What makes a violin concerto? A pertinent question in relation to the latest addition to the genre by Philip Venables, which formed the centrepiece of this Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor Sakari Oramo. The composer himself describes Venables Plays Bartók as a “concerto-of-sorts”, a “radio music drama”. The spark was a rediscovery of a family video in which his 14-year-old self played Bartók’s Evening in the Village to his violin teacher’s teacher, a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian Uprising who settled in the northwest of England and taught at the then Royal Manchester College of Music.

Pekka Kuusisto and the BBC SO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Pekka Kuusisto and the BBC SO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The result is a melodrama or piece of music theatre, in which two pre-recorded narratives are intertwined: the very ‘meta’ one of the creation of this very work, alongside the autobiography of Rudolf Botta, from the violin teacher’s wartime experiences, his torture by the Soviets (who, knowing him to be a violinist, crushed his left hand with a hammer) to his escape to the West. In the form of what Venables describes as “musical postcards”, eight short pieces by Bartók, played by the soloist, are threaded through the story, with the focus switching between the music of the two composers at the crack of a whip – like the effect of jump cuts. It is only right and proper that both composers are given equal billing in the work’s title.

It could have all been so self-indulgent or pretentious, especially as the piece culminates in the audio from that childhood masterclass video, with the young Venables playing the piece with which the soloist, Pekka Kuusisto, had started the work’s journey. But there was something intensely moving, profound even, in the way the work unfolded, the mundaneness of creativity as narrated by the composer contrasting with Botta’s often searing reminiscences (spoken by actor Jot Davies), and with the music of Bartók and Venables illuminating each other, the Hungarian’s folk dance arrangements giving familiar touchstones to the musical flow. Indeed, such was the interplay between soloist, orchestra and voice-over (the latter not always ideally balanced in the hall for ultimate clarity, it must be said, and with a handful of technical glitches) that the focus at any one time was surprisingly clear-cut and connected directly to ear and brain.

Kuusisto was given plenty to do, not least announcing the start of each postcard with its title and provenance. His playing was intense and full of colour, and didn’t shy away from a deliberate coarseness when required – he employed a special carbon-fibre-haired additional bow to cope with some of Venables’s more vigorous demands on his violin. The orchestral playing was vivid, too, with everything from ghostly memories of one or two of the Bartók pieces to the sheer violence of hammers on wood as an aural and visual symbol of Botta’s torture.

The rest of the concert’s programme was more conventional, providing the traditional overture and symphony around the central concerto. Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings showcased the BBC SO’s fine string section, with Oramo’s idiomatic conducting whipping up a glorious head of steam in the “devil of a fugue”. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, which arguably shares Rudolf Botta’s confrontation with Soviet dogma and created a theme of sorts for the programme, also saw the BBC SO on its best form. It was the kind of performance to make one marvel once again at the skill with which the composer spins his orchestral magic, in a sound as transparent as it was rich and constantly varying. In his tempo choices and balancing of colours, Oramo exploited the music’s drama to the full, and left us in no doubt that this was no mere ‘symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit’, as the composer felt obliged to explain at the time of its composition: the humour was grim, the triumph short-lived and the lyricism laden with dark undercurrents.

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