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Prom 20 (Susan Elkin reviews)

Imaginative programming meant there were three contrasting styles from three different centuries in this vibrant concert. All credit to the BBC too for investing in an expensive modern work (The Greatest Happiness Principle by David Sawer) which requires seven percussionists, harp, masses of brass and extra strings most of whom were not required in the rest of the programme. It would have been more economical to pair it with, say, a Mahler symphony but more original and probably more enlightening to hear it before Haydn.

The evening began with a thoughtful rendering of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with its compelling D minor melancholy and mood swings. Stephen Hough gave a highly accomplished performance including a sumptuously lyrical middle movement.  Both grandiloquent Brahms piano concerti are effectively big symphonies with a piano part. It was interesting, therefore to see Hough turning respectfully away from the audience and piano whenever he wasn’t playing to watch Mark Wigglesworth and the orchestra of which he evidently regards himself as part. He’s a totally unprima-donna-ish team player.  It took Wigglesworth a while to get the orchestra into overdrive – the strings sounded hesitant in the first movement’s exposed pianissimo passages – but they played  with panache once warmed up.

The 1997 Sawer piece is a rhythmic and unexpectedly melodius exploration of symmetry inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s design for a new prison at Milbank where Tate Britain now stands. Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic had a lot of fun with all that percussion and repeated phrases with lots of colourful variation. And, of course, David Sawer was the only one of the three composers who was bodily present in the hall – the others were there only in spirit.

And so to reduced forces and Haydn’s 99th symphony. In this perky work Wigglesworth established a fine balance between tempi and dynamics to allow all the orchestral detail to shine smilingly through. He gave us a crisp and witty first movement, a minuet which really danced into the trio and caught most of the audience by exaggerating that typical Haydn joke – the false ending.

First published by Lark Reviews


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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