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Classical review: BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall

  • by KEN WALTON
 

The BBC Proms was dominated this weekend by Scotland’s two symphony orchestras. On Friday, the RSNO presented a mammoth three-part programme, opening with a Proms commission by Naresh Sohal, the 74-year-old Indian-born composer who lived and worked in Edinburgh for a decade during the 1980s-90s.

The BBC SSO’s Saturday concert (they appeared again last night in a full concert performance of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser) featured James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto, so there was something of a tentative Scottish theme in play.

But it was a bit of bad luck that the RSNO got landed with the premiere of Sohal’s 50-minute long The Cosmic Dance. Just what was it about, other than a hugely protracted soundscape – apparently commissioned as a much shorter piece – that belonged to the sub-world of 1960s B-movie soundtracks?

In other words it lacked a life of its own, completely dependent on Doctor Who- style sound effects, formulaic phrase structure, banal thematic material, and awkward derivations from Debussy, Delius and Holst to even a Shostakovich-style parody to preempt its limp ending.

But give the RSNO its due. They, and musical director Peter Oundjian – making his Proms debut – made the most of it. In any case the rest of the concert was rich in rabid Russian passion, pianist Nikolai Lugansky at its heart playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3, then with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony to follow.

Lugansky, a regular RSNO collaborator, is scorching hot property. His playing was awesome. In fact, it completely dictated, after a blurry start, the mood and direction of the performance, with its glorious long-term trajectory and a feeling for detail and nuance that added glitter to solid gold. He plays this Rachmaninov, and the 2nd Concerto, with the Russian National Orchestra in Edinburgh in a fortnight. Not to be missed.

MacMillan’s Violin Concerto was the centrepiece of the SSO’s first Prom, a work written four years ago in memoriam of the composer’s mother, but which is gauchely enigmatic in the way it flits mischievously between the raw pugnacity of the opening, the sentimental melting Celtic airs of the central movement, and the sheer madness of the finale, with its softened references to the Dies Irae, its quizzical German texts spoken by the orchestra, and a climactic cadenza as grotesque and demonic as any of Schnittke’s.

All of this was grippingly packaged by Siberian soloist Vadim Repin, for whom it was written, whose partnership with Donald Runnicles and the SSO fed the performance with a truly theatrical electricity.

Runnicles, himself, was in sizzling form, imbuing Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz with an alluring elasticity and delicate Viennese charm, and eliciting endless surprises in an inspired pairing (both in the same key) of Beethoven’s overture Coriolan and the Fifth Symphony, in both cases playing to their beauty rather than their brawn.

 

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