Prom 41, Royal Albert Hall / Radio 3

An annoying fit of the wobbles
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The Independent Culture

Just who suggests and who decides Prom programming is necessarily opaque but last Tuesday's programme had Slatkin's fingerprints all over it. Since the programme was an excellent one, it may seem churlish to remark that the choice of conductor was weak. All the music was written within 10 years dating from the early Thirties. The first half was by American composers, the second by Russian, but exiled ones.

Copland's sprightly "El salón México" started well enough, Copland's assimilated Mexican dance themes bouncing with joy, the BBCSO strings on terrific form and the E flat clarinet blowing up a storm. But a wobbling of orchestral ensemble destroyed its climax.

Barber's "Adagio for Strings", expanded from its string quartet origins at the imaginative suggestion of Toscanini, has no pitfalls of a rhythmic nature. Slatkin tenderly moulded the meandering, melancholy phrases, resulting in a performance that even the Prom audience allowed to sink in before destroying the peace. But the wobbles of the Copland were soon picked up again in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No 1 "Jeremiah", his first major orchestral work. Receiving its first ever Proms performance, it was written in 1939-1942. The impassioned tonal romanticism of the 1st movement is an easy step from Barber's Adagio while the 2nd owes much to Copland in its quirky syncopation. But once again, ensemble was not tight, entries ragged and mis-timed. "Jeremiah" cropped up lamenting in the 3rd movement, personified somewhat surprisingly by a mezzo soprano, Susan Bickley, whose Hebrew diction left much to be desired.

The performance of the evening, however, came from the pianist Stephen Hough. Not even Slatkin's sloppy conducting could undermine Hough's staggeringly brilliant account of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" although some tempi were so fast that it was a miracle Hough was not derailed. Hough's most beautiful playing was contained in his solo variation (XVIII) where his colours and shading, dreamily improvisatory, were simply delicious. Stravinsky's biting "Symphony in Three Movements" was again marred by botched ensemble. The orchestra seemed to have lost confidence. Michael Tilson Thomas, where were you?