Prom Premieres

Detlev Glanert: Symphony No 3; BBC Scottish SO/ Osmo Vanska

A "symphony about old symphonies" was how the Proms guide billed Detlev Glanert's new Third Symphony, a BBC commission. So, was this to be another Berio Sinfonia - weird and wonderful games played with big chunks or tiny fragments of symphonic classics? If Glanert did include ideas from old symphonies, he either buried them deeply or transformed them out of recognition. In fact, obvious "old" material of any kind was hard to find at Sunday's premiere: the scraps of tune that emerged from the shifting, sinister textures of "Drinking Song" were recognisable as a type - Germanic equivalents of "Four and twenty virgins" or "As soon as this pub closes" - but not as original tunes. If there were clear echoes of the past, they were spiritual, not literal.

The title "Drinking Song" implies Mahler; the music did rather more than imply him. The Mahlerian nightmare Scherzo either hovered in the background or burst centre stage, but not so as to exclude hints of the Berlin Kurt Weill or the sardonic young Hindemith - both of whom wrote highly individual works they called "symphonies".

Evocations of German music, and especially German protest music, from the Twenties and Thirties are guaranteed to set one thinking along extra- musical lines. But for much of its length, Glanert's Third Symphony is musically quite self-sufficient. The language is direct and highly expressive; the mood dark and troubled - the kind of mental territory most new British and American music seems to make a point of avoiding at present. The opening, with its sighing quarter-tone figures, recalls "old" modernism, but not for long: it soon becomes clear that Glanert is a romantic, a composer who believes in old-fashioned symphonic narrative - or at least has made a kind of peace with it. The near-capacity audience listened more than respectfully, and applauded the composer warmly at the end. That says a great deal for Glanert's powers of communication, but it also says a lot for musicians and conductor. In Osmo Vanska, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra seems to have found a chief conductor it thoroughly believes in.

How else would one explain the ebullience, stylishness and precision of the playing in Nielsen's Maskarade overture? It was the kind of overture performance that makes one ache to hear the whole opera. But there was a different kind of treat in store! Swedish cellist Truls Mork's account of Elgar's Cello Concerto. Pity the cellist who takes on this work at a Prom today: apart from the challenge of the music itself, there's the fact that a large part of the audience will be weighing every phrase against Jacqueline du Pre's revered recording. But if one could make the supreme sacrifice and forget Du Pre for half an hour, then I don't see how it was possible not to be impressed by Mork's deeply felt and very natural interpretation. Only the English can play Elgar? Well, how many English cellists could play it as well as this?

STEPHEN JOHNSON

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