Prom 43 – A fine young pianist and a Bax symphony make their debuts

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Copland, Bax, Barber, Bartok, Prokofiev:  Yuja Wang (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton. Royal Albert Hall, London 16.8.2011 (RB)

Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man
Bax: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor and C Major
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 2
Prokofiev Symphony No. 4 in C Major

Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man provided the curtain raiser for the 43rd Prom and the RPO’s brass and percussion sections rose well to the occasion. The brass made the universally well-known theme sound fresh and vibrant. This was immediately followed by Bax’s Second Symphony, which has never before been performed at the Proms. The backdrop for the piece was the composer’s turbulent affair with the pianist Harriet Cohen. It is a very unsettled and psychologically uneasy work that experiments with bi-tonality and intricate orchestral textures.

The first movement, Molto moderatoallegro moderato, has a slow, murky introduction with the lower strings accompanying trombones and bassoons. Contrasting themes are then taken up by woodwind, trombones and flutes in turn. The ensuring allegro moderato was unsettled and episodic with the RPO’s strings providing rhythmic vitality and drive, and Andrew Litton doing a good job shaping and shading the thematic material. There were some lovely Celtic melodies in the music, as one might expect from Bax, including a lyrical theme on the flutes and a long expressive melody on the cellos. The Andante slow movement is the heart of the symphony and is the only place where the C Major/E Minor bi-tonality is heard. The RPO produced some lovely orchestral colouring and textures and the violins and violas did an excellent job shaping the melodic lines. The build-up and emotional climax was excellent and the return to the serene but uneasy opening beautifully realised. There were some lively and tight rhythmic exchanges in the finale and Litton and the RPO produced some rich and interesting sonorities. The RPO’s principal violinist, Clio Gould, did an excellent job with all of her solo entries.

The performance of Barber’s Adagio was slightly disappointing compared with the rest of the concert. The tone and phrasing of the strings was good but I thought the pulse was too fast and the work lacked some of the brooding intensity that is so integral to this piece. The piercing climax of the piece lacked bite and power.

Yuja Wang made her Proms debut performing Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto, which is widely acknowledged as probably the most technically demanding piece in the standard classical repertoire. I was slightly surprised to see her using a score but it was clear that this was simply an aide-memoire as the piece is new to her repertoire (I defy anyone to perform this piece reading directly from a score!). Wang brought power and considerable technical assurance to the first movement and did an excellent job navigating her way through the blizzard of octaves, chords, runs and exceptionally complicated passage work. She was rhythmically incisive and aggressive where she had to be and the neo-Baroque contrapuntal lines were brought out with immaculate clarity. The build-up in intensity in the second movement was carefully calibrated, while the scherzo in the middle of this slow movement was taken at a blistering pace, with Wang capturing the menacing quality of the music. Ms Wang brought out the sexiness of the last movement’s principal theme and the ensuing chord passages were played with a degree of technical perfection and tonal sheen that I have only ever heard Pollini achieve before. Some of the whispering, rapid-fire passage work prior to the end got slightly drowned out by the orchestra but the coda had a dancing charm and panache. Altogether, an auspicious debut so I hope we hear a lot more from Ms Wang.

The final piece in this intriguing concert was the Prokofiev Fourth Symphony in the revised 1947 version. I was stunned to learn from the programme notes that this piece has only been performed once before at the Proms, by Sir Edward Downes, and the original version of the symphony has never received a Proms hearing. Hopefully, Gergiev’s recent recording of the complete Prokofiev symphonies will help to thrust these wonderful works into the limelight.

The RPO provided some lovely colouring to the pastoral introduction to the symphony, while the strings expertly articulated the motoric figurations in the ensuing Allegro eroico. Litton and the RPO did an excellent job in the development section, achieving breadth and a good range of orchestral colours, textures and sonorities. The woodwind and strings did a wonderful job shaping the attractive melodic material in the Andante tranquillo second movement, and Litton and his players managed to achieve a seamless organic growth in the music. The gavotte which opened the third movement was quirky and idiomatic and the ensuring trio (with its echoes of Peter and the Wolf) was playful and whimsical. The final Allegro risoluto was full of scampering and scurrying passage work in the strings – I thought the cellos and double basses were particularly good – and the RPO brought the piece to a blazing conclusion.

Congratulations to Andrew Litton and the RPO for doing such an excellent job in unveiling the Bax Second Symphony at the Proms, and in bringing the wonderful Prokofiev Fourth Symphony back for a long overdue reappearance at these concerts.

Robert Beattie