sat 18/11/2017

BBC Proms: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Petrenko | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Petrenko

BBC Proms: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Petrenko

An intense new war symphony from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music, wanted to bear witness to the Iraq and Afghan wars in his Ninth Symphony

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ninth Symphony, completed in 2012 and heard in London for the first time in this concert, is dedicated to the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee. Those are not words to strike eager anticipation into my heart , though I’m happy to say that being Master of the Queen’s Music doesn’t appear to have dulled the composer’s powers in the way the equivalent title seems to nobble poets. Indeed, the dedication is merely that, and the work is no winsome tribute.

The 25-minute single-movement symphony is modelled, Davies’ programme note explains, on the idea of a church with a central isle and side-chapels of contrasting character. Though continuous, it is divided into two parts, and the most noticeable intrusions into the core modernist sound world of the first half are a series of lumpish military marches, played by a brass sextet position to the side of the orchestra. It invites the comparison to Shostakovich’s Lenigrad symphony, and the composer’s note confirms that war was on his mind: "It presented an opportunity to bear witness, in purely musical terms, to what I can only consider, at the deepest and most heartfelt level, our disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Delius' Violin Concerto was oddly cold

So if this is not quite Davies’ Fallujah symphony, it is certainly not a light-hearted work. After a slow introduction, the Allegro is richly textured and though hovering around tonal bases, it is thick with dissonance. It is both involving and dramatic, with circling low strings and brass at one point seeming to conjure up aircraft overhead. It gives way to a slow second half, at first more brooding and impenetrable, from which Petrenko coaxed out some violent oceanic swells. Towards the end, the mood lightens to, in Davies’ words, a cautious optimism, the interruptions being reworked snippets of a Haydn quartet. Having recently sat through too much of young fashionable composers overstretching themselves, it was a pleasure to hear an ‘establishment’ figure showing how it’s done.

On to the Delius Violin Concerto, played by its most ardent champion, Tasmin Little. Her playing remains, as always, technically brilliant, and her sense of line and legato faultless, but the piece itself is oddly cold. Its meandering, improvisational character could be described as colouristic, but really watercolouristic would be a more appropriate term for the pallid blues, greens and browns of its landscape. Perhaps it would feel more at home in a less cavernous setting since, straining sometimes to hear the soloist, it was hard to surrender my heart strings.

It is not difficult to see why Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is his most performed, certainly at the Proms. It is absolutely gripping, rather despite the constant speculation of where Stalin might fit in, for which the blame lies with Solomon Volkov’s semi-fictionalised accounts of conversations with the composer. The only personality we can be certain is stamped on this work is Shostakovich’s own, sometimes monogrammatically pushing itself to the fore, or even crashing through the texture, others just present in the hectoring, cross-accented motifs.

It is tense music indeed, but Petrenko allowed it to wallow when he could, only to better ratchet up the angst later. It is a warm stringy soup from which the vast first movement rises, and into which it descends with nothing but a lonely piccolo for company. The infernal dance of the second movement and the whirling melodies of the fourth are a big test for an orchestra’s cohesion, and the RLPO played thrillingly as one.

One of the unique values of the Proms is the opportunity to measure up so many different orchestras in the same venue, and on this evening’s showing it would be hard to name a single reason that Liverpudlian concertgoers should feel envious of the capital’s riches.

 

Comments

I paste below a fragment of an article about Shostakovich's 10th from the Haaretz.com website, it is a revelation by one of his students (see link for full article): http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/shostakovich-s-muse-1.217242 "A 40-year secret. In her Haifa apartment, composer- pianist Elmira Nazirova, the young woman from the premiere of the 10th Symphony, reveals the secret of the origin of its musical themes. She takes a letter out of the cupboard, one of dozens she received from Shostakovich, in which he describes how things developed: "I thought about you a great deal, and so I decided to turn your name into music," wrote Shostakovich to Nazirova. He continued to explain in detail, with attached examples of musical notation, how he did it. The name "Elmira," when transcribed into notes, produces the sequence E-A-E-D-A. He went on to say that he decided to transcribe his initials into notes as well: DSCH, according to German spelling and notation, yields D-Em-C-B. Thus Shostakovich stamped his name, and that of his friend, into the music for eternity. Whoever listens to the movement can discern how the two musical themes approach each other as the music gains strength, almost touching, whirling around each other as in a dance. Nazirova jealously guarded the secret for 40 years. In her hometown of Baku, in Azerbaijan, she was a concert pianist, a well-known composer and a professor, head of the piano department of the local conservatory. It was only when she left Baku, and immigrated to Israel in 1990, that she decided to share the story with the Jerusalem musicologist Dr. Nelly Kravetz, who published the material a few years ago as an article in the book "Shostakovich in Context" (edited by Rosamund Bartlett, Oxford University Press)." If this is correct, the work may have little to do with Stalin?! What do you think?

The Elmira reference in the 3rd movement has been commented on many times. The movement which is generally commented to be about Stalin is the 2nd, so there is no reason why it can't be about both.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters