Proms Diary: Knussen conducts Henze, Stravinsky and Tippett

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Daniel Jaffé

Daniel Jaffé
Daniel Jaffé
, Updated 5th August 2013

Oliver Knussen introduces Henze and Peter Serkin to the Proms

It was a 7.30pm start, but felt more like a late-night Prom, with several of the Albert Hall’s higher tiers of seats conspicuously empty. There were undoubtedly sound aesthetic reasons for Oliver Knussen to couple a rarely heard Hans Werner Henze work with two of Stravinsky’s more austere concertante works and Tippett’s Second Symphony – the work which notoriously ground to a halt when Adrian Boult attempted to conduct its premiere – but clearly the programme was not a crowd-puller. More’s the pity.

Henze’s Barcarola, a substantial single-movement work composed in 1979 and lasting some 20 minutes, was receiving its first Proms performance. I’d previously heard Simon Rattle’s recording, but cannot say I was prepared to be quite as carried away as I was by the richly eventful and colourful tapestry revealed by Oliver Knussen’s performance. The title, which suggests a gondolier’s carefree serenade, hardly prepares one for its baleful and arresting opening – a loud, sustained bass note reminiscent of the opening of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem.

This is in fact quite appropriate, since Henze wrote the work as a memorial to the composer Paul Dessau (1894-1979), and, according to the programme note, intended to evoke ‘Charon the ferryman rowing the dead across the Styx’. It is remarkable how Henze convincingly takes us from its nightmarish opening, involving a pair of bass clarinets like snarly, subterranean serpents, to something far more beautiful, involving a solo cello and serenading clarinet in cloudy yet evocative harmonies embodying ‘the visions of a dying man who recalls episodes of his life as he makes his last journey’.

The other ‘first’ of the evening was the pianist Peter Serkin, a long-standing friend of Knussen’s, making his first appearance at the Proms. Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments was also an opportunity for the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s brass and woodwind to shine with crisp and incisive articulation. Their playing told even in the unsympathetic Albert Hall acoustic, which is more than what can be said for the hapless Serkin whose piano in the first movement may just as well have been a harpsichord. Things improved with the central movement – an essay in steely neo-classicism – followed by the rhythmic Allegro.

After the interval came Stravinsky’s sparer Movements, composed in the late-1950s very much in the fleeting manner of Webern, using an orchestra even smaller than one typically needed for a Mozart symphony. Serkin’s announcement of his solo encore was inaudible and so left a lot of people wondering what was the charming Gershwin-style piano piece he played? It turns out, typically, to have been a transcription of Takemitsu’s I Just Sing.

By contrast followed the huge forces required for Tippett’s Second Symphony, its powerful chugging bass Cs inspired by the composer hearing the insistent pounding of a Vivaldi concerto. Vivaldi is in fact something of a red herring, as the work is recognisably by the composer of The Midsummer Marriage with its lithe woodwind writing, rhythmic spring and magical harmonies. Again, though, this was not perhaps the ideal acoustic for such a richly detailed work, and the finale failed to have the cumulative effect needed but so rarely achieved in performance to truly ‘clinch’ this work.

The BBC Proms continue until 7 September, with every performance broadcast live on Radio 3 and many broadcast on BBC Four. You can also catch up with concerts you've missed on iPlayer. This Prom can be heard again on the iPlayer website here.

Contributor profile

Daniel Jaffé

Daniel Jaffé
Daniel Jaffé