‘Prague Panoramas’: a new symphony by Julian Anderson at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [14], Prom 26 – Anderson, Martinů, Rachmaninov: Katia & Marielle Labèque (pianos), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.8.2022. (CS)

Katia & Marielle Labèque (pianos) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Julian Anderson – Symphony No.2, ‘Prague Panoramas’ (BBC co-commission: world premiere of complete symphony)
Bohuslav Martinů – Concerto for Two Pianos, H292
Sergey RachmaninovSymphonic Dances, Op.45

Mendelssohn, Mozart, Dussek, Bruch, Françaix, Berio, Lennox Berkley … the list of composers who have contributed to the repertory of concertos for two pianos and orchestra is not long, with others such as Bartók, Bliss and Vaughan Williams adding arrangements of works originally composed for other forces.  And, if sibling-pianists such as Mona and Rica Bard, the Paratore brothers, Anthony and Joseph, Lidiya and Sanja Bizdak, and sisters Mari and Momo Kodama have kept such repertory in the public eye, then the only works which have become more than simply novelty fare are probably those by Poulenc (1932) and Martinů (1943).

Described by the New York Times as having ‘transformed the piano duo’, Katia and Marielle Labèque have been playing the latter for a long time during their professional partnership of five decades.  They were initially prompted to learn the work – the sisters explain in a programme interview – by Marielle’s husband, conductor Semyon Bychkov.  They ‘don’t actually perform it very often’, however, and this performance with Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was only the third performance of the Concerto at the Proms.  The first occurred in 1952 when it was played by husband-and-wife duo, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, and the LSO; 57 years passed before it was heard again, in an account by the Czechoslovakian pianists Jaroslava Pěchočová and Václav Mácha with the BBCSO conducted by its then Chief Conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek.  The latter had two stints (1990-92 and 2012-17) as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the role that Bychkov assumed in 2018.

The ‘Czech’ qualities of Martinů’s three-movement work are blended with jazzy influences – the Concerto was written two years after he’d emigrated to the US – but the composer’s characteristic rhythmic liveliness is much in evidence, in the percussive outer movements at least, and suits the precision and dynamism of the Labèques’ style.  The high-energy Allegro non troppo kicked off with éclat and bubbled effervescently, all piquant dissonances and syncopated dance-steps.  The sisters’ virtuosity was on display in the movement’s flying scales and weighty pounding, Katia more obviously foregrounding the muscularity and flair of the piano’s gestures, Marielle more poised and focused of intent.  The piano lines were sharply sculpted, sometimes sparkling though at times a little brittle.  More shading of tone would have been welcome, but perhaps the toccata-like rigour of the interplay doesn’t encourage such colouring.  Bychkov drew rich hues from the BBCSO, the string tone lustrous, the woodwind contributions nimbly defined, rhythms lithe, though sometimes, particularly in the concluding Allegro, the orchestral forces overshadowed the interweaving complexity of the pianists’ spinning and chasing (or so it seemed, at least, from my position in the Hall).

Semyon Bychkov (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The inner movement, Andante, offered the pianists the opportunity to sing as solo voices, alternating with orchestral groupings – sombre low woodwind, contemplative horns, delicate clarinet burbling, intense strings.  Here, there was more contrast of light and darkness, more variety of colour and a welcome spaciousness, the piano melodies extending relaxedly, then garnering energy.  I don’t think that this Concerto is a masterpiece, and sometimes Martinů slips into mechanical mode, but there is sufficient musical interest in the work to draw both exuberance and commitment from the Labèques and Bychkov.  The duo offered an encore, the final movement of Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos, a work in which the two pianists are constantly changing roles, perfectly showcasing the sisters’ expressive empathy.

If Martinů’s Concerto bears the imprint of the composer’s American sojourn, then Julian Anderson’s Second Symphony, subtitled ‘Prague Panoramas’, was inspired by the composer’s passion for the music, culture and landscape of a city that he has never visited: “When you write a piece of music about something which is not music, you are using your imagination.  So, Prague Panoramas is not a portrait of Prague, it is a portrait of my imagining of Prague,” he explains.  The eponymous ‘panoramas’ are those published by the photographer Josef Sudek in Prague Panoramic in 1959, a collection of historic, black and white, wide-angle photographs of Prague that Anderson found at an exhibition in the Photographers’ Gallery.  The Kodak camera that Sudek used allowed him to take 180-degree shots which have both incredible breadth and sharpness, with every detail in focus and no vanishing point, something which Anderson describes as ‘surreal’ and which inspired a sonic response: ‘[W]hen I looked at them, I thought it looked like a symphony orchestra, which is a huge semicircle.  And then I began to hear sounds in my head, my imagination.”

Those ‘sounds’ are made manifest by huge orchestral forces, including five percussionists who play glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, gongs, cymbals, drums and an assortment of bells – sleigh, church, hand, tubular – whose carillon evokes the installation, during the pandemic lockdown, of a crowd-funded bell in one of the churches in Prague, replacing one which the Nazis had melted down for ammunition.  Anderson witnessed the procession and striking of the bell on Janek Rubeš and Honza Mikulka’s Czech YouTube Channel, ‘Honest Guide’, digitally analysed a recording of the bell and its harmonies and colours infiltrate all three movements of his Symphony.

This was the first complete performance of ‘Prague Panoramas’, which was collectively commissioned by the Münchner Philharmoniker, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra, although Semyon Bychkov conducted performances of the first two movements in Munich and Prague earlier this year.  The first movement began with stabbing orchestral chords that gathered momentum, the silences between them ever shorter, filling up with layers of myriad tones and gestures.  Large woodwind and brass forces, expertly and scrupulously exploited, enabled Anderson to both create an epic sweep and fashion minutely detailed sounds in a multi-layered, ever-evolving, inexhaustible sonic tapestry, the outbursts of bells injecting joyfulness and vitality.  The central nocturne was initially coolly lyrical, but the complex woodwind sonorities were later interrupted by the clanging arrival of two church bells which sent a shimmer through the orchestra, triggering warm brassy echoes and folky flute ‘extemporising’ made mysterious by harmonics and overtones.  The effect was both airy and intense.

The third movement is a boisterous finale which Anderson describes as presenting bells and brawls, the latter ‘moments of growing orchestral anarchy’ prompted by the Czech painter-illustrator Josef Lada’s ‘hilarious depictions of pub brawls’.   Bychkov frothed, stirred and whipped up the BBCSO into a riotous frenzy which blew itself out, regathered its energies, exploded in chordal exclamations, and finally came to rest with calm equanimity.  Anderson must have been delighted by this performance by Bychkov and the BBCSO, which was meticulous, affectionate and committed.  In ‘Prague Panoramas’ imagination is certainly matched by ingenuity, Anderson’s response to the envisioned vistas of the city not so much pictorial as tactile and physical, architecture and landscape chiselled in sounds of great beauty, intricacy and invention.

The Prom closed with another work composed by an Eastern European in US exile – Rachmaninov’s final orchestral score, the Symphonic Dances, written during the summer and autumn of 1940 when he was vacationing in Huntington on Long Island and the only score he composed entirely in the US.  This was not a full-blooded Romantic schmaltz-fest but rather a truly sincere and deeply respectful reading.  Rachmaninov marks the opening movement ‘Non allegro’ and that’s what we got – a tempo that was unhurried but flowing, which left room for the details to tell but had a latent tension and drama which could snap into life as and when required.  There was a freshness and suppleness about the leaping, dancing motif of the first theme, before clarinet and oboe oscillations cleansed the air, the saxophone melody slipping with classical restraint gently into their cool waters.  Conversations with the cor anglais were tender, but the subsequent harp ripples through the unison strings brought a flush of warmth, the violins’ sheen supplemented by the piano’s sparkling droplets.  Bychkov wound things up persuasively, brass blazing, for the return, almost angry, of the main theme, while the strings’ G-string coda was melting and magical, though Bychkov did not neglect the details, coaxing glints of light from harp, piano and pizzicato violins.

Perhaps the horns and trumpets could have had a more piquant punch at the start of the second movement; there was a slight holding back, that was complemented by lovely solos from leader Igor Yuzefovich, clarinettist James Burke and oboist Timothy Rundle, but made the dance feel a little too ‘cool’.  Bychkov did hint at the ‘shadows’ that surface to restrain its easefulness of the lilt, but I missed the movement’s spectral darkness.  He unleashed the orchestral power in third dance, though, while never sacrificing structure and clarity of texture, and in the lyrical episodes the music opened its heart.

What was impressive about Bychkov’s direction was the cogency with which he brought the disparate stylistic voices together, turning the corners with confident and convincing vision. Perhaps there was not swooning ecstasy but there was undeniable, irresistible beauty, and just the right tingle of yearning and love.

Claire Seymour

1 thought on “‘Prague Panoramas’: a new symphony by Julian Anderson at the Proms”

  1. All the positives in this review chime in with my own reaction to these performances. I was disappointed to read a cooler review of the symphony in another paper. This, and indeed the other two works in the programme, came over (in the hall, and no doubt on the radio) wonderfully well. The Anderson would, to use an over-worn phrase, repay further listening. The orchestral textures and the changing sound-mix are most compelling, the unfolding of ideas seem very convincing, and the pitch element of the music – harmony, contrasts of tonality (yes, tonality is there in a non-obvious, beautifully subtle way) – somehow both intriguing and very satisfying.
    I came away feeling that the BBC SO must be up there with the world’s best. The playing of these musicians, in all departments, was stupendous – there’s no other word for it. I’m sure that they were responding to the imaginative, sympathetic and totally assured direction of Semyon Bychkov.
    The Labèque sisters were terrific – right on top of the challenges of the Martinu work. Their encore – well, thank you, ladies – but I can’t see the light about Philip Glass. Without knowing, until later, what that piece was it struck me as very banal. It must just be me.


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