Momentum in Britten, Inflexibility in Schubert in BBC Phil Concert


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 24 – Ginastera, Britten, Schubert: Steven Osborne (Piano), BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena (Conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.7.2016 (RB)

Ginastera: Ollantay Op.17
Britten: Piano Concerto Op.13
Schubert: Symphony No.9 in C Major ‘Great’ D.944

The BBC Philharmonic were joined by their Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena, for this programme of works from the early 19th and mid 20th centuries.

The concert opened with Ginastera’s symphonic triptych Ollantay which the composer wrote in 1947 after spending the summer of the previous year at Koussevitsky’s Tanglewood Music Festival. I was surprised to see this was the London première of the work. It is scandalous that music of this quality has never been heard in London concert halls before. Dudamel and Alsop are both to be congratulated for raising Ginastera’s profile with their respective performances of the Estancia Suite and I hope there will be opportunities to hear more of this superb music from South America. The opening section of Ollantay evokes the landscape of an ancient Incan site and was described by the composer as a nocturne. The BBC Philharmonic’s woodwind set the scene beautifully although the playing was not as rapt and atmospheric as it might have been (not entirely surprising given that a mobile phone went off and the cacophony of noise coming from people in the audience). The second section of the work depicts a tribal battle and there are echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite. The percussionists played the rhythm motifs with surgical precision and Mena did an excellent job coordinating and integrating the fragmented orchestral entries. In the final section of the work, orchestra and conductor worked well to produce murmuring textures and a reprise of the opening calls on the woodwind. A series of final shudders in the orchestra depicted Ollantay’s death while at the same time foretelling the eventual demise of the Incan civilisation.

British pianist, Steven Osborne, joined the fray for Britten’s Piano Concerto which received its first performance at the Proms in 1938 with the composer himself playing the virtuoso piano part. Britten wrote that he wanted to explore various characteristics of the piano ‘such as its enormous compass, its percussive quality and its suitability for figuration’. Osborne is one of the world’s leading exponents of British twentieth-century piano music and he made light work of the technical difficulties in the opening Toccata. The opening octaves and ensuing figurations were light and brilliant and there were crisp exchanges with brass and woodwind. Osborne injected an ongoing sense of momentum into the music while much of the technical execution was dazzling. Mena and the BBC Philharmonic brought a rich vibrancy and colour to Britten’s score although occasionally the balance with the soloist was not quite right and it sounded more like an orchestral work with a concertante piano part than a piano concerto. The second movement Waltz is clearly indebted to Shostakovich with its stinging satire and grotesque instrumental effects. Osborne captured the sardonic mood perfectly and there was deft accompaniment from woodwind and strings. I was extremely impressed with Osborne’s quiet playing in the third movement Impromptu. He did a wonderful job projecting the melody in the cavernous Albert Hall and he brought an uneasy sense of disquiet to the music. Osborne brought enormous power to the final March while negotiating Britten’s finger bending passage-work with tremendous agility. Mena did a sterling job whipping up the emotional temperature while the BBC Philharmonic brought bluster and bravura to the orchestral writing. In the final coda there were again a few balance issues as we were unable to hear Osborne above the orchestral accompaniment. Balance issues aside, this was a very fine performance from Osborne which was warmly applauded by the audience. He performed ‘Oiseaux tristes’ from Ravel’s Miroirs as an encore.

In the second half, we moved from the twentieth to the nineteenth century with Schubert’s ‘Great’ C Major Symphony. There are many great exponents of this work – Furtwängler and Abbado spring to mind – so the bar is set very high. While much of the playing was of a high standard, I was not entirely convinced by this performance from Mena and the BBC Philharmonic. The opening Andante was a little too fast – more of an Andantino than an Andante – which resulted in the composer’s noble opening melody sounding rather rushed. The transition to the ensuing Allegro was nicely managed and the first subject was played with verve. However, Mena seemed to have his foot on the accelerator throughout and he seemed disinclined to adopt more flexible tempi. The poignant minor key second subject came across therefore as slightly hectic and some of the composer’s gorgeous modulations were not played with sufficient care and attention. The oboe and clarinet solos in the Andante con moto second movement were eloquently played and Mena succeeded in producing some taut textures and striking tonal contrasts from the strings. He succeeded in working up the movement to a powerful climax and I enjoyed the flowing lyricism which came after the silence. The scherzo opened tersely and Mena and his orchestral partners appeared to relish the rhythmic drive and momentum. Again I would have preferred Mena to have adopted more flexible tempi as this would have allowed the lyrical heart of the music to blossom more. The great swinging melody in the trio also needed to come out more prominently as it seemed to be submerged in the various rhythmic patterns coming from the rest of the orchestra. The opening of the finale was arresting and I enjoyed some of the foot stamping exuberance of this movement (the strings in particular played well). The orchestral exchanges were tightly managed but I rather felt Mena was going through the motions and I would have liked the thematic material to be better managed and more integrated.

Overall, the playing was of a very high standard throughout this Prom but Mena needs to think again about Schubert.

Robert Beattie      


2 thoughts on “Momentum in Britten, Inflexibility in Schubert in BBC Phil Concert”

  1. I thought the first work was the most comvincing, the brass having a little more material with which to fill the massive hall. It was intense and brooding and highly evocative.

    I agree Osborne was fabulous in the Britten, but I didn’t think the orchestra shone as they should have (despite brilliant playing) as a result of repeated differences in tempi between orchestra and soloist. I’m afraid this must be down to the conductor. Also, the piano just cannot tame the massive RAH as it might in a smaller space. It sounds too distant. This undermined the ultimate power of the work.

    The Schubert was elegant but I agree with this review, not as effective as it could have been. I can’t tell if contrasts were lost in the unforgiving acoustics of the hall, or if the orchestra were rehearsed to be less dynamic than they might have been. But the lack of dynamic variation made it a little relentless at times.

    Having seen a number of Proms now, I’m persuaded it often doesn’t showcase classical music at its very best. Just too big and cavernous. But I’ve never stood right at the front. Perhaps that’s the way to go.

    Oh, one more thing. Shame an actual whip was not cracked in the Britten. Drumsticks deputised adequately but the effect was almost entirely absent.

    • Thank you so much for contacting Seen and Heard. The comments of those attending operas or concerts are always appreciated if they are as reasonable and well-argued as this.


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