Proms: CRESSWELL'S 'DRAGSPIL' Royal Albert Hall, London

Nicholas Williams
Tuesday 08 August 1995 23:02

Though musical barriers come tumbling down by the week, the accordion still remains on the wrong side of the fence between good and bad taste. A rare breed of young performers, including James Crabb, soloist in Monday's early evening Prom, has worked to erode this division through their own artistry and enthusiasm in tackling fresh repertoire. Given time, old myths will be dispelled by new roles.

Doubtless this thought lay behind Lyell Cresswell's accordion concerto Dragspil, a centenary Proms commission premiered by Crabb and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The title means to pull and to play, and is simply the Icelandic for accordion. This getting down to linguistic basics seemed to influence the music as well, for Cresswell avoided any kind of material that might suggest the instrument's popular image. Instead, pitting it against full orchestra, he chose the sort of gestures and motifs whose profile gives modern music a bad name: scratchy strings, shrieking woodwind and cranky brass. For sentimental modernists, there was warm nostalgia in hearing so much expressionism laid end to end and with a trowel. And with it went a programme note about the music's relation to the philosophy of puzzles that was a genre piece in itself.

Yet if the accordion's part sounded less than idiomatic, there were also some telling moments in the orchestra. The musical raspberry that opened the finale had a Straussian panache and confidence. Likewise, the final chord of the first movement, a hollow hiccup of woodwind and brushed cymbal, was well judged. But it was the slow movement that revealed the composer's control of form as well as of effect. A lengthy paragraph of cloudy string threnody, lost souls' music with accordion hovering below, seemed interminable until the music turned the corner into a deft scherzo. Then the slow music returned, but only a spoonful of it and perfectly foreshortened. The result was to open out the work with a sense of concealed depth, like an iceberg; both outer movements felt longer and stronger, imbued with a sense of direction that flowed from the centre. James Crabb played with unfailing strength and conviction, as if every note were tailor- made for the instrument.

A safe pair of hands in the Cresswell, the orchestra's Associate Conductor Martyn Brabbins was no less secure in Ravel's Alborada del gracioso and Debussy's Iberia. Acoustically, the Ravel suffered from its surroundings: strings were at times inaudible in the large space, while the tone of a solo bassoon filled the auditorium. As a token of Spain, the Debussy alone would hove offered a more than sufficient first half.

In a switch of mood and location after the interval, Dvorak's Eighth Symphony brought a touch of Slavic melody; Slavic birdsong melody, to judge from the composer's letters. Deceptively simple, the work needs a tight control of tempi to balance its varied design. Speeds in the scherzo were too relaxed to match the quantities of slow tunes in the flnale. But the second movement had a rapture that was not just written in to the score. Flute solos were cool and refreshing; and from the pauses in between, Brabbins made nature music from a spacious use of silence.

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