Spreading a little happiness
PROMS Opera North Royal Albert Hall, London / BBC Radio
Saturday 02 August 1997
The title of the greatest happiness principle refers to the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham's ideal of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The circular design of the Millbank Penitentiary - which stood where the Tate now is, and was evidently conceived on Benthamite lines - provided the composer with his starting point. These triggers to Sawer's creative processes can be reflected in surprisingly direct ways. This 13-minute work is, for instance, built on a circle of fifths; a concerto- for-orchestra-like focus on individual players and instrumental sections suggests the method of observation apparently used on the Millbank prisoners themselves.
While it isn't as ambitious in conception as his 1992 Proms commission, Byrnan Wood, Sawer's new piece quickly transcends its John-Adams-ish opening. Unexpected shifts of speed and focus sometimes arrest the momentum. Spotlighting of instruments is made a virtue, even when seemingly random: delicate runs soon disrupt any threatened minimalist tendencies of the more crowd-pleasing variety; the first big climax is quickly interrupted by a little figure for cor anglais and bassoon, soon taken up elsewhere. Scale patterns and triads constantly lurk in the background.
Sawer shows himself capable of developing his material with due care and attention to its cumulative potential as well as its moment-to-moment fascinations, with a firmly built, if brief, climax two-thirds of the way through to match the earlier one. The end, however, is a surprise: suddenly unconducted, the music threatens to disintegrate altogether before the final bars attempt a sort of coherence. Sawer dismisses any symbolic interpretation of this, but the inspiration is pretty clear.
In the Bartok Piano Concerto No 3 that followed, while Stephen Hough was an assertive and volatile - if also, when appropriate, a subtle and responsive - soloist, the BBC NOW's new conductor Mark Wigglesworth couldn't, for instance, persuade his strings and woodwind to produce either the precision or the atmosphere necessary to match the pianist in the second- movement alternations of solo and orchestra.
Sibelius's Second Symphony was a brave choice. Wigglesworth reduced the pauses between movements to a minimum, but internal tension was only the more fitfully realised. The performance, if full of closely observed detail, never really caught fire.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre