Prom 39 presented a highly unique programme, featuring composers all celebrating a milestone this year. Mozart’s First Symphony was composed exactly 250 years ago, the year of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s death. Richard Strauss continues his 150th birthday anniversary celebrations, and a performance of Bernard Rands’ new Concerto for piano and orchestra marks his 80th birthday year.

Markus Stenz © Josep Molina
Markus Stenz
© Josep Molina

Opening the programme was the Suite drawn from Rameau’s opera-ballet, Les Indes galantes. A work of the high French Baroque, all love, exoticism and general revelry, I was surprised by what felt like a rather restrained start from the small ensemble chosen from the BBC SSO for its performance. While the phrasing was often quite beautiful and the ornaments well articulated, it was not until the fourth movement that the orchestra began to play with real conviction and energy that this music so requires.

The orchestra’s tone throughout was deep and velvety rich, quite different from that of specialist “historically informed” ensembles that more commonly perform such repertoire.  Instead of the more open sound that often characterises these ensembles, and without the inimitable tone that period instruments can produce, the music felt much weightier, and I could not help but miss that particular timbre of the harpsichord and other instruments that so enlivens this music. Though well articulated in that unique French Baroque style, this remained a somewhat reserved performance – at moments where the line yearns to be carried through to the next phrase, the players shied away anticlimactically, and despite its clean execution, it never seemed wholly convinced of itself.

While the Suite of Les Indes galantes received its first performance at the Proms, Bernard Rands’ Concerto for piano and orchestra received its UK première, first performed by Jonathan Biss and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in April this year. The title of the work is carefully chosen: this is not a concerto of the 19th century tradition, but one in which the piano (again played by Biss) and orchestra are both equal partners in the musical discourse. The opening of the first movement illustrates this immediately as ideas transfer fluidly from one to the other. A sustained lyrical line, contrasted with staccato interjections is passed around the ensemble, the piano merging with, or emerging from, the orchestral texture in a subtle interplay of timbres. Small melodic phrases provide points of reflection and orientation, and combined with the lyricism and logic of Rands’ musical language, this was contemporary music that you never felt alienated or lost from, but was rather unremittingly engaged in throughout.

The second, and with a nod to the past, slow middle movement, opened almost inaudibly. Slow and intensely introspective, a hushed atmosphere descended as the music gradually unfolded. The quiet, modest entrance of the piano was utterly magical, and Biss seemed to be in perfect communion with the orchestra. every passage was performed with utter dedication to the musical intention, either intensely inward or resonantly declamatory.

The final movement is built around an ever-expanding tremolo, while staccato interjections remind us strongly of the first movement. Parts were again transferred between sections with excellent coordination, yet this shimmering texture was somehow more unsettled, at times even sinister. As Stenz skilfully brought the piece to its hushed close, I found the BBCSSO had me wholly transfixed from start to finish in this highly imaginative and thrilling musical discourse.

Composed a stone’s throw away in Chelsea’s Ebury Street, Mozart’s Symphony no. 1 was written when he was just eight years old, during his early European tour. Understandably not the most complex composition of his, yet performed by the BBCSSO on Friday it was revealed as a well-crafted and enjoyable piece, and a fascinating indicator of the heights the child prodigy would reach during his career.

In the wrong hands, this is a piece that could easily become tedious in its repetition and lack of extensive development, yet Stenz imbued his ensemble with the energy and conviction served to really lift it. Phrasing was beautifully handled, and the more energetic sections contrasted well with the longer legato lines that were always played with poise and elegance. The hushed rising and falling figure in the lower strings of the second movement was right on the edge of audibility, yet, like the second movement of Rands’ Concerto, it was this that so held our attention. The extremely quiet dynamics meant the brass and wind occasionally succumbed to tuning difficulties, but these were only momentary. The brief final movement that brings the work to a modest end was handled so gracefully I was nearly surprised that the piece had actually finished rather than a phrase simply reaching its conclusion. 

Much has been made of the autobiographical nature of Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), and whether the composer was indeed referring to himself. It certainly takes an heroic effort from any conductor or orchestra to navigate this monumental piece, and if the BBCSSO appeared reserved at any point beforehand, it was possibly because they were saving themselves for this. Although the bold opening statement of the Hero’s main theme by the horns was slightly smudged, both huge climaxes that leave the audience on the edge of their seats were developed expertly, and the moment when the solo violin enters was perfectly judged by Stenz and leader Laura Samuel. Her performance of the virtuosic violin solo as the Hero’s Companion was excellent: vigorously energetic, brilliantly mellifluous or sincerely tender when required.  The entry of the low brass during these solo passages was distractingly cloudy, yet the end of The Hero’s Companion section was so beautifully still, and the off-stage brass fanfare heralding The Hero’s Battlefield proved electrifying. It was here that the SSO seemed to reach its pinnacle of energy and strength, to the extent that ensemble coordination began to deteriorate at times. It was impossible not to be swept away in this piece however, and the closing bars were some of the most calming and peaceful I have experienced after such a turbulent and exacting journey.

Engaging throughout, Stenz and the BBCSSO navigated a hugely varied programme with skill and spirit. In a programme spanning over 250 years, this was a highly enjoyable tour around the western classical tradition and a worthy celebration of four brilliant composers.

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