Henry Wood without the Promenades

Thursday’s Prom features the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under their French conductor, François-Xavier Roth, and so the first half of the programme was dedicated to French music. The opening piece by Rameau was rather lively, and was that sort of Baroque music that’s full of weird and wonderful percussion, including at certain points the conductor tapping his baton. At times the rhythms almost seemed syncopated. This was followed by a selection from Canteloube’s well known Songs from the Auvergne. Now, as I keep saying, vocal music is not my area of expertise, but didn’t soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci seem a little off-key, particularly at the start? She certainly has a lot of vibrato, which is a device used to hide that, but perhaps song aficionados are better placed to judge a singer’s voice than me. Canteloube’s work is sometimes heard in an orchestral version, and I’m afraid from my point of view, the singing just obscures his colourful orchestration.

After the interval was a French commission by a Argentinian based in Paris, Martin Matalon. The title Lignes de fuite means something like “converging lines”. The work sounded to me like some of the eerie space-like special effects found in Holst’s Planets. Unfortunately, whereas Holst uses such sounds sparingly, and also gives us some great tunes, Matalon does nothing of the sort. After the piece had finished, I heard one prommer exclaim, “That’s 20 minutes of my life wasted!”

The final work in the concert, and for me without a doubt the highlight, was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at en Exhibition in an arrangement by the Proms’ very own Henry Wood. This was quite different from the familiar version by Ravel, which is rather more faithful to the original piano score. Wood’s version is billed as an arrangement as opposed to a mere orchestration. Indeed, his orchestration is thicker (and louder!) than Ravel’s, but there are also a number of other changes to the work, most significantly the omission of most of the Promenade sections that depict Mussorgsky walking from one painting to the next. It seems rather ironic to say that Henry Wood missed out the Promenades! This made Pictures more like a suite of separate pieces rather than the almost continuous music it is usually presented as. The work drew the concert to a thunderous conclusion, with the huge orchestra and organ playing Wood’s slightly altered closing bars of the movement he also gave a slightly altered title, The Bogatyr (meaning heroes) Gate at Kiev.

The very first Prom I attended was exactly six years ago yesterday. At that concert, the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its then principal conductor Leonard Slatkin played Pictures at an Exhibition with each movement chosen by Slatkin from a different composer’s orchestration: if that seemed like indulgence, it was his 60th birthday that day! He chose Wood’s version of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, so this is the second time I’ve heard that part.

Prom 63
Rameau
Dardanus – suite
Canteloube Songs from the Auvergne – selection: Pastourelle; Deux Bourrées: N’ai pas iéu de mio; Une jionto pastouro; Té, l’co té!; Bailero; Malurous qu’o uno fenno
interval
Martin Matalon Lignes de fuite (UK premiere)
Musorgsky, arr. Henry Wood Pictures at an Exhibition
Anna Caterina Antonacci soprano
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
François-Xavier Roth conductor

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