Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

To open this Prom there was the addition of Sonance Severance 2000, a tribute to the late Sir Harrison Birtwistle, which he composed in 1999 for the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi, the premiere being on January 8, 2000, in Severance Hall. A short piece for large forces (including six horns and two sets of timpani) Sonance is incident-packed, beginning in the depths with much activity in the storeys above as the piece climbs. It was good to hear it, a reminder of a great composer, especially when conducted by one of his staunchest champions, Martyn Brabbins,

At the other end of the first half, Brabbins led (centenarian) Iannis Xenakis’s Jonchaies (1977), scored specifically for one-hundred-and-nine players, including eighteen first violins and ten basses, seventy string-players in total. The opening ethereal/dense writing for these instruments (including some Psycho shower-scene stabs) gives no clue, for all the complexity, as to how Jonchaies will unfold, which is pulsating, as woodwinds, brass and percussion are unleashed in powerhouse rhythms and dynamics (plenty of crescendos and diminuendos), more and more instruments joining – the conductor’s score is three-foot tall – not forgetting sirens and some intricately notated primeval cries from the brass. Totally compelling. Extraordinary performance, too (the strings’ intonation seemed always exact, the rest of the BBC Symphony Orchestra tireless and precise). The final sounds belong to a couple of piccolos pecking away in the reed-beds. A fantastic experience overall.

In between, Tom Borrow played Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto, whip-crack-away for a very well-judged account, especially regarding tempo, so that the first movement’s contrasts – such as jazz and languor – had an attractive indivisibility, Borrow not rushing or attention-seeking, and Brabbins and the BBCSO swinging and shaping their in-tandem accompaniment delightfully and subtly, Borrow making the expressive best of extended trill passages, and his intimacy with the slow movement was very touching, confiding, the listener present by invitation, complemented by beguiling woodwind solos. The Finale did not try to break speed records; rather detail and characterisation were the winners, Borrow (in his early-twenties) establishing himself as a musician rather than a showman, Brabbins and the BBCSO the antithesis of being bystanders. Borrow offered a Debussy Prélude as a dazzling encore, ‘Feux d’artifice’, the final number of the Book II collection. Once again, the music came first as Borrow peered into its possibilities amidst the brilliance.

Following the interval, and the Xenakis, casting a very long shadow it must be said, we still had The Rite of Spring to contemplate. Believe it or not, this was Brabbins’s first time conducting it. To use his own word, this was a “classical” approach (opening with a beautifully enunciated bassoon solo), the music connected to Firebird, Petrushka, and Russian musical roots, with nothing gratuitous or diminished, and with the feeling throughout that this is a score with dance at its heart, and with a higher impressionistic quotient than might be supposed. Refreshing, just like Brabbins’s Beethoven during the last Proms season,, meanwhile The Rite’s ‘Sacrificial Dance’, time-signatures meticulous, was were we’d be going all the time; genuinely cumulative.

Xenakis centenary events in Athens, Paris and beyond.