Sunday, August 25, 2013

Two Proms: Shostakovich, Lutoslawski, Britten and others

On Friday went to my first Prom of the season - the Warsaw Phil under Antoni Wit playing Lutosławski, Panufnik and Shostakovich. Lutoslawski I can take or leave - technically very accomplished but self-regarding "modernism". The Panufnik was more interesting, with the Lullaby quite haunting.

I love Shostakovich - in my view clearly the greatest composer who lived entirely in the 20th Century. The Piano Concerto he wrote for his son Maxim was in many ways (by his own admission) a slight work but well played. The theme of the first movement reminds me of "what shall we do with the drunken sailor" and I imagine Britten will have ribbed him about this  - it could even be deliberate (I've now googled and it seems that it was, though I can't find any actual letters about it).  The soloist was fine though in this day and age using a score, even as a backup, seems a bit odd.

The 6th Symphony was excellently played, and the 2nd movement especially convincing - not "kitch" at all. Audience loved it.

Then yesterday we went to the Chamber Prom at the Cadogan Hall. The ECO was conducted by Paul Watkins with Ben Johnson singing and Richard Watkins (no kin) on the Horn.  The first item was a Britten arrangement of Purcell, followed by another Lutoslawski - Paroles Tissees sung well by Johnson but as a piece yet more self-regarding than the Concerto for Orchestra last night.

In 1953 Britten organised a set of 8 Variations on an Elizabethan Theme with each variation written by a different composer (Arthur Oldham, Tippett, Lennox Berkeley, Britten himself, Humphrey Searle and Walton) and for this occasion the BBC had commissioned two more variations by John Woolrich and Tansy Davies. I hadn't come across Oldham or Searle and on the evidence of their variations hadn't missed a great deal. The Berkeley and Walton variations were a delight and a reminder of how good these people were, in some ways outsihining the Britten and certainly the Tippett.

The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is of course a masterwork and was excellently performed. According to the announcer it is Richard Watkins' favourite piece for the horn, and although the Brahms Horn Trio and the Mozart Horn Concerto are stiff competition I can see what he means. Tecnically it explores the instrument far more. Apparently Dennis Brain asked Britten for a Horn Concerto and got the Serenade instead - a good trade!

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