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Art and nature

Royal Albert Hall
07/29/2001 -  


Sally Beamish: Knotgrass Elegy

Susan Bullock (soprano), Brian Asawa (counter-tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone)

Tommy Smith (saxophone)

Andrew Davis (conductor)

BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, New London Children's Choir


Hector Berlioz: Overture 'Le corsaire'
Stuart MacRae: Violin Concerto
Benjamin Britten: Les illuminations
Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)

Tamsin Little (violin)

Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

The third world premiere at this year's Proms, Sally Beamish's Knotgrass Elegy, a Proms commission, has been widely puffed. So it was not particularly surprising that Knotgrass Elegy turned out to be if not exactly derivative, then accessible, a heart-on-sleeve oratorio in the Britten-Tippett mode. (It has a lot in common with Britten's Spring Symphony for example, performed in Sunday's Prom.) In the first section, Dawn Cabaret, Man looks at the new earth and is pressured by a sleazy Tempter to exploit it with agrochemicals. The second section, Summer Litany, consists of the songs of the plants, insects, birds and finally the children (each with their own orchestral colour) that are destroyed in turn by the effects of the chemicals. The epilogue, Harvest, shows Man's reaction to the destruction and the Tempter's insouciance. Man is a butch baritone, knotgrass, beetle and partridge are represented by a dramatic soprano, and the Tempter is an amplified counter-tenor with his own dance band. A choir and a children's choir represented nature, solid and resilient, playful and fragile.

Brian Asawa camped up the Tempter in a red sequined jacket and came over rather like Eric Idle as the man in pink in Monty Python's The meaning of life, which in 1983 sent up the idea that Beamish is trying do straight. She seems to have been thinking of Schnittke's Mephisto (counter-tenor plus amplified mezzo) and Busoni's (cabaret style), plus Emil Jannings shaking the poison cocktail in Murnau's Faust. But the character of Faust is already compromised -- we don't really like him much to start off with. Beamish's Man on the other hand seems meant to be noble if not too bright, and so potentially tragic. Having him succumb to an ironic lightweight seems facile. Christopher Maltman sang heroically and sympathetically as Man, as did Susan Bullock as the living things.

This is exactly the sort of work that Andrew Davis is good at, and he got to the heart of it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, avoiding the potential for bathos that seems to be there anyway, and which has arisen dreadfully since Beamish planned the work in the cumulation of BSE, CJD and FMD. It was good to have Davis back at the Proms: this performance, regardless of the merits of the piece, seemed to give the season a lift.

The fourth Proms commission, Stuart McRae's violin concerto, one of three works commissioned by the Richard Gregson-Williams Memorial Trust, has been mentioned in the media mainly in Scottish-interest stories. McRae's describes his violin concerto as an anti-concerto, because the violin solo plays from within the orchestra in the first three movements and the musical and dramatic focus emerges only in the last movement. This is in contrast to the traditional concerto, where the first movement carries almost all of the musical weight and the remaining movements are in conventional forms. McRae's concerto certainly isn't easy listening, but, in a riveting performance by Tamsin Little, it has an exciting, uncomfortable tension that builds up irresistibly until the comparatively controlled release of the last movement. Few works can be so much like sex. MacRae, at twenty-five a major composer already, is currently living in Paris, but his sense of form and feeling have nothing to do with oo-la-la and everything with a kind of romantic modernism that is not afraid to work out ideas at length.

There were a few Brittenish textures in McRae's work, but it was striking how much he achieved without external reference of any kind. In contrast, Les illuminations, which followed after the interval, of course builds on Rimbaud's image-laden poems and presents a comparable musical spectacle that invites us to find meanings. It's not quite the promised parade sauvage, but it is still as cryptic as ever. Inger Dam-Jensen gave a glamorous performance, short on vowels but gorgeous to listen to.

Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra seem to be getting on extremely well.

H.E. Elsom



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