S&H Concert review

PROM 14: Stuart MacRae Premiere, RAH, 31 July 2001 (MB)


In the past Stuart MacRae's works have examined tension and conflict, and the exploration of the human condition, as principle themes. In Sinfonia, for example, there is an uneasy relationship between lyricism and violence and in his Piano Sonata there is a potent conflict in harmony. His new Violin Concerto, written for and premiered by Tamsin Little and performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins, is quite the opposite of these - at least in temperament. This is very much an anti-concerto (and not just in its subversion of the form).

In part it seems more like a percussion concerto with obligatto solo violin. The very opening bar is for snare drum and thereafter MacRae uses an assortment of wooden blocks, suspended cymbals, bongos, sandpaper blocks and Hi-hat to alternate and interact with the solo violin line. For much of the opening of the first movement there is an almost minimalist used of notation - same note quintuplets, always of equal time value, for example - and a sparseness to the sound world. Not until the Scorrevole does the pitch explode and the movement take on a dramatic character of its own - although even here it is often difficult to see the violin as anything other than a part player. Where a flute plays mf the solo violin is often moving towards mp - although this is not exclusively the case and there are frequent single high notes of f for the solo violin which branch out occasionally into a lone voice - rather like a soliloquy. The effect of this orchestration is more to create the effect of dialogue, in fact, than it is to suggest the solo violin is fighting against the orchestra. It is invariably the antithesis of what we expect a concerto to be.

The second movement is marked Largo e mesto and is in part a homage to Xenakis who died earlier this year. Its colouring is darker and more autumnal than the first movement (the snare drum is here transposed to a bass drum and both woodwind and brass have a melancholic edge to their writing). The violin writing is more reflective - slow glissandi, vibrato and longer measures all adding to a sense of mystery and elegy enhanced by the effective elision of these notes into a glowing otherworldiness. The Molte pesante section breaks the mood startlingly - a fff orchestral passage that sublimates the lyricism of the violin part. It presages the third movement - a swirling, tempestuous scherzo (marked Animoso) that focuses on the orchestra (the solo violin only really having a role in the 'dance' elements of the movement). The fourth movement is the heart and soul of the work - and sees the solo violin unfettered by the percussiveness that has thwarted its benign lyricism up to now. Starting with an almost inaudible ppp phrase on contrabassoon the writing for the violin is contemplative - moving been diminuendos and crescendos (and at times sounding like an extended accompanied cadenza) the figurative writing is darker and more intense than before (a Mahlerian harp phrase impressing this image on the mind). At figure E an inspired piccolo and violin duet against sustained string semibreves begins another accompanied cadenza for the solo violin - this time soaring angelically above the p pulse of combined strings. Here, Tamsin Little's playing took on a dynamic range not really heard before - the separate markings for the note groups of appassionato and giocoso and the shift, often between single notes, from mp to p then to f was sublimely articulated. The movement ends on a cadenza for violin, accompanied only by a two bar marcato flute, oboe and clarinet theme, as it moves towards its restive conclusion.

This concerto certainly contains memorable ideas -although I am not convinced the Albert Hall is the ideal acoustic for it. Much of the ppp writing was totally inaudible lost in the vastness of the space like a whisper during a storm - at times I had to look up from the score to see if the strings really were playing. Having said that, the space allowed the violin to frequently spin a subtle line here and there like a faint echo - and rarely, if ever, did Tamsin Little's tone sound pressured in even her quietest passages. The score is masterfully written in the sense that there is no congestion - individual instrumentation is always identifiable. The problem for many will be that the score doesn't sound like a concerto -but Tamsin Little played with conviction and beautifully accompanied by the BBC SSO.

The rest of the concert was standard fare - a brisk and beautifully sounding performance of Berlioz' overture to 'Le corsaire' and a luminous account of Britten's Les illuminations beautifully sung by Inger Dam-Jensen (Parade was simply fabulous, the voice floating through the vast auditorium like high clouds). The BBC SSO strings were embellished with a sonority which darkened like a fading candle flame. Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra was a huge disappointment - strings seemed overwhelmed and became suddenly under-nourished, brass, which started well, quickly became fragile in intonation but most damaging of all was Martyn Brabbin's dangerously slow tempi which proved catastrophic. Balances were poorly developed (the RAH organ was more intrusive than I have ever heard in this work) and ensemble was often loose (surprising given the solid playing earlier in the evening). It was a profoundly boring experience.

Marc Bridle

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