Two nights at the Proms

by Jennifer Bryce

It’s uncanny, but as the plane circles down to Heathrow and we can pick out ‘the Gherkin’, St Paul’s Cathedral, Windsor Castle, I am overwhelmed with a sense of coming home to London. Why? My mother was born there, but left when she was six months old. I was born in Australia and didn’t go to England until I was in my thirties. I put this home-coming feeling down to having been imbued with English culture as a child: Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows, the Secret Garden . . . And so, when I sit in the Royal Albert Hall, soaking in the pomp and circumstance, all the things about the British Empire that I despise are cast aside.

This happened on two occasions during my recent trip to London. The first was Prom Concert 29, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on 7th August. We sat in the back row of the circle, wallowing in Britishness, looking down on the spectacle as we sipped white wine from plastic beakers.

The concert opened with excerpts from Mozart’s Idomeneo, then followed what was the highlight for me, a dazzling performance of Ravel’s piano concerto in G, played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. It starts with a whip crack. I loved the contrasts of crisp percussiveness and smooth Gershwin-like moments – it was described in the program as an ‘art deco’ piece of music. It requires an enormous technique. Apparently Ravel didn’t have the skill to perform it himself and the first performance was by Marguerite Longue, a contemporary Ravel scholar at the Paris conservatoire.

After interval we heard a world premiere of a piece by Messiaen, orchestrated from his short score , Un oiseau des arbres de vie, inspired by the New Zealand Tui bird. At the time I thought the piece very percussive for a bird, but I later read that Messiaen had been sent a tape of the Tui and he said, ‘The Tui utters sounds that are sometimes flute-like, at other times grating; absolutely extraordinary.’ This was conveyed in the music, transcribed for orchestra by Christopher Dingle after Messiaen’s death. Then there was another short piece transcribed for orchestra (this time inspired by a blackbird), Oiseaux tristes.

We then heard an exciting performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, composed from pieces he’d written unsuccessfully for movies. I thought this matched the Ravel very well – it’s jazzy chords and American influence. It was the first piece Stravinsky wrote in America and, being the 1940s, it is influenced by World War II. Apparently the first movement was inspired by a documentary on Japanese scorched earth tactics and the third movement includes a (German) goose-stepping rhythm. The concert finished with an appropriately energetic performance of Ravel’s La Valse, leaving me in a state of utter exhilaration.

I was back at the Royal Albert Hall again on 28th August for Prom 57, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Bernard Haitink. This time we were sitting in the front row of the stalls, almost too close to the people who, seemingly indefatigable, stand in the centre of the hall for the entire performance. (I thought they walked around and hence the term ‘prom’ – but these days there are so many ‘standers’, there isn’t room for much movement at all.)

It was a more traditional program, starting with a Schubert Overture in C Major. Bernard Haitink is 86 and I admire his resilience, conducting this lengthy program – but his conducting is sedate, controlled, experienced; he certainly doesn’t convey verve or vitality. To a considerable extent this was overcome by the orchestra – great to have a chamber orchestra – the woodwind in particular played as if it were a chamber concert, with much subtlety except for one or two clarinet entries. Then came the magnificent Maria Joao Pires, playing the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major K488. She is seventy, but a wonderful example of energy and brilliance. She played the concerto as though it were new and exciting for her, although she must have played it hundreds of times. Her approach seemed the exact opposite to Haitink’s rather pedestrian conducting. Her performance was brilliant and fresh – a delight.

The concert concluded with Schubert’s C Major symphony ‘the Great’ – it cannot fail to be thrilling and a wonderful piece to hear in such a festive atmosphere. Haitink, subdued and controlled, looked the exact opposite to the energetic sounds he was commanding. The surging rhythm of the finale ran through my head for days.