - Shostakovich/Stravinsky/Tchaikovsky - August 17th), though my legs told me the programme was longer than it needed to be.  It was a packed house - I was standing further from the stage than I'd have liked to have been and some of the mischief of the suite from Shostakovich's ballet The Age of Gold was lost in the Albert Hall's temperamental acoustic.  Luckily, Lisa Batiashvili projected her solo line in Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto beautifully and her volume was never at the expense of warmth of tone.  I felt she coasted a little through the first two movements, really hitting her stride with an impassioned third movement and making the most of Shostakovich's astounding cadenza.

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