S&H Prom review

Prom 18 - Bernstein, Bernstein (arr. William Brohn), Varèse, Ravel: Joshua Bell (vln), BBC Philharmonic / Jan Pascal Tortelier Royal Albert Hall, Friday August 3, 2001 (SD)

Bell of the Ball

Inevitably the Albert Hall was filled to capacity for Friday night's early-evening Prom, featuring heartthrob violinist Joshua Bell. At the core of the programme were two works by, or inspired by, Bernstein - his Serenade after Plato's 'Symposium' and Hollywood arranger William H Brohn's adaptation of West Side Story, for violin and orchestra. As a digestive we had Ravel's perennial showstopper, Boléro. But the concert's opening salvo was an enterprising rarity: Edgard Varèse's Arcana, linked to the Serenade by its philosophical, cosmic dimension.

Arcana takes its cue from the 16th-century Swiss philosopher Theophrastus Paracelsus, whose world view centred on the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. The work is prefaced by a quotation about the stars of the apocalypse, and the whole outlandish score, which includes two outré percussion instruments, evokes cosmic metaphors through musical images, by turns nebulous and awesome. The orchestra plays in vast rhythmic unisons, and then in separate sections, representing opposing galaxies. Jan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic gave a stunning performance, realising all the work's audacious colour, drama and virtuosity.

Plato's 'Symposium' lies behind Bernstein's Serenade for Violin, Harp, Percussion and Orchestra, though according to Bernstein's daughter this rapturous, neo-Romantic work can be enjoyed by those who have never heard of Plato. There are five movements, representing different aspects of love, from the languorous Adagio of Agathon to the furious Presto of Erixymachus, with material from each section, such as the rising and falling minor 3rd motif of Phaedrus, being reused or developed in the succeeding one(s). After Bell's initial entry, which seemed to appear from nowhere, he spun a continuous silken thread of sound above the orchestra, with exceptionally clean double-stopping and intonation, coupled with highly sensitive phrasing throughout.

William Brohn's 19-minute West Story Story Suite owes much to the collaboration of Bell, in preparation for the latter's all-Bernstein recording recently released by Sony. He tried it out and tweaked it until it lay well under his fingers, and also wrote the second and longer of the work's two cadenzas. Brohn deconstructed the original score and built up his Suite with a different structure, though using the same motivic glue as Bernstein, namely the first three notes of the 'Ma-ri-a' refrain, with its haunting augmented 4th. The result is an exhilarating work for both soloist and orchestra, who together gave an enthusiastic, glittering and highly energetic performance.

As for Boléro, Jan Pascal Tortelier - that most elegantly balletic of conductors - paced and shaped Ravel's precisely calculated score with an unerringly sure touch. The opening woodwind solos were played nonchalantly and very straight. Then, the entry of the saxophone introduced a note of sleaziness; and from then on the ever-more animated Tortelier expertly whipped up the orchestra in a crescendo of controlled delirium. On cue, the deafening climax produced a frenzy of applause.


Sarah Dunlop

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