Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Friday, August 5, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Ah, the keen anticipation of a world premiere, especially a potential major work such as a Symphony. It might be a dud, or a masterpiece, or something in between. Julian Anderson’s Second Symphony (‘Prague Panoramas’) is terrific. Anderson (born 1967, and not related to your correspondent) was inspired by a book of black-and-white panoramic photographs of Prague by Josef Sudek (1896-1976) published in 1959. Conversely, ‘Prague Panoramas’ the Symphony is colourful (scored for a large orchestra including woodwinds from piccolo to contrabassoon, two harps and a piano) and is co-commissioned by the BBC, Cleveland Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic. The first two movements were played in Munich in January, and then by the Czech Philharmonic in April, Semyon Bychkov conducting each time. Now, with the BBCSO, he led the premiere of the complete three-movement work, a punchy opener of energy and incident, boldly striding, somewhat Stravinskian, before more-lyrical material enters, and the ear is attracted to glinting sonorities, expressive asides and then brass-led, gong-capped tumult; the slow movement is shadowy yet luminous, a pair of cors anglais highlighted, a church bell strikes, the textures complex and fluxing (a few Tippettian moments), the atmosphere tense and with gnarled climaxes; and the Finale is of rhythmic snaps, powerful endeavour and, seemingly, a focus on arrival, which turns out not to be the expected celebration, but rather an ambiguous stopping chord following thirty-two minutes of symphonic largesse, time spent very rewardingly, with a need to listen again; there is much to unravel, especially the ending.

This thoughtfully planned Prom also included music by composers residing in America – Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos (1943) and Rachmaninov’s swansong Symphonic Dances (1940), the latter written for Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The former featured Katia & Marielle Labèque, in top form, for an exuberant, rhythmically demanding first movement, with unmistakeable Martinů chorale-like characteristics; a slow movement of gravitas; and a Finale that jollies along with composer-typical patterns to an unequivocal emphatic ending. Plenty of notes to negotiate for all concerned, successfully mastered, and a very enjoyable piece … unlike the laborious, for-god’s-sake-stop, Philip Glass encore. Ormandy’s 1960 CBS recording of Symphonic Dances is the one to judge all other recordings and concert performances of this great work (although I rate the few-years-earlier Third Symphony as even finer; Philadelphia again, Stokowski this time) and Bychkov did it well – impassioned emotions, well-chosen tempos, certainly Non allegro for the first movement, with its saxophone-led middle section, here avoiding lush, and look-back to the First Symphony; the haunted waltz of the second movement, with some especially en pointe playing; and the fire and desperation of the Finale – the abyss in view as the composer’s Vespers and his trademark use of the ‘Dies irae’ add to the electrifying yet raw culmination. Bychkov made no attempt to prettify this music at any point, to advantage (perhaps its title is a misnomer); he held on to the end’s gong-stroke for a short time – Ormandy does an abrupt cut-off, preferable – and it’s dying embers went straight into applause.