PROM 52: An Eclectic and Interesting Prom from Sakari Oramo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 52, Param Vir, Sibelius, Bantock, Elgar, Lisa Batiasvili (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 21. 8. 2013 (CG)

Prom 52
Prom 52 The BBC Symphony Orchestra Bantock’s Celtic Symphony for strings and six harps
Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Param Vir: Cave of Luminous Mind (The Transcendent Journey of Milarepa) (2013) – BBC commission, world première.
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 47 (1903, revised 1905)
Granville Bantock: Celtic symphony, for string orchestra and harps (1940)
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, ‘Enigma’ (1898-9)

Param Vir’s Cave of Luminous Mind is one of this year’s major Proms commissions. The work is dedicated to the late Jonathan Harvey, one of Vir’s teachers and a great source of inspiration. Tibetan Buddihism is central to the work’s origins, as in Vir’s previous work, and I can do no better than quote a paragraph of the composer’s own programme note: “My work is a tribute to Tibet’s rich spiritual tradition that has kept alive the unparalleled tenets of Buddhist teaching, most especially the meditational disciplines that lead to peacce and enlightenment, despite Tibet herself suffering most cruelly at the hands of an alien, occupying power since the 20th century.”

There are two contrasting movements. The first is slow and largely based on quiet clusters and string glissandi which unwind very slowly. Against these effects are pitted short, stark outbursts from various sections of the orchestra. Melodic fragments also appear and disappear, Vir always displaying a keen ear for soft luminous colours. It’s imaginitively done and strangely beautiful. If I eventually grew restless, it was because I failed to detect connections between the many and various fragments and eventually the soft winding glissandi, nearly always present, palled somewhat; maybe I wasn’t in a sufficiently meditative frame of mind.

The second movement is a far more lively affair, as Vir expresses Tibetan meditational transormation. Again the orchestra sparkled with luminosity, and here there is writing for the orchestra of considerable virtuosity. I was periodically reminded of early period Stravinsky although the harmonic language is hardly comparible. As the movement progresses, things become increasingly dramatic and complex. At a particularly important point all momentum ceases, and the cellos are given a long-ish melody which is taken up by the upper strings and in the final pages the whole orchestra bursts forth with increasingly entangled perrorations.

There is no doubting the skill and seriousness of this composer, and Vir has produced a work of great interest and drama. The thrills and spills from the orchestra are terribly impressive; there are also formidable parts for the piano and harp and a gigantic percussion section. If I grew impatient with what I perceived as a certain lack of connection from episode to episode my feelings were not shared by all. My friend loved every minute of it and when I dared express a slightly negative view grew rather cross! – so I will listen again on iPlayer, and I suggest, dear reader, that you listen for yourself too.

The next item, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, also presented some difficulties. It’s a great favourite of mine, and I’m sorry to say this performance did not always do it for me. Lisa Batiashvili is a very confident and gifted player and, barring one or two excusable intonation fluffs, negotiated the first movement’s technical difficulties as if most of them didn’t exist. However this movement was curiously lacking in drama or sufficient depth of expression; partly this was due to her resistance to take her time over things generally – it all seemed quite breathless to me. Did the orchestra also feel as if on auto-pilot? Strange.

The second movement fared better, although once again I felt soloist and orchestra could have lingered a little more. In the final movement Batiashvili displayed her formiddable technique and seemed happiest here. Her encore was an arrangement of Lele, a piece by her fellow Georgian, Sulkhan Tsintsadze, which few would have known prior to the concert, but charming in its way.

The Celtic Symphony is one of several Bantock works to be performed at the Proms this year, following a lengthy period of almost total neglect. During his own lifetime, things were remarkably different and Bantock was regarded as one of Britain’s greatest composers, much admired by Elgar and Vaughan Williams among others. The late Vernon Handley was largely responsible for keeping the Bantock flame from being totally extinguished, but despite ardent support from him and some other dedicated supporters, Bantock has remained a background figure, talked of in respectful terms but seldom played. His music is steeped in tradition in general, and the functional tonality of the late Romantics in particular. Once Vaughan Williams, and then the likes of Britten and Tippett came on the scene, Bantock’s world became an unfashionable one, but now we can listen once again with fresh ears and it will be interesting to see if his music gains general support once more.

It would be thrilling to report that this almost forgotten man’s work reveals blazing genius, but the Celtic Symphony doesn’t quite support such a view. Bantock’s world is a quieter, more intimate place, where gentle melodies and sometimes mystical harmonies reside. The Celtic Symphony is beautifully written for his chosen string orchestra and – wait for it – six harps! We are in the dreamy landscapes of Scotland, but with dance-like rhythms and themes never far away. The mysterious atmospheres were beautifully presented by Oramo, the pianissimo strings perfectly balanced and, oh, so breathtakingly quiet! When things livened up, the strings responded to Oramo with joyous vivacity and we were reminded of Sibelius’s more energetic moments or even Bartok’s flirtations with folk/dance music. The whole piece was really beautifully played, including the one area towards the end where the harps predominate. It’s all lovely – unpretentious and never “pushy” – and if you tire of the full-square phrases and, to twenty-first century ears, relatively unadventurous rhythms, then perhaps you can enjoy some quietitude and Scottish geniality?

I loved Oramo’s appraoch to the ‘Enigma’ Variations too. This is a conductor determined to get to grips with British music, and how thankful we should be for that! There was nothing to object to in his choice of tempi for each variation – no major surprises, no distortions, no gimmicks. Moreover there was plenty to admire as the various soloists from the BBC SO took their turns. If I mention Richard Hosford’s clarinet solo in ‘Romanza’ and Norbert Blume’s viola solo in ‘Ysobel’ I don’t mean to belittle the many other solo passages which caught my ear – all were excellent. If I didn’t burst into tears during ‘Nimrod’ this time, it’s no matter – there were several other variations that brought a tightened brow – the whimsical ‘Dorabella’ and ‘B.G.N’ for instance. I would have preferred to hear more from the organ – yes, more from the Albert Hall’s organ! – during the finale where, as my friend remarked, you hear Elgar returning home after visiting his friends; but never mind, Oramo still brought this work, and this concert, to a splendid conclusion.

Christopher Gunning