Prom 19: Great Danes
Thomas Dausgaard conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra of music on the edge - but some was closer to the edge than the rest. Details are here
Langgaard: Symphony No 11 ‘Ixion’: This Danish composer, who died in 1952, had a string of major works in his canon most of them unknown unto recently. They were, by all accounts, the product of some very radical thinking - he proclaimed himself as “the essence of paradox” and even this brief symphony shows that he was very capable of that. Unknown and unappreciated until the 1960s, his stock is on the rise with one cycle of his 16 symphonies on CD and Dausgaard recording another. Ligeti described himself as a Langgaard imitator.
Ixion has all the outward appearance of a short, carefully crafted musical joke. But beneath the maniacal repetitions of a bluff Scandinavian waltz there is much to savour and think on. It maybe that the bitterness of the decay of each cycle of the waltz tune and the sardonic, if not sarcastic, ending take time to hit home. But I’m grateful to Dausgaard and the BBCSO and more so the Prommers for taking it so seriously. The solo tuba interjections are a surprise at first but hit harder each time you hear them. Six minutes of your time - but I suspect a lifetime in the memory. Completely what the Proms is about and what music in the 20th Century was about.
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: Incontri: What a fantastic piece of music - perpetually dicing with a collapse into decay. The sounds of this piece are mostly familiar in terms of modern music but this makes the descent into chaos even more alarming. The Dane, who is 80 years old, is to be commended on his language and ingenuity. I have seldom felt as utterly disconcerted by a piece of music - I was at once all at home AND all at sea. The language wouldn’t shock someone familiar with early twentieth century works but it also has a modern feel which disconcerts in the manner of Ruggles (though more tuneful and ambitious) Bartok though with less guile or intimacy and composers like Varese (with more structure). I loved it and City Noir aside it has been the highlight in the new music so far. Its progress is lively and it doesn’t drop completely into the familiar idiom at any stage but flirts, skirts and perverts it in all sorts of ways. Grateful to the Proms for programming it and I hope it gets more performances of the quality of this one.
Shostakovitch: Cello Concerto No 1: Daniel Müller Schott was a capable soloist in this trenchant piece which I think as partly a recoiling at the the Post Stalin environment in Soviet Russia and partly an angry sarcastic tilt at the then dead dictator in the way that someone might have chosen to dance on his grave. The performance itself was taut and the slow movement a piece of simple grieving. If it lacked the last ounce of bite then that’s probably to do with our distance from the times and the softening effect of the RAH acoustic on the accents. I enjoyed it a lot.
Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6 ‘Pathetique’ : this is showpiece which has had 119 airings at the Proms and I would have said before a little research that its frequency was on the rise. The Prom Archive gives lie to that. It has been über-popular since its first UK Proms performance in 1897 (four years after its premiere), in the 1900s it was given every year sometimes more than once and in 1904 season it was given 3 times. Subsequently it had an annual outing and was frequently was played twice a season up to the 1960s. So its presence roughly every other season nowadays represents something of a decline in popularity. Its still played too often for me.
And this performance showed why there’s a problem with this work: there was nothing new that enchanted or enlightened me. And where Dausgaard drew out fascinating bits of local detail - especially in the Scherzo - they were distractions from the progress of the piece as a whole. Give it a rest for ten years and we might start to appreciate it anew. Well played, but not I suspect well heard - though as usual fully enjoyed in the Hall.