An elegiac Prom from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom George Walker, Beethoven, Jay Capperauld, Richard Strauss: Stephen Hough (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Alpesh Chauhan (conductor), City Halls, Glasgow, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four, 5.9.2020. (CS)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alpesh Chauhan with pianist Stephen Hough (c) Martin Shields

George WalkerLyric for String Orchestra
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major Op.19
Jay CapperauldCircadian Refrains (172 Days Until Dawn) (BBC commission, world premiere)
R. StraussMetamorphosen, study for 23 solo strings

A prevailing elegiac shadow hovered over this Prom, which was framed by two laments and included a musical embodiment of the experience of lockdown.  Sobering stuff, despite the interlude offered by Beethoven’s exuberant and often playful Second Piano Concerto.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Prom was broadcast from City Halls, Glasgow.  Recent live Proms broadcasts have prompted reflection on the ghostly effect of the black vacuum which has enveloped the musicians at the Royal Albert Hall: the Baroque programme by Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment seemed strangely dislocated from its surroundings.  So, given that travel complications were avoided, it may have been a sensible option for the BBCSSO to play ‘at home’, as it were – especially since other travel-related issues resulted in yet another Covid-cancellation, as the BBCSSO’s Chief Conductor Thomas Dausgaard was forced to withdraw.  Fortunately, Associate Conductor Alpesh Chauhan was ready and more than able to step into the breach.  But, whereas in London, orchestras can spread upwards into the choir stalls or outwards into the grand tier, in Glasgow the BBCSSO were obliged to drop down into the stalls: against the white walls and under the stark lights, the players looked somewhat isolated and bereft in their new configuration.

The African-American composer, George Walker (1922-2018), undoubtedly confronted and crossed obstacles, and broke new ground, as a piano virtuoso and composer, and also in sustaining his creative life into his 90s.  Lyric for strings began life as the Molto adagio movement of his First String Quartet (1946), a work that was dedicated to his grandmother.  The shadow of Barber looms large; both Barber and Walker were taught at the Curtis Institute by the violinist-composer Rosario Scalero.  Lyric is built from a simple scalic descending motif, the repetitions of which accumulate expressive intensity, in apparent contradiction of the mundanity of the material.  Chauhan demonstrated an instinctive feeling for the broad, expansive phrases that need to accrue for the impact of the repetitions to be felt, and the strings of the BBCSSO, reduced in number, worked tremendously hard to conjure the spatial and sonic resonance required to bring about apotheosis and transfiguration.

Muscularity was balanced with grace in the first movement of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto – an early work, the material of which was long in gestation, first committed to paper in the 1780s, premiered in 1795, and finally published in further revised form a few years later.  Presumably this Concerto was chosen as only small forces are required (there are no clarinets or brass), but there was still an apt ruggedness in the orchestral prelude of the Allegro con brio, though this was lightened by Hough’s airy reflections on the scalic motifs, which he made seem both more profound in sentiment and more diverse in manner of utterance than might be imagined.  Hough’s playing had a beautiful clarity in this movement – I kept thinking, heaven knows why, of fine china tea-cups – but there were, too, occasional rumbles of suppressed force and forthrightness.   Chauhan didn’t find all that much to say, but given the circumstances that’s perhaps not surprising, and the BBCSSO were sensitive accompanists.  Hough played a cadenza of his own devising, and his engagement with the material and imaginative development of motifs and harmonic excursions was both fresh and entirely in keeping with the idiom.  This was unwavering invention balanced with compelling dynamism and apt moments of rest.

The orchestral introduction to the Adagio had gravity and warmth.  Hough intimated wisdom and in the piano’s exchanges with the orchestra he was responsive and fully engaged: the result was a mood of affection and peace.  His final comments seemed both philosophical and pure.  The concluding Rondo had delightful rhythmic perkiness and flexibility, and the jokey accents wore their stamp lightly.  The BBCSSO stamped vigorously, however, to indicate their appreciation – and, as if to resurrect the spirit of exuberant Prommers in the RAH, Hough played an encore: Richard Strauss’s early Träumerei – emotive reflections that looked ahead to the final work of the programme.

Given that we might be back under lockdown restrictions anytime soon, Circadian Rhythms (172 Days until Dawn), by 31-year-old Scottish composer Jay Capperauld, might seem a somewhat premature reflection on our experience from March to June this year.  The work purposes to encapsulate each day, from the beginning of Capperauld’s own lockdown to the premiere performance, in a single harmonic entity.  It began with the cellos tapping their instruments, woodwind wails and slithers leading to the incipient stormy blasts of the horns.  There was an unsettling sense of unrest and disturbance – though I suspect that for many the experience of lockdown was a slump of inertia and indistinctiveness.  There was veracity in the work’s striving and grasping quality, a reach for a resolution destined to be denied, but seemingly close and achievable – though this was rather negated by the return of the opening material in the final episode.  Chauhan had the measure of the abiding progression from darkness to light, and the players gave their all; there were some beautiful moments of tranquillity, which the horns overturned with vibrant whoops, only for the woodwind to restore calm and then for the rattle of fingers on cello ribs to destabilise.  There was a lot to think about.

I have only performed Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings on one occasion – in Canterbury Cathedral, where I was the 10th of 10 violins and spent the first few minutes of the performance panicking that I, or the 9th violin, might miscount and mess up our entries!  Not very sublime thoughts for a work which, composed in the last years of WW2, is an expression of Strauss’s disillusionment and stands as a memorial for a lost culture.  Chauhan, adopting a brisk tempo and encouraging fairly sturdy and robust playing from the BBCSSO strings – the descending motif and dotted rhythms did not have time to sink into despondency – did not seem inclined to let us dwell on such thoughts.  And, that’s probably just as well, though there were places where the haste seemed excessive and a little more flexibility would have been preferred.  Metamorphosen is one of those compositions which is ecstasy to play but which leaves one exultant and exhausted in equal measure.   Now, there was no foot-applause from the BBCSSO musician; Strauss. and the silence, had said it all.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available if you click here.  All of the 2020 Proms concerts can be accessed on BBC Sounds or watched on BBC iPlayer until Monday 12 October.

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