BBC Proms #26 – The Labèques, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Julian Anderson premiere, Martinů & Rachmaninoff

Prom 26 – Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (above)

Anderson Symphony No. 2 ‘Prague Panoramas’ (2020-22) (BBC co-commission: World premiere of complete work)
Martinů Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra H292 (1943)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 5 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

An unusually well-assembled concert this evening with what might be termed a programme of ‘three-by-threes’ – each of these three works having three movements which, in each case, results in a broadly symmetrical design, not least the Second Symphony by Julian Anderson (with the conductor, below).

Inspired by Josef Sudek’s photographs of Prague while utilizing two medieval Czech hymns, Prague Panoramas (might Prague Pictures be even more apposite?) is typical in its fusing evocativeness with precision. Not least the preludial opening movement, its stark alternation of quick-fire chords and silence evolving into aspiring melodic lines as build to a tumultuous if quickly curtailed climax, though this linear aspect comes to dominate the nocturnal central movement with its expressive intensifications then fades against a backdrop of bell resonance and luminously modal polyphony. The finale is a deftly organized rondo – its energetic main material, inspired by Josef Lada’s almost Rabelaisian depictions of pub brawls, interspersed with more lyrical ideas through to the heady peroration later subsiding into a calm postlude.

Although its first two movements had been heard in Munich and Prague, this was the work’s first complete performance and found the BBC Symphony at its collective best – not least the lambently interweaving woodwind and strings, the visceral impact of brass and a substantial array of percussion whose contribution was pervasive. Semyon Bychkov (under-appreciated as an exponent of contemporary music) duly brought out that unity-within-diversity such as gave this work an underlying focus across the 32 minutes of its eventful yet cohesive course.

From Prague-inspired music by a British composer to that by a Czech composer in America – Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos may never have gained the plaudits of his earlier Double Concerto but it typifies this composer’s exile in a tried-and-tested interplay of folk-inflected melodicism with a harmonic acerbity recalling Prokofiev and rhythmic dexterity redolent of Stravinsky. Its undoubted highlight is a central Adagio whose almost ‘harmonie’ woodwind writing and circling piano figuration (had the composer come across the gamelan-influenced music of Colin McPhee?) feels mesmeric and affecting. Neither outer movement comes close in their audibly contrived amalgam of the rumbustious and lyrical, but this is music in which Katia and Marielle Labèque excel and tonight’s performance could rarely have been equalled.

Nor was there any doubting Bychkov’s authority in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances that followed the interval. Admittedly this now regularly played while technically exacting piece needed more rehearsal than the BBCSO was able to give it on this occasion, though the outer sections of the first dance had just the right ominous incisiveness and its middle part featured winsome alto saxophone from Martin Robertson. The second dance had irony and angularity aplenty, as was slightly offset by the strings’ less than unanimous response towards the close.

Its sombre ambivalence and intricate textures give the central span of the final dance a quality unique in this composer: if Bychkov might have endowed it with even greater intensity, there was no doubting his identity with this music here or on the way to its resplendent apotheosis.

For more information, click on the names of composer Julian Anderson – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Katia and Marielle Labèque, Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. For more on this year’s BBC Proms as it continues, head to the Proms website

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

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