Ma/Brewer/Spence/Paterson/BBCSO/Robertson, Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture

Graham Fitkin is one of our most versatile composers, and since he’s been commissioned to celebrate the Olympics, the Cello Concerto he has written to showcase the talents of Yo-Yo Ma - plus the (dubious) acoustic possibilities of the Royal Albert Hall – is of more than passing interest.

Proms commissions are normally heralded by acres of advance promotional exegesis, but Fitkin’s concerto got the most vacuous tissue of clichés I’ve ever read in a Prom programme, so it had to speak for itself. This it did quite eloquently, however. It began with a long low breath from both orchestra and soloist, followed by an even lower one, and then another, as though we were riding on a gentle groundswell. Over a sustained note on the cello the strings then quietly descanted, and the piece began to open up: with extreme economy, but also expressively, suggestive of a slowly-turning sculpture.

The harmonic atmosphere thickened, and the pace grew faster: nothing much for Yo-Yo Ma to do, beyond maintaining a clean line and spinning some discreet glissandi; was this going to be another one-performance wonder, doomed to moulder in the vaults with all the others by the Beeb’s pet young(ish) composers? Who knows, but, as it wound back to its origins to make a perfect circle, it was clear this work had integrity. It just seemed a strange way to use a great cellist. Fitkin tried to press a giant yo-yo on Yo-Yo as they took their bows, but for some reason Yo-Yo didn’t seem to want it.

Best to draw a veil over the performance which followed, in which David Robertson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra managed to rob Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony of every shred of its majesty and power. The first movement was rough at the edges, the second had none of the muscularity which should make it so thrilling. The winds made a singular hash of the third movement, and there was no magic in the emergence of the main theme in the last. And what BBC clown decided to stick the four soloists in a remote corner, where they could hardly be heard? Since Toby Spence was the only one in decent voice – Christine Brewer yelped rather than sang, and Ian Paterson brayed - that didn’t matter much either.