Soloists Christopher Maltman and Siobhan Stagg take the applause with conductor Simone Young and the BBC Symphony Orchestra after their performance of Zemlinsky‘s Lyric Symphony (c) Chris Christodoulou
Prom 62; Royal Albert Hall, 31 August 2016
You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer
Every festival has its ‘down’ periods – and here it was the turn of the Proms. Don’t stop reading there though, as by ‘down’ period I mean a Royal Albert Hall that was perhaps half full and music that was relatively unknown. The combination can on occasion lead to an unsatisfactory evening, but here it was a heartening opposite.
It was good to note a rare UK appearance for the Australian conductor Simone Young, her first at the Proms. Young is predominantly an opera specialist, so it was perhaps inevitable that Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony of 1923 should bring out the very best in her brief relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
This powerful, passionate account got off to the best possible start, assertively bringing Zemlinsky’s themes of doomed love to the front of the layered texture and packing the music with drama. Here Young was helped by the woodwind and brass, horn player Nicholas Korth in particular, though when singers Christopher Maltman and Siobhan Stagg got into action theirs was the defining contribution.
Baritone Maltman’s silky contribution was brilliantly judged, an ideal complement to Stagg’s soaring soprano, though the biggest notes on her part were saved for the particularly anguished lines in the poems of Rabindranath Tagore. When she began Stratt was a little coy, beautifully so, for this got the audience on to her side and meant we all felt her tragedy in Vollende denn das letzte Lied (Then finish the last song). Maltman it was who ended the symphony, striving for peace, which Young ultimately found in the beautifully floated coda.
The performance was the shade to the light of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.5. This did receive a slightly heavy performance in comparison to others, but the strings of the BBC SO were beautifully graceful in the slow movement and accommodating to soloist Baiba Skride (below, with the orchestra) in the outer fast movements.
Skride’s violin makes a beautiful sound, and it was a feature of her performance that the notes were floated towards the audience, respectful of the orchestral accompaniment but making the most of Mozart’s melodic inspiration. The choice of cadenzas by Brahms’s contemporary Joseph Joachim was a little risky but the virtuosic passages were sensitively handled, while in the finale, the so-called ‘Turkish’ part of the concerto that actually sounds more Hungarian, there was a pleasing rustic feel, as though we had all been ushered outdoors together. As a footnote to this, Skride chose a movement from a sonata by the eighteenth century composer Johann Paul von Westhoff as her encore.
First up on the program was a world premiere, Bayan Northcott’s Concerto for Orchestra. It is great to have so many in the Proms season, with the unfortunate caveat that not many of these pieces get a second hearing. This one was a premiere in two respects, being Northcott’s first work for orchestra alone. At the age of 76 that is an impressive achievement, and his care over the composition could be sensed in a compressed piece that was full of incident. Debts to 20th century composers such as Hindemith were occasionally felt, but the enthusiasm of the two fast movements drove the music forward, speaking in tunes but also impressing the ear with their instrumental textures too.