Prom 72: BBCSO/Belohlavek at the Albert Hall, London SW7

09.11.09
Jennifer Koh
Times Online (UK)

By Neil Fisher

The American composer Augusta Read Thomas calls her newest violin concerto (her third) Juggler in Paradise, and its circus tricks are certainly spangled across a colourful sky. Bright, dappled effects — Read Thomas likens them to the pointillist style of Georges Seurat — are speckled across a small orchestra whose full power is never heard, but whose glistening, open textures are primarily drawn from the bell-like sonorities of celeste, piano and percussion.

As fantasy or caprice the piece certainly teases. As an extended 20-minute concerto it is wanting. The solo part, delivered with grave simplicity by Jennifer Koh, swoops and chatters around serene half-melodies without finding a certain anchor. Just as the piece does drop from its celestial circlings — a Mahlerian sigh unexpectedly falls from brass and woodwind, beautifully realised by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jirí Belohlávek — it all frustratingly falls back into the ether. Juggler in Purgatory would have been a less grabby title, but it might have been a better work.

Read Thomas’s ethereal, sprightly song certainly connected us neatly to the (literally) puckish thoughts of Felix Mendelssohn, receiving the last of his Proms birthday tributes in the shape of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and incidental music. This is definitely music that plays to Belohlávek’s strengths — balance, clarity and warmth of texture — and it received an appropriately noble and fervent performance. The elfin grace of the overture found its perfect counterpart in the rapt nocturne (full marks to Nicholas Korth’s dreamy horn solo), and if the famous Wedding March had a whiff of Victorian pomp, perhaps that’s only fitting in the grand surroundings of the Albert Hall.

More disappointing was Belohlávek's Beethoven. However delicate the composer’s touch frequently is in the Pastoral Symphony, is the countryside really as neat and tidy as Belohlávek seems to think? His was a determinedly leisurely wander around field and brook, lit up by winsome playing but let down by a chronic lack of momentum. Even the peasant band in the third movement seemed to be on best behaviour.