Yet another coup for Proms director Edward Blakeman: composed in 1928, but only now getting its first Proms airing, Henry Cowell’s Piano Concerto proved a revelation. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this American composer, who widely-imitated invention of note-clusters was only one of many ways in which he broke new ground and gathered distinguished disciples: John Cage, who was one of the latter, called him ‘the open sesame for new music in America’.
Pianist Jeremy Denk and the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas’s direction gave this work the best possible run, and it really is extraordinary in that the soloist spends most of the time hitting the keyboard with his forearms and elbows, thus producing Cowell’s trademark note-clusters. One might have expected the result to be shambolic, but the reverse was the case: with the orchestra playing tonally and the piano in seeming opposition, the result was a highly organised and strikingly lyrical work. Denk’s encore – The Allcotts by Charles Ives, who was one of Cowell’s supporters – rounded things off with a breath of New England charm.
This was the first of two Proms by the San Francisco Symphony, who further showed their mettle with Schoenberg’s deceptively subtle Theme and Variations Opus 43b and with a heart-warmingly resonant performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 1.