Prom 43: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Litton, Royal Albert Hall

Posted on August 17th, 2011

There are programmes and there are Proms programmes and this three-tier special was of mythic proportions. It started as it meant to go on, with a big bang, as Andrew Litton and the Royal Philharmonic brasses and percussion summoned the “Common Man” to bear witness. He – or rather we – were there in great numbers and if on paper one wondered how Aaron Copland’s celebrated Fanfare might relate to Arnold Bax’s Second Symphony, in the hall the muted fanfares emerging from the primordial opening bars of the Bax became in effect the dark side of Copland’s democratic vision.

Surprisingly the Bax had never been performed at the Proms before and whilst its myth and magic threw up much of passing interest – like the strange, oscillating harps at the heart of the first movement or the yearning but all too short-lived violin melody of the second – its rhapsodic nature lends a moment by moment effect where atmosphere and intrigue and a relish of subversive sonorities count for more than direction. It’s the kind of symphony one imagines Percy Grainger might have written – a bit of a “ramble”, to use his word – but Litton and the RPO fleetingly made believers of us.

In a big beast of a programme like this the extra interval threw the three big works into higher relief – and what a smart idea to preface Bartok’s visceral 2nd Piano Concerto with the Barber Adagio for Strings, as if wilfully to point up the fact that in the first movement of the Bartok the strings are silent. The Barber is now so iconic as to feel like a communal prayer – a meditation for the common man – as opposed to a festival for primitive man, which is how the Bartok comes across. The young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang played the hell out of it variously suggesting Stravinsky’s Petrushka on steroids and the idea that she might at any moment swap places with the timpani and bass drum she at one point duets with.

Serge Koussevitsky was the unifying inspiration behind this programme but the Prokofiev 4th Symphony he commissioned and first performed in Boston was very different from the bigger and grittier revision Litton offered here with terrific panache, feverish ostinati pulled up short in ice-breaking climaxes with ominous wood-block marking time. What a challenging programme to prepare and to perform. Hats off to the RPO who sounded reborn.

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