Classical: The concerto as friendly conversation

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The Independent Culture
PROMS 39-41 ROYAL ALBERT HALL LONDON

Once you have experienced the summit, the only route left is down, and it was unfortunate that Pamela Frank's fallible yet thought- provoking Proms account of Brahms's Violin Concerto had to follow Maxim Vengerov's outrageously brilliant violin recital the day before. I listened to Radio 3 continuity announcer Andrew McGregor's remark that Frank "views large parts of the Concerto like chamber music". Indeed, that was very much how she performed the work: as a dialogue with friends.

Her opening solo granted every note its full value and the principal theme that follows was serenely phrased. But as the first movement progressed, I sensed that her musical ideas were rather stronger than her physical ability to express them. Or was she simply fazed by the venue. There were lovely moments on offer, especially in the second movement where Petr Altrichter and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic provided a mellow and responsive accompaniment. The finale had spirit to spare though the overall impression was of an interesting interpretation that, given a more secure mood and more propitious circumstances, would burn brighter on other occasions.

The concert opened with Josef Suk's colourful, slightly sinister Scherzo fantastique and concluded with a restrained reading of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony.

The Scherzo incorporated some expressive tempo changes but there was a discernible sense of tragedy in the finale. Just as well that Smetana's sparkling Dance of the Comedians was to hand for the encore.

"Brilliance" is not a word one readily associates with the Philharmonia's current Principal Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, and yet Tuesday's Prom climaxed to one of the freshest and most keenly driven readings of Schubert's "Great" C Major Symphony that I have heard in along while. A vitalising first movement (with repeat) progressed to a dramatic crossfire between horns and trumpets in the second and a buoyant finale. The Scherzo was twice bothered by tiny "slowings down" that didn't quite come off, but in other respects it was a real corker.

The main body of the concert's first half featured David G Porter's reconstruction of Ives's Emerson Concerto, where Alan Feinberg was the accomplished piano soloist. Ives had left fragments of the work in manuscript, which Porter used in conjunction with music from the Concord Piano Sonata. The result is granitic, extravagant and fitfully romantic, with a sequence of complicated "centrifugal cadenzas" and repeated references to the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

It's "building-block" music, brass-heavy and Futuristic (in the old-fashioned sense) though, as so often with Ives, I suspect that the will to modernism was in active conflict with a natural propensity for knees-ups and corny tunes.

On Wednesday night, Bernard Haitink achieved the near-impossible and the European Union Youth Orchestra gave the performance of a lifetime in tackling the most innovative of Mahler's symphonies, the Seventh, with its cowbells and thudding bass-drum, its surreal "night music", slithery Scherzo and hell-for-leather finale.

Aside from his subtlety and humour (essential prerequisites in this most quixotic of symphonies), Haitink balanced his forces with a skill even the Royal Albert Hall's volatile acoustic couldn't defeat. The principal horn excelled at the beginning of "Night Music 1" and the Scherzo's witty hesitations raised more than one smile. It was a fastidiously judged performance, mindful of structure but always spontaneous and with a real rush of excitement towards the close.

Monday's, Tuesday's and Wednesday's Proms will be rebroadcast on Radio 3 at 2pm next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. See www.bbc.co.uk/proms for more details

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