Prom 71: A man alone

Prom 71

Górecki: Symphony No. 3, 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'
Ruby Hughes soprano

Vaughan Williams (orch. A. Payne): Four Last Songs
Jennifer Johnston mezzo-soprano
BBC Commission, World Premiere

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, 'Pathétique'

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä conductor

It would be tempting to plot the course of a man who's on the verge of becoming a reluctant traveller (through no fault of his own) in tonight's programme at the BBC Proms. "Songs of Farewell" it said on the blurb and in the withdrawn melancholy drawn out of three works dowsed in sadness, maybe there's some reflection on the conductor's plight in Minnesota. I will park that analogy for now.

Osmo Vänskä does special things with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms: an astonishing Sibelius 2, a riveting Szymanowski Stabat Mater, a Nielsen Four of huge didactic power. And in all the concerts I've heard him conduct this orchestra give back something special. Not unlike the BBC Scottish but a degree more ritzy, a deal more musical than the LPO, much more cultivated than the Minnesota Orchestra - it's a fine if occasional partnership.

The concert started with that astonishing hit of the 1990s - Gorecki's Third Symphony. I had struggled with this work until tonight when a friend said it reminded him of the sophisticated populist Vangelis. Think Vangelis, Glass and Arvo Pärt and you get closer to Gorecki's core I think than dwelling on a devote Symanowski or prayerful Lutosławski. Vänskä conducted baton-less his hands carving soft folds in the repetitive string patterns - the BBC SO strings responded with delicate finesse.  Vänskä 's most common gesture was to get more tone especially from the low strings and especially when the music was at it's quietest. The magnetic power of repetition becomes mesmeric after a time especially when so expertly controlled by the hands of this conductor.  There was something else here, additional to my previous experience of the work.   The additional factor was the voice.  Ruby Hughes, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist just leaving the scheme, had a Proms debut to end all Proms debuts with this hour long piece she was able to show off her considerable range of expression and an emotional palette to match the finest singers I know. The applause was long and loud for her - deservedly so. She has the stage presence and technique to go far.

After the interval we had the premiere of Anthony Payne's orchestration of Vaughan Williams so called Four Last Songs. They were not composed as such by RVW and may, as Michael Kennedy has suggested, have been destined for two discrete sets. Jennifer Johnston, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist also in her last performance on the scheme, brought an astonishing warmth and vigour to the songs reflecting RVW's indefatigable life-force.  And what a wonderful tone - rich and clear: "as the fire fell to ashes" in the second song so beautifully direct. Her voice floats too but is never less than eloquent. And wonderfully strong too in the face of the bleak reality of the final lines "as music and silence meet".  These lines surely tell of the old man's fate - Ursula Vaughan Williams words and his own music provide no room for sentiment though - as always he was a man, like all men, alone facing his fate. I found this brave and moving.

As Payne said this cycle reflects the full range of RVW's vocal style over the years and thanks to Payne's expertise we get a full survey of most of his orchestral styles too. Vänskä is a fine Vaughan Williams conductor who I have often yearned to hear in some of the composer's more individual works - Tallis Fantasia, Flos Campi and the late symphonies 8 and 9, Dona Nobis Pacem.  He brings an assurance to the woodwind string balance and a telling ear to the inner lines.

The final song is a culmination and majestic and the middle two have subtleties I'm sure worth exploring more. The first is an impeccable piece of orchestration putting the listener immediately at ease in it's replication of RVW's sound world. Anthony Payne is to be thanked for so much, but this marks this as a major contribution to the RVW canon and a piece for singers at that - let's hope it finds a place in the popularist programmes. It deserves to sit along Glanert's orchestration of the Brahms' Four Last Songs and Strauss' most popular vocal piece. I hope some enterprising company picks up this world class world premiere and I hope every performer strives as Johnstone did to avoid sentiment here.

Vänskä has not conducted as much Tchaikovsky as Rachmaninov in the UK in my recollection: so I was eager to hear what he could do with this dreadful warhorse. In the first three movements I'd say he didn't bring much innovation to the well trodden path. In their last but one outing the BBC Symphony Orchestra were secure enough though not faultless: after so many Proms that's forgivable.  It didn't detract from some wonderful phrasing, natural balances and a delicate judgement of pace. This latter is important: know when to dwell and when to move on in Tchaikovsky should be the first test for a new conductor. Murdering his longeurs should be the norm. 

Where Vänskä excels is in dramatic acuity: so it was in the last movement we heard him and the orchestra at his best.

Before closing I might say a word about clapping between movements - I'm sure much it's impossible to stop - it might even be undesirable to stop it in some eyes. But it's surely something that the conductor should be allowed to signal his or her ease or lack of it. Vänskä's body language couldn't have been clearer in the Gorecki - he stood hands clasped to his breast as though in prayer. That's a sign people!  His musically appropriate and pragmatic decision  to move "attacca" (without a break) from the third to the fourth movement fooled a few of the premature ejaculaters. And he quelled the clapping with raised arms at the end of the work. But I think conductors should help the audience by communicating what the musicians want to hear (or don't want).

Part of Vänskä's authority came from a savage and desperate account of that last movement: digging deeper than most it took the gloss off the melodrama and exposed some raw realities more familiar than the exaggeration we receive about Tchaikovsky's torment. Once again I heard a familiar work anew: his readings of Sibelius 2, the Barber Violin concerto and the Gorecki in this concert have all had their dark recesses exposed  by Vänskä in concert here.  If the Minnesotans are foolish enough to let him go - I hope he will return to Europe soon - we need more of this.


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