PROM 39:The UK Première of Bernard Rands’ Piano Concerto at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 39. Rameau, Bernard Rands, Mozart ,Strauss Jonathan Biss (piano) BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, .Markus Stenz (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 15.8.2014 (RB)

Rameau – Les Indes galantes – suite
Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Mozart – Symphony No. 1 in E flat major K16
Richard Strauss –  Ein Heldenleben


This Prom comprised a very broad and diverse collection of works spanning more than two centuries of music.  The BBC SSO provided its own contribution to the ongoing Strauss birthday festivities with a performance of Ein Heldenleben.  In the first half Markus Stenz and the orchestra gave the first performance at the Proms of Rameau’s suite Les indes galantes, and they were joined by American pianist Jonathan Biss for the UK première of Bernard Rands’ piano concerto.

Rameau composed his opera-ballet Les Indes galantes in 1735 and the work has an exotic quality which was in part influenced by a visit of American Indian chiefs to the court of Louis XV in Paris.  The suite is made up of a sequence of four short dances which are taken from the complete score.  The opening March for the Festival of Flowers and the two subsequent Minuets were elegant and beautifully phrased and the ornamentation tastefully executed.  Stenz and the BBC SSO clearly wanted the music to sound as authentic as possible so the lines were very clean and vibrato was kept to a minimum but the sound was pared back a little too much and I would have liked them to project more in this venue.  There was greater weight and depth of sound in the Danse des sauvages and the music felt more energised while the BBC SSO trumpets did a splendid job bringing out the pageantry and regal ceremony in the final chaconne.

Bernard Rands’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday.  It was written specifically for Jonathan Biss and he gave the first performance of the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in April 2014.  The work is not a conventional piano concerto but rather involves piano and orchestra acting as equal partners in the flow and exchange of musical ideas.  The opening movement is marked Fantasia (Noble) and it starts with a sequence of sustained notes in the strings which is followed by a free-wheeling exploratory dialogue involving piano and orchestra.  Biss and his orchestral partners handled the intricate dialogue in this movement particularly well and showed an excellent shared understanding of how the thematic material needed to be shaped and evolve.  The slow movement is marked Slow, quiet, vague and mysterious! It seemed to have a brooding nocturnal quality with pianissimo strings and celesta creating a sombre, mysterious atmosphere.  Biss shaped the expressive lines very well and some of the chordal progressions were nicely weighted while the orcchestra created a varied and inventive palette of shifting colours and sonorities.  The finale is marked Delicate and playful and the piano writing is more overtly brilliant, starting with a sequence of decorative trills and tremolos.  Biss played the motoric figurations with élan and brilliance and he excelled in negotiating the complex textures and rhythmic figurations in the cadenza.  Bernard Rands joined Stenz and Biss to acknowledge the applause at the end of this very committed performance and seemed very pleased.  Overall, I was not that impressed with the work – some of it came across as rather forgettable film music and the trills and tremolos in the last movement seemed hackneyed and clichéd.  I am not convinced it adds anything of note to the piano concerto repertoire.

The second half opened with Mozart’s First Symphony which the composer wrote when he had reached the grand old age of eight.  According to his sister Nannerl, Mozart wrote the piece to occupy himself while his father was recovering from illness.  Stenz and the BBC SSO opened the piece well and I particularly liked the scurrying in the strings and gorgeous expressive shading of the lines.  Things went awry in the Andante slow movement:  the balance was not right and I lost the sense of the overall shape of the piece while the sound was not projected well enough in the very quiet section at the end.  (It is not for nothing that this music was described as too easy for children and too difficult for adults!).  Things improved in the finale which was upbeat and vibrant with Stenz and his orchestral partners making the most of the dance elements in the score.

Ein Heldenleben was written in 1898 when Strauss was under the spell of Nietzsche and it explores the difficulties of reconciling one’s inner and outer lives and the necessity of overcoming life’s obstacles.  The composer himself is clearly the hero of the title and the piece shows him locked in battle with his adversaries (sadly, the music critics in this case).  The section of the work depicting the hero’s companion is a portrait of the composer’s wife, Pauline de Ahna.  I found this performance by Stenz and the BBC SSO rather flat and uninspiring.  The opening section depicting the eponymous hero was slack and lacklustre and lacked the rich romantic ardour I was looking for while the brass were a little too prominent.  The woodwind did not really convey the rasping, needling, sour-faced bitchiness of the critics in the second section.  The orchestra’s leader, Laura Samuel, did a fine job rescuing the performance with her portrait of Strauss’s wife in the third section – she handled the double-stopping and difficult pyrotechnics with ease and painted Pauline de Ahna as a supportive but sprightly and coquettish figure.  The section depicting the battle came across as a confused and slightly scrappy although it did not lack energy and the trumpets did well with their off-stage fanfares.  The final two sections depicting peace, retirement and fulfilment were much better and I particularly liked the cor anglais solo and Laura Samuel’s handling of the final violin solos.

Overall, this was a disappointing Prom although it was rescued by some good playing and credit is due for tackling such a wide and diverse programme.


Robert Beattie

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