Prom 6: Russian Gloom

BBCSO conducted by Sakari Oramo

Fung Lam: Endless Forms
This is the first Proms commission from a Hong Kong composer and a young one at that.  And I daresay some were wary of the idea of a new piece with the word “endless” in the title - but its done in under 10 minutes and was worth playing if only to balance out the view of new music as oppressively progressive and in some senses modernist.
Lam’s material seems to arises from a variety of sources and yet he doesn’t linger or waylay these for effect.  Chords and bells are familiar enough especially in new ‘classical’ music, but also in the traditional music of Far Eastern cultures.  The waltz the from a different tradition and there are hints of a Mahlerian harmonic world in this pieces final section.  All mix well but I’m not sure about the sum of the parts yet.  The glory of the BBC iPlayer is that I can at least listen again.

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 2 Kirill Gerstein (piano)
I’m beginning to feel acute disquiet about this piece.  I wince when I see it on programmes or radio playlists.  I clench my teeth when those opening chords labour their point.  I listen more to the orchestra than than the pianist now.  And the slow movement has gone through the dramatic phase and well to the melodramatic.  But this applies more and more to longer pieces by Rachmaninov from the symphonies to the Vespers and much of the rest I think ‘get to the point’. As I do so my appreciation of the shorter pieces grows.  If only he’d written overtures.

But this piece is well and truly a pot boiler - especially at the Proms, interesting to read that it was a stalwart for many times including in one season being played twice! But Rachmaninov and Mr Hough aside, how many times has it been played with an almost clockwork familiarity.  Interpretation of this work hasn’t really moved on since Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson helped bump its popularity up in 1945.  The interpretations one here’s nowadays are scarcely any different from Byron Janis in the 1950s.  No masterpiece deserves that kind of stasis - unless of course it’s not a masterpiece. 
Against this bundle of preconceptions I’m going to whinge about this performance. I add a rider to this - my expectation of the reading should be tempered by the knowledge that the conductor changed at short notice and so Oramo and Gerstein may not have had long to work on the peice.
I just wish Gerstein had been more ambitious in this work.  He played it straight - I’m no pianist but it sounded technically exemplary - but where was the exploration?  Slow movement was rhapsodic enough but didn’t pull on the heart strings except for those sat waiting for them to be pulled.  It is a crowd pleaser and always had been but it does those music lovers no favours to give them precisely what they expect - for that kills the music off eventually.  So no more Rach PC 2 for a couple of years please programmers!
Can I gripe about the Prommers getting what it says on the tin?  Well I think even they might have noticed (probably for the reason cited above) that this reading was not truly a team effort until midway through the last movement.  Nicely recorded and all that, but the war horse is past its best.
Prokofiev: Symphony No 6
This is as enigmatic as any symphony by Shostakovich and yet still relatively unknown with this being only the third reading here in recent memory.  It is a work of great power and emotional discourse I think and in Oramo’s hands this was more obvious to me than ever before.  Neither Gergiev nor Parvo Jarvi in previous outings managed to get as deeply into the marked and haunting orchestral colour.  Oramo - not scared to slow the music down a little, found more ominous rumblings than either of his predecessors.  More over the orchestra responded with a kind of engagement which bodes well for Oramo’s tenure as Chief Conductor.  At this time though the Deputising Designate made the most of Belohlavek’s indisposition.
The musical material is pretty straight forward and relies on the age old effect of contrasting sections which as usual with Prokofiev are tied together with the utmost lyricism and forward movement.  Always the composer keeps things moving but to my ear, and I haven’t check either score or metronome, he stretches out the phrasing to exploit the contrasts a little more than anyone I’ve heard before either on disc or in concert relays.  The slow sections grind away slowly at the soul, in a way we can only imagine relates somehow to the oppressive life under Stalin and/or Prokofiev’s troubled health and nervous disposition.  It is a work where horrors are unspeakable, hinted heaviness is a subtext for whole scale misery.  The joyous nature is false, fixed, corrupt and artificial - like a ballroom dancers smile it hides all manner of pain underneath.
There’s a shadowy heaviness in the slow movement opening that gives way to Prokofiev’s traditional lyricism both tender and sorrowful, but the two battle on.  The vigorous finale has weighty airless interruptions which don't even serve as contrast - it is quite clear where reality lies as they grind every hope to dust. Oramo’s ending comes like a fist in the ribs.
This reading - which sounded as though it was relished by both conductor and orchestra - was part of what the Proms is really about, serious music explored in a big way in a big room.  The audience exploded with delight at the end - but Prokofiev symphonies are like that.  How many felt the rabbit punch I don’t know.  I was very pleased to have heard this thoughtful, dark hued, well played reading of an important neglected work.


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