Written down, it looked to be a disparate mix of music of three centuries, but in practice, the four works on the BBC Symphony Orchestra and American conductor Karina Canellakis’ Prom 12 programme were connected by energy and pulse. The explosive power of Beethoven’s Coriolan overture told as much, snapping into being with punchy exactness thanks to the tautness of the BBCSO’s ensemble. This was a startlingly modern account of the short piece, concerned not with hand-wringing emotion but instead with the opposition of textures and moods: moving parts, churning and falling away, all adding up to a greater emotional resonance than might have been the case with more conventional heart-on-sleeve histrionics. 

Karina Canellakis and Alisa Weilerstein © BBC | Sarah Jeynes
Karina Canellakis and Alisa Weilerstein
© BBC | Sarah Jeynes

Beethoven was a great hero of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and hearing his First Cello Concerto of 1959 gave a strong sense of how this fed into his music. Like Beethoven’s Coriolan, Shostakovich’s Concerto establishes its urgency and efficiency immediately, signalling the material and the tone from which the rest will unfurl. American cellist Alisa Weilerstein set out her stall too, pecking at the little four-note motif with which the cellist begins the piece. Her attack was unstinting from there, and she contrasted this fury with glassy isolation in the slow movement. As impressive as these modes were, I wondered if they didn’t pitch each movement too totally as one emotional world; the seeds of each might rather be seen as lying in the others, given that Shostakovich is rarely saying one thing at a time. Soloist, orchestra and conductor were of a mind, though, and if we are to have Shostakovich-as-composer-of-extremes, it can’t be any more exacting and furious than this. Weilerstein found further contrast in a long, quiet Bach encore (the Sarabande from the Fourth Suite), which proved a little too fragile in the face of an onslaught of coughing.

Noises-off threatened to unravel Andrew Norman’s Spiral, heard here in a UK première performance, before it had really got going. It begins with an ear-tickling clatter and falls into near-silence, which was here helpfully filled by the sound of audience members dropping their heaviest affects. These contributions weren’t in the score, which seeks to ramp-up across a seven-minute duration to a point of implosion. It’s a simple aim, but Norman succeeds brilliantly. His piece sucks the audience in like an overture-sized black hole; I had the sense of time operating backwards, thanks to some ingenious writing that sounded here like he’d put the BBCSO into reverse. 

Alisa Weilerstein and the BBCSO © BBC | Sarah Jeynes
Alisa Weilerstein and the BBCSO
© BBC | Sarah Jeynes

If pulse and energy really were the connectives between the programme’s moving parts, the thread was rather weakened by a curiously low-energy reading of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. The Russian émigré’s lean and sparkling final work was composed in Long Island, New York, in 1940, and its lush Romanticism is tempered by some kind of steel and bite. Canellakis’ direction seemed inspired by a desire to swap Romantic excess for subtlety of phrasing and ensemble, but the first bursts of angular motion lacked the Coriolan crispness of the concert’s beginning, and pace ebbed away whenever one idea gave way to another. What might have come off as refined in a smaller space simply seemed underpowered in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, and the performance only really began to work once the wattage had been cranked up in the second of the three movements. With that, the sense of play and dance spoke across the space more fully, and this team’s finale was genuinely exciting. Maybe Canellakis can find the tightness and pace in the music to do justice to her ideas, because she clearly has them in abundance.

***11