Classical Music: Love is in the air

Three days at the Proms: Knussen and Woolrich premieres and a Gerhard revival
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This was Barry Tuckwell's last London appearance as a horn-player. As far as his platform manner gave anything away, he seemed to take it philosophically. He is, after all, flourishing as a conductor. It was, anyway, a hard blow, for he played Oliver Knussen's concise but demanding Horn Concerto in the first half, and Mozart's Third Concerto K447 in the second. The horn is a noble instrument, but slippery, too, and in the Mozart Tuckwell didn't make anything sound easy: the brief cadenza was obviously a challenge, attack was not always certain, nor, in the outer movements, was rhythm quite buoyant, and imagination had to supply some of the notes in two trills, which were not fully articulate. Still, the Prommers, who this year have seemed unusually subdued, stamped and whistled generously.

Knussen's work mediates between the horn's traditional associations with nocturnal evocativeness and the frisky chase. His brief programme note suggested it was perhaps more a concert aria than a concerto; true, it's in a single movement, but otherwise, the distinction seems academic. The orchestra cleverly supplies an essential sense of motion on which the horn relies for its not-quite heroic effect. It doesn't boast, nor does it recall other music; the solo part is free of cliches, though highly active and set in a sensuous and colourful orchestral context. You can believe the horn is Knussen's favourite instrument, and he allows it to express itself with resource and fluency. In its subtle way, the piece is both elegant and daring.

It was in superb company, too, following Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments - a good, static foil to Knussen's mobility - and followed by Debussy's Nocturnes. Here, Esa-Pekka Salonen was guilty of conducting to the Arena, unnecessarily pre-empting his players in the Philharmonia Orchestra with over-explicit gestures. Nuages, the first piece in the triptych, was stiff and awkward, as well as a bit fast. Fetes went much better - it probably plays itself anyway. And in Sirenes, 24 women from the BBC Singers would have had the heartiest heterosexual steering well clear. Fog-horns indeed.

Finally, after the Mozart Concerto, came Sibelius's Seventh Symphony, in which Salonen forgot to fuss, and, mercifully, just got on with it. A marvellous end to a gorgeous programme.


A kind of loving's filled the air at this week's Proms: the brotherly love of one composer for another, whether of Stravinsky for Tchaikovsky, of Knussen for the many influences making up his palimpsest Horn Concerto or, on Wednesday, the attraction an arranger feels for the object of his art. Stationed around a new Oboe Concerto by John Woolrich, Stokowski's orchestration of the Bach C minor organ Passacaglia and Fugue and Schoenberg's of the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet made for a stimulating, hybrid concert; just the kind of provocative programming, in fact, that gives this series its lasting appeal.

Starting the evening with the Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia, played by the strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was an especially inspired move, for the piece is an icon for anyone set on a humane and humble reworking of the past. Vaughan Williams once said that first hearing the folk song Dives and Lazarus was like discovering something he'd known all his life; and for composers who quarry history with a due sense of reverence, a similar sense of self-recognition must surely be a basic response.

Delivering a stately reading of the Fantasia, Matthias Bamert showed characteristic charm and efficiency, with the good sense of a man who's recorded the symphonies of Hubert Parry. Himself a Stokowski pupil, Bamert clearly revelled in his teacher's Bach as much as Schoenberg's Brahms, both versions bringing insights to the originals, though also raising the sensitive issue of linkage between tempo, tone-colour and the weight of a musical idea.

For Woolrich, a dedicated student of the past, such essays must have proved instructive if only because his concerto, unusually for his oeuvre, eschewed any reference to older music. Instead, reflecting a plethora of moods in its 20-minute progress, it set the entire orchestra plus a gang of percussion against soloist Nicholas Daniel, supported by three other oboes and soprano saxophone.

As any arranger will tell you, oboes en masse sound not much more strident than oboes singly. It was the total effect of agile oboe timbre, however, that filled the hall so magnificently, and rose above the orchestral background that included such Woolrich felicities as waterphone, lion's roar and sleazy muted trumpets. Performing faultlessly from memory, Daniel stressed the oboe's role of outsider, the weeping minor third in its melodic profile like a blue note setting the tone for the long, plangent opening phrases and the closing recitatives.

There were violent interruptions, oboes and orchestra in frantic conflict, and a final, surprising cut-off chord. But the lasting impression was of sheer melodiousness. Of other composers there was little to be heard, though the formal substance of the piece drew on centuries of musical tradition. Choose substance, not style was the moral of the piece - in our post-modern times a good reason to make it to the history books.


When in 1939 Roberto Gerhard joined the ranks of those many distinguished artists who were fleeing from the Nazis, and left his native Catalonia for Cambridge, we responded by neglecting him for the best part of two decades. Admittedly, a period followed in which our changing musical climate allowed him to emerge as something of an avant-garde figurehead, producing an exhilarating and richly coloured sequence of orchestral and chamber works, but after his death in 1970 his music fell once more into comparative neglect.

It is high time we did more than pay lip service to a body of work that contributed so much to the stylistic development of our country's music, and which carries such an electric charge in its freely evolving textures. This is his centenary year, and certainly the promenade concerts are making us aware of the occasion. The first of three concerts that will be celebrating his achievement brought us on Monday evening a rare performance of The Plague, the composer's highly dramatic cantata for narrator, chorus and orchestra on texts drawn from Camus's La Peste.

Camus tells of a plague that spreads misery and destruction throughout a city before vanishing as mysteriously as it had come, a metaphor for the growth of Nazism, no doubt, in the author's and composer's minds, but also for many other disasters both natural and man-made. Gerhard responds with music of a passionate humanism that expresses itself chiefly in monumental choruses, marking climactic points in the story. These moments of lamentation and final ambivalent jubilation were superbly characterised by the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus.

The programme marked the Proms debut of the Spanish National Youth Orchestra under their founder-conductor Edmon Colomer, and after a slightly tentative start they soon began to respond with Hispanic verve to the astonishing array of dramatic textures that Gerhard flings at us. The ear is consistently fascinated by this invention, and yet the years have perhaps not been too kind to the interaction of narration, splendidly delivered by Michael Pennington, and choral orchestral commentary. The idea of accompanied narration, or melodrama, is not an unworkable one but Gerhard's treatment of it is sometimes a little too thin to sustain musical continuity. The Plague is an often startlingly effective work, nevertheless, and was well worth reviving.