By Martin Kettle
September 10, 2009
Royal Albert Hall, London
The 2009 Proms have done the neglected works of Mendelssohn proud in his bicentenary year. What a pity, therefore, that when the retrospective reached one of his most admired compositions, the Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music, the performance should have lacked so much of the magic in which this precocious score abounds.
The conductor Jirí Belohlávek, who normally has a feel for Mendelssohn, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra appeared to treat the overture as just another day at the office, with the first violins ensemble noticeably slack. Things improved in the nocturne. Yet only with Daniel Pailthorpe's flute solos in the quicksilver scherzo was one reminded that this can be a special orchestra.
After the interval, Beethoven's Pastoral symphony fared better. From the opening bars, Belohlávek judged his speeds well, not hurrying but avoiding the temptation to linger. The andante by the brook produced more fine woodwind solos, and the storm was extremely dramatic. The BBC players responded elegantly, though the violins still give cause for concern.
The UK premiere of the third violin concerto by the US composer Augusta Read Thomas was the most engaging part of the programme. Thomas's concerto sets a lyrical solo part, played with great style by Jennifer Koh, against refreshingly spare orchestral writing that conveyed a great sense of space and brightness. Occasionally, Thomas seemed to be distantly circling the harmonic world of the Samuel Barber concerto, but hers is a much more dispassionate work. In effect, it was less a concerto than a long violin cadenza with an accompaniment of bell-like orchestral effects. Not a masterpiece, but thank goodness for something that demanded one's attention.
© 2009 The Guardian