Classical review: Prom 27/Prom 28

It was a nice idea for the programme-book to present Joan Eardley's painting Catterline in Winter facing the Helen Grime note. It showed a row of little houses careering downhill under a louring sky with a baleful-looking moon; it had a Chagall-like village charm.

At the Royal Albert Hall, London. Picture: Creative Commons
At the Royal Albert Hall, London. Picture: Creative Commons

Prom 27: Kuusisto/BBCSSO/Dausgaard | Royal Albert Hall, London | Rating ****

Prom 28: National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland/Edmonstone/Bain | Royal Albert Hall, London | Rating ****

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Grime had made it clear that her new work Two Eardley Pictures 1: Catterline in Winter would not try to reflect these paintings in sound, but would endeavour to handle her material in a variety of ways, as the artist had handled hers.

Yet as I jotted down my impressions of this ten-minute tone poem I found myself constantly employing visual metaphors. A smooth wash of sound as the low brass and woodwind growled a heterophonic chorale; skittery dashes of colour, and watercolour effects from the chimes: this was visually-evocative music, clean-textured and filled with light, the contrast between hard-edged brass and mellow strings setting up a constant tension.

It felt like a fragment of a very much larger work, and ended on a questioning phrase: would that be musically answered at the start of the second work in this diptych, in Prom 30 two days later? At all events, under their chief conductor designate Thomas Dausgaard the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave it a lovingly detailed performance.

Then came showbiz in the form of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major with the Finnish player Pekka Kuusisto as soloist. I say ‘showbiz’ because not only is this one of the best-loved works in the repertoire, but Kuusisto is also – in addition to being a top-flight virtuoso - a born entertainer. As soon as he appears on stage – on this occasion dressed like a Russian peasant in Sunday best – you always find yourself smiling.

His playing was initially modest, with a small pure tone which still somehow compelled one to listen: that required a particular kind of artistry. Only in the cadenza did his sound become big and authoritative, but he undercut that with pauses which were just that little bit too long, so that they became moments of comedy, as did his double-stopped glissandi. The Canzonetta was very sweet, and in the finale Kuusisto and Dausgaard obeyed the score’s ‘vivacissimo’ instruction. Then it was encore time: singing a comic Karelian folk song dating ‘from when Russia was still part of Finland’, and getting the BBCSSO’s leader Laura Samuel to duet with him, he had us all laughing. Stravinsky’s Petrushka, with which the BBCSSO ended the concert, was spirited, if initially rough at the edges.

The late-night Prom which followed saw the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland to make their Proms debut. Conducted by Andrew Bain, led by pianist/composer Malcolm Edmonstone, and beefed up by the maturer talents of Liane Carroll and Iain Ballamy, those gifted young musicians held forth exuberantly for seventy unbroken minutes. The underlying aesthetic was that of Duke Ellington, and the step-out soloists were of an exceptionally high standard: a pity we were not allowed to put names to faces, as some sounded like the stars of the future.