Can it really be true that Purcell’s ‘Fantasia No 6 in F major’ has never before been played at a Prom?
As performed by the Elias Quartet in the intimate acoustic of the Cadogan Hall, this 330-year-old work resonated with prophetic force. It was written for viols – whose sound has nothing to do with that of the violin – but these young players perfectly caught the requisite bleached, vibrato-free sound, and the intricately-woven lines emerged pellucid. As did the better-known seventh in this series of short masterpieces: the plangency of its muscular dissonances creates a frisson even today.
But this was also the occasion for the unveiling of a new quartet by Sally Beamish. Being an adoptive Scot, and knowing how compellingly the group’s second violinist Donald Grant played the Celtic fiddle, Beamish was moved to compose ‘Reed Stanzas’, in which Grant’s Celtic mode would star. But her inspiration (as she told us before the concert) derived also from the the sound of the wind in the reed-beds of Britten’s Aldeburgh, from Rumi’s celebrated poem about the sadness of the cut reed, and from the sound of the lapwing, which she admitted she had incorporated unchanged.
Grant’s opening solo was wistful and haunting, and when the other players came in it was with wisps of harmony like the wind through an Aeolian harp. Then they demonstrated what a rich and complex sound-world exists at the pianissimo edge of their instruments’ dynamic range. The piece veered into conventionality with a neo-Bartokian allegro, but left us once more in the desolate vastness of the reed-beds. Finally the young clarinettist Julian Bliss joined the group for a breathtakingly beautiful performance of Brahms’s valedictory B minor quintet.
Why does Radio 3 not think these chamber Proms deserve programme notes? They are often more interesting that what’s happening up the road at the Albert Hall – and as far as I’m concerned this lunchtime event was infinitely more satisfying that the one which followed later, excellent though that was. Roger Norrington’s period-faithful rendering of Mahler’s Ninth with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra had admirable integrity, but the longueurs of this tortured dialogue between Mahler and his soul left me as cold as usual - though they had a vigorously aphrodisiac effect on the young couple just in front. Odd.