Sunday 10 August 2014

Proms Saturday Matinee no.2 – Hardenberger/Lapland CO/Storgårds: C.P.E. Bach, Birtwistle, Honegger, Davies, and Sibelius, 9 August 2014

Cadogan Hall

C.P.E. Bach – Symphony in B minor, Wq 182 no.5
Birtwistle – Endless Parade
Honegger – Pastorale d’été
Davies – Sinfonia
Sibelius - Rakastava

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
Lapland Chamber Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)

A principal theme of this year’s Proms has been the greater-than-ever variety of ensembles from across the world, many of them making their debuts here, whether at Cadogan Hall or a short walk away at the Royal Albert Hall. This Saturday Matinee offered the Proms debut of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, the most northerly orchestra in the European Union, conducted by its Artistic Director, John Storgårds, with trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger joining for Birtwistle’s Endless Parade.

To hear an orchestral work – or indeed any work – by C.P.E. Bach is a rare treat. Unfortunately, the performance of his ‘Hamburg’ Symphony in B minor, Wq 182 no.5 (a Proms first), was not the most ingratiating; indeed, the first movement proved downright abrasive, and not only on account of some dodgy intonation. The strangeness of Emanuel Bach’s orchestral tessitura registered, as did the disjunctures – a canny programming presentiment of Birtwistle? – but there is more to the composer than that. A slightly fuller tone was permitted to the small orchestra (, expanded for the following works) in the slow movement, and the finale was frenetic in a good sense. Still, it is sad to reflect that, on the few occasions when modern orchestras feel able to perform this music, they nevertheless so often feel constrained to ape ‘period’ mannerisms. If you have modern strings, make use of them!

Birtwistle’s Endless Parade offered what the composer, in a brief conversation with Clemency Burton-Hill, called a ‘piece of permanent discontinuity’, after Cubism, and more particularly after Picasso. The orchestra now sounded more at home, doubtless helped by the virtuosity and musical understanding of Hardenberger. Indeed, it would be little exaggeration to speak of ‘supreme command’ in his case. The piece was played as chamber music writ large, material tossed between soloist and various orchestral instruments. In its syncopation, it even approached ‘swing’, though jazz enthusiasts would probably beg to differ. It is, of course, a typically perspectival work, but I was struck – as was my companion, new to Birtwistle’s music – at the continuity that yet dialectically emerged from discontinuity. As Birtwistle commented, Beethoven is a true master in such matters, working, however, with the disadvantage (!) of tonality. Birtwistle’s language, technique, and for much of his career, eschewal of goal-orientation might seem to make him and Beethoven odd bed-fellows, but the comparison is well worth reflecting upon. As ever, of course, there was a keen sense not only of drama and landscape, but of drama through landscape, and of landscape through drama.

Another great English musical knight, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, was represented by his early (1962) Sinfonia, one of the works he wrote after – in one sense or another – Monteverdi’s Vespers, which, in a performance under Walter Goehr, had so inspired him and many others. (What a pity no recording seems to exist of any of Goehr’s performances! If anyone knows differently, I should be delighted to hear.) Davies admitted that he had not heard the piece since having conducted it during the 1980s with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and that he would take a red pencil to it now. I was interested to hear it, but should not necessarily rush to do so again. The opening clarinet solo was properly ‘recitando’, the first movement being marked ‘Lento recitando’, and that movement as a whole was full of expectant energy. None of the piece, though, seemed especially characteristic. The slow onward tread of the last of the four short movements came across very well in performance.

I could not bring myself to become excited about the other two pieces on the programme. Honegger’s Pastorale d’été ideally needs a greater cushion of strings than was available here. However, the essence of the music was well conveyed, greatly helped by steadiness in the rocking movement upon which it rests. Woodwind playing especially impressed – as indeed it had in Birtwistle. Sibelius’s Rakastava, the third of the pieces receiving its first Proms performance (Sinfonia having been the second) received an idiomatic, committed performance, if with smaller forces than it would doubtless often receive. (In this hall, it did not seem to matter.) Despite the characterful muted playing in the second movement, and especially fine solo cello playing throughout from Lauri Angervo, it remained for me a largely bland work. The encore, a Romance by Nils-Eric Fougstedt, was pleasant enough in a generic film-music sort of way.