Magazine article The Spectator

Proms Charisma

Magazine article The Spectator

Proms Charisma

Article excerpt

With the second half of this summer's Proms lustre and charisma were restored. It was a season rich above all in lateRomantic Austro-German symphonic blockbusters -- Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss - canoodled into life by outstanding orchestras native and foreign.

With the novelties, too, size has mattered. I was prevented from hearing two Important Statements concerning the human condition, James MacMillan's choral symphony Quickening and Havoc, Giles Swayne's ecological poem for voices and chamber group. Two apparently more modest new offerings offered the proverbial rewards of the still small voice. Judith Weir and David Matthews could be naughtily described as centre left and centre right of the British compositional mainstream currently so rich and varied - but only if such labelling carries no implication of downgrading. Both do what they do with astute mature assurance.

Matthews's Fifth Symphony (21 August) is certainly the more conventional with its neat layout in four movements for classicalsized orchestra. The first is taut, even brusque, owing motor energy and some of its harmonic tang to the first of Stravinsky's in Three Movements. Greater warmth and expression come in the slow movement with its dark build-up and release via woodwind cadenzas into a finale cleverly juggling different layers of triple time hunt, jig, waltz. Only the scherzo struck me as settling for routine. Material is low-profile, even a bit anonymous; but this is true often enough of those symphonies by Haydn that demonstrate the completest mastery of statement and structure.

Judith Weir describes Natural History, her new cycle of four songs with orchestra, as a Taoist Carnival of the Animals, adding, 'I have for some time considered Taoism to be the most helpful of established philosophies in the conduct of modern life'. Four 'animals' are presented: the horse, his noble freedom curbed by bit, reins, whip, goad, upon which he (possibly) thrives; the singer, abandoning his worldly all in pure uncalculated release; the swimmer, following the way of the water which buoys him where fish and turtles do not dare; the fish/bird so vast that it fills ocean and empyrean. The orchestra is sizeable yet spare, transparent dully-luminous, permitting the soprano (Dawn Upshaw) to float untrammelled. The stance is detached, the musical imagery precise and elegant. One could almost call the result tongue-incheek save for the unmissable inner intensity so coolly worn - a triumph of intonation.

The same concert by the BBC Phil. (21 August) ended with the most eloquent case I've yet heard for the middle of Richard Strauss's three diversely preposterous monster sonic autobiographies. …

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