United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 50 – Beethoven, Stravinsky and Gerald Barry: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Allan Clayton (narrator/tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 21.8.2017. (AS)
Beethoven – Overture, Leonore No.3, Op.72; Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Stravinsky – Violin Concerto
Barry – Canada (world première)
Gerald Barry’s recent works, the concert programme told us, include The Destruction of Sodom, for eight horns and two wind machines and Humiliated and Insulted for choir and orchestra. The idea for Canada came into his head, the composer has revealed, when he was going through security at Toronto airport. But no, it’s not a work about Canada, it’s partly a sort of setting of three lines from the Prisoners’ Chorus in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, declaimed in three languages by the soloist, followed by a series of repetitions of the word “Canada” by the soloist and members of the orchestra. This word (and the country itself, he says) strikes Barry as “both everyday and strange to me – exotically normal”. The accompanying music sounds at first like an Irish dance in triple time, then sort of pastiche baroque with a bit of Charles Ives thrown in. The chief merit of this piece is brevity. It was commissioned by the BBC, who presumably knew the sort of thing they would be getting in view of Barry’s past form. There are many such novelties in this year’s Prom series. By all means let’s promote new music if it is of genuine worth, but don’t let’s have too much of it. There are first-rate composers of the recent past who well deserve a look in but now never get performed, either at the Proms or anywhere.
In Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto Leila Josefowicz gave an exemplary account of the first movement, alertly partnered by the CBSO and Gražinyté-Tyla. The following ‘Aria 1’ was propelled at a tempo that seemed a trifle too brisk, though the basic song-like character of the music was still well conveyed. In ‘Aria 2’ Josefowicz played most beautifully, balancing the inherent warmth of the solo line with neo-classical clarity and logic. Alas, in the concluding ‘Capriccio’ soloist and conductor took things too far. This movement has plenty of natural high spirits and energy, to be sure, but neo-classical objectivity and balance should still be observed. It almost seemed on this occasion to be an essay in how fast the music could be played. Josefowicz’s virtuosity was highly impressive, as was Gražinyté-Tyla’s exceptionally clear-cut conducting, but it was all a little misplaced.
To open the concert Gražinyté-Tyla directed a serviceable account of the Leonore No.3 Overture. Not much specific gravity or spirituality was in evidence. A lot of it was a bit too fast, with superficial energy taking the place of Beethoven’s natural nobility of utterance and profundity of communication. And so it was in the Fifth Symphony. The motto-theme opening of this work, surely the most well-known fragment of classical music, was simply rushed through, and its dramatic effect was completely lost. There was a certain rhythmic instability throughout the first movement as Gražinyté-Tyla impatiently pressed ever onward. An over-brisk tempo also characterised a perfunctory, matter-of-fact account of the Andante. There was a certain lyricism, but no more than that. In the scherzo, the tempo again was too fast (or so it seemed in this performance: in other hands, the pacing might have appeared to be just right) and a lack of rhythmic exactitude led to almost garbled expression at one point: the fugal passage was laboured in execution. Stability of pulse was more evident in the finale, but it was still all rather lightweight, and the coda was predictably hectic.
In both the Stravinsky and Barry works Gražinyté-Tyla showed an admirably clear stick technique, but in both the Beethoven works she abandoned her baton for some reason and deputised with extravagant arm-waving movements that seemed less clear, and didn’t summon the expression that she seemingly wanted through those movements. It would have been interesting to hear her conduct the Beethoven with a baton. She would probably have secured a sharper response from a CBSO that seemed less than at ease with her hand and arm gestures.