Alsop’s programme with her Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra was carefully curated but lacked variety

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [19], Prom 36 – Bartók, Prokofiev, Hannah Eisendle, Dvořák: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop (conductor). 13.8.2022 concert recorded at the Royal Albert Hall (directed by Helen Mansfield) and available on BBC iPlayer. (JPr)

Benjamin Grosvenor

Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin Suite
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, Op.26
Hannah Eisendle – heliosis (UK premiere)
Dvořák Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70, B.141

I have been more concerned with music than in the presentation of these BBC Proms when shown on TV and usually fast-forward all the talking but there was an interesting introduction from Marin Alsop, Chief Conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, about what we would hear: ‘The goal for me always in programming is to try and present something that has real variety in it. It’s like a great menu; contrasting flavour, something spicey, something savoury, so the idea is to really intrigue people and keep their ears alive and fresh. The programme starts for me with one piece and I usually try and build out from there.’ For this Prom that piece was Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite.

I don’t know the original 1926 one-act ballet or have I ever heard the Suite before, but I understand the plot is an odd one and concerns three tramps and a seductive girl trying to relieve passers-by of their money and after two failures they lure a mandarin and the music (I understand) ends when – with his passion roused – the girl escapes his embrace and he chases after her. We miss out on the three attempts by the tramps to kill the mandarin, what happens when he finally catches the girl, and his subsequent death. The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra founded in 1969 – yet making their first appearance at the Proms – give Bartók full dramatic value and you sensed their absolute involvement in every bar from the musical depiction of a ‘concrete jungle’ at the beginning to the rampant chase at the end. There would be many ear-catching moments throughout the evening and The Miraculous Manadrin proved a marvellous introduction to the various sections of the orchestra. Trumpets and trombones are particularly prominent starting by imitating car horns, as well as the first victim (an old man), and the mandarin and much more besides. The girl and the tramps seem to be heard in clarinet and violas and the young man seduced next is represented by the oboe. For me, there is more than a hint of Stravinsky’s 1913 The Rite of Spring before it all ends with the chase, a fugue, that ramps up to what the BBC’s presenter, Jess Gillam, described as a ‘terrifying conclusion’.

Marin Alsop conducts Benjamin Grosvenor (piano) and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra

Next was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C major and even if I am able to truly ‘connect’ with any non-vocal music I do find works for piano like this the least ‘accessible’. Research shows now the composer completed the concerto in 1921 having begun sketching it out several years earlier, but now it is one of the most popular of the five he completed as it is particularly lyrical and melodious. This was evident from the first bars of this performance from the Viennese musicians under Alsop who gave it everything. After a gentle start the pace of the concerto picked up and it became clear that Benjamin Grosvenor’s piano is simply the icing on the orchestral cake because they are in an equal partnership with the soloist. Often intensely Romantic, yet with moments of dissonance, it becomes more rhapsodic and stormier across its three movements despite the second movement’s showy-offy theme and variations. And here is the problem, should we just be marvelling at the brilliance and speed of Grosvenor’s fingerwork or getting something more from the music? In the close-up camerawork you will be amazed at Grosvenor’s laidback style, technical prowess and undoubted virtuosity and his wonderful partnership with the Vienna orchestra.

Lots of applause from a well-filled Royal Albert Hall was rewarded by an encore which Grosvenor introduced as ‘I’m going to play some water music because it’s very hot today. I’m going to play Ravel’s Jeux d’eau.’ His 1901 Water Games is relatively short but – perversely – seemed too long for an encore, it was tinkly, with moments when the water surged and subsided whilst proving another impressive showcase for Grosvenor’s pianism.

The new work – there is often a premiere of some sort – was Hannah Eisendle’s heliosis which the young Austrian composer considers is a ‘searing evocation of extreme heat’ with its title meaning heatstroke or sunstroke. This of course was very apt for Britain in the midst of a hot summer. In part the music sounded like a homage to the Bartók we heard earlier, notably in the growling trombones and the way it gained in momentum as it drew to the controlled chaos of its conclusion. However, there was the usual modern reliance on an array of percussion with eclectic sounds and effects. I didn’t recognise Gillam’s description of a ‘visceral new work’ as it was indistinguishable from many similar new compositions.

This programme may well have been carefully curated but ennui was setting in because it was all beginning to sound very much the same and there was too little variety in what we were being offered. I was surprised to read the motivation behind Dvořák’s 1885 Seventh Symphony and how it was about the composer’s patriotism, his hopes for an independent Czech nation and his compatriots’ resistance to political oppression. The music is expressive and even if I hadn’t read any of the background to the symphony, I doubt I would have heard any more of this in the music. The opening to the Allegro maestoso is dramatic and it ended with a brass-led culmination and whilst Alsop looked as stern as she had done throughout the Prom, in between, the best description I can think for the string sound of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra was Gemütlichkeit. The gentle Poco Adagio was lushly Romantic and saw Alsop actually smiling on the podium. Dvořák’s interest in the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia was evident in the Scherzo with – as earlier in the symphony – prominent horns, flutes, timpani and swaying strings. The best from Alsop and her orchestra came in the Finale, an Allegro which began with a measured tread, sounded rather pastorale before arriving at an exhilarating close with more brass and some greater profundity.

In the context of the rest of the Prom the encores were odd: Alsop introduced the first by saying, ‘It pays tribute to one of my favourite girl bands – and you know there needs to be a lot more girl bands in the world – and the name of the tune is “Pussy Polka for Pussy Riot”’. This was commissioned in 2013 from Gerhard E Winkler and was pure pastiche Johann Strauss II. With the return of the myriad percussion, the odd sound effects were back and it all ended with some (police?) whistles. Finally something echt-Viennese, Strauss’s Thunder and Lighting Polka which probably meant more to me than anything else in the programme.

Jim Pritchard

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