PROM 21: Anglo-Russian Prom is Not an Unqualified Success

 United StatesUnited States Prom 21: C. Matthews, Prokofiev, Shostakovich: Daniel Hope (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 29.7.2013 (CC)

Colin Matthews: Turning Point (UK première)
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 83
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 ‘The Year 1905’

This was strange programming: music by two Russian giants after the UK première of a contemporary British piece. Not the only perplexing element of this evening, either.

Colin Matthews experienced great difficulty in the writing of the work which became Turning Point. He admits that he had “reached the point at which music turns” in his own words, and, bluntly put, was stuck. The pressure of a deadline was the impetus for completion of this work (actually composed between 2003 and 2006; the title was added after the work was completed). At some twenty minutes, it is of substantial length, if not substance.

Not that it is uninteresting. There is a scherzo-like aspect to the opening, and a Mahlerian ceremonial element to the slower passages, which seem weighed down with world-weariness. Perhaps the Mahlerian influence is unsurprising, given Matthews’ work with Deryck Cooke on the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. A cantus firmus seems to inform some of the lower lines, and there is no doubting Matthews’ sheer expertise in scoring. Listening to it – and re-hearing it on the BBC website – the assurance of his ear is without doubt. The performance was a dedicated one, and very well-rehearsed: the unanimity and purity of the soaringly-high violins were clear testament to that.

But, it is twenty minutes long and it could so easily be fifteen, if not ten. Some of the gestures sound like outdated modernistic clichés. The work, says the composer, is “not about anything other than itself”. But perhaps it could express itself a tad more succinctly.

The preparation and effort put into preparing the Matthews by the BBC NOW and their fine and musical young Principal Conductor, Thomas Søndergård, were perhaps rather less evident in the Prokofiev. Apparently the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto is very close to the virtuoso soloist, Daniel Hope. This affection was evident in the work’s soliloquising opening, delivered with a lovely, burnished sound. The rather bass-light accompaniment was initially very clean but as the concerto wore on there were odd moments of disparity between soloist and orchestra. A special mention for the woodwind and horns for their contributions, though. Hope was simply lovely in his long-breathed melodies in the central Andante assai; it was a pity the finale (Allegro ben marcato) seemed so subdued, some way off any sort of spiky peasant dance. Any sort of abandon had itself to be abandoned due to, one assumed by this stage, the unfamiliarity of conductor and soloist.

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony is an underestimated beast. Its unpopularity is massively undeserved. It does, admittedly, have its fair stock of cinematic (and graphic) gestures, but it also contains massive power, as Mstislav Rostropovich proved conclusively in an LSO performance at the Barbican some years ago, which is preserved on the LSO Live label (review). There was much to enjoy in Søndergård’s reading – the sense of struggle to the muted trumpet in the first movement, “Palace Square”, for example. Søndergård’s tempi were on the rapid side, perhaps because he realised that if he took the music any slower it would become evident that this work requires a far greater conductor than he. Still, the waves of sound made their inevitable impression, especially in the vast acoustic of the Albert Hall, and the worker’s songs that provide much of the thematic material held some poignancy. A pity the sudden return to the trill-encrusted opening was rather literal.

The long viola threnody was well delivered, and there was a proper sense of drama to the slow movement. But sections of the finale sounded unconvincing and the fact remains that such a mixed performance does the score no justice.

Colin Clarke

This Prom will be televised on BBC 4 on August 4th at 19.30.

Click here to listen to the concert on the BBC i-Player