BBC Proms 2014: Shostakovich, Bartók and Tavener

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Spiritual Tavener and electrifying Bartók at Prom 7

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BBC Proms 2014: Shostakovich, Bartók and Tavener

Last night Tavener’s Gnosis was given its posthumous world premiere. It felt like a haunting, and a provocation: was this endearing iconoclast having the last laugh, or mining new spiritual depths? Perhaps both.

The twelve-minute orchestral meditation, the title of which means ‘Spiritual Knowledge’, shares the intense stillness of his best works: mezzo-soprano (here, Sarah Connolly in vibrant voice) shadowed by alto flute (Michael Cox) intoned powerful words from Hindu, Islamic and Christian faiths. These are repeated throughout, in a familiar ritualistic encircling, underpinned by a deep bass drone on C.  All his formal rigour – and recklessness – was there, with sudden, violently virtuosic string episodes crashing into the music’s hushed sanctuary.

Less familiar was his use of a 12-tone palindrome to open the piece. Such serialism turns out to be skin-deep – when Connolly came to the word ‘ananda’ or bliss, consoling diatonic harmonies soothed her rapturous melody ­– but each time the tone row returned, sometimes in canon with instruments, it brought an intense, otherworldly quality.  And then came the ending. From out of nowhere, strings and flute broke into Mozart’s jaunty theme from the Piano Concerto K453. A ripple of laughter spread through the hall. After 16 bars ‘full of radiance and grace’ in Tavener’s own words, it stopped, swallowed by the dark roar of the bass drone. How fitting, in that vast temple to music, that his final glimpse of heaven belonged to Mozart.

There was a curious musical echo in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, the work in which the composer had tried to outdo the serialists in his own use of the 12-tone system for tonal ends. From the sumptuous dreaminess of its opening bars to its blistering finish, this was an absolute tour de force from the magnificent Isabelle Faust. Her rhythmic vivacity electrified the orchestra under Jiří Bělohlávek, brass crackled, each harp note rang clear. Her playing is truly Bartókian, both austere and sensuous, wild and contained. In the enormous third movement she met every virtuosic challenge with fresh inspiration, and a seemingly inexhaustible range of colours. Her encore, of Bach’s Sarabande from the D minor Partita, was a fragile miracle, played at the edge of silence.

Having heard the BBC Symphony Orchestra give such a riveting recent account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 under Oramo, Bělohlávek’s Tenth was a disappointment. The first movement sagged, with weird time lags between strings and wind, while the Allegro had plenty of energy but never snarled; dance tunes failed to sparkle and at the climax to the first movement strings lacked a desperate edge. The performance improved through a well-dramatised third movement and a series of beautiful wind solos in the mysterious final prologue. But the night really belonged to Bartók.