Prom 33: London Sinfonietta / Edward Gardner - Royal Albert Hall, 9 August 2009
Antheil Ballet mécanique John Adams Grand Pianola Music Bartók Sonata for two pianos and percussion Stravinsky Les noces
At least the second Prom of ‘Multiple Pianos’ day, unlike the first, stretched to four pianos for a couple of the works on offer. The impact of Antheil’s now-quaint Ballet mécanique was neutered by performing it in the less jazzy and less relentless 1953 update and confining the more outrageous sound effects (aeroplane propellors are specified) to laptop recordings. And couldn’t Edward Gardner have whipped up a bit more volume? Some early 20th century works still have the power to provoke, but this just came across as machine-age kitsch.
The four pianos were fully staffed again for an acoustically-unbalanced Les noces. Tatiana Monogarova and Elena Manistina managed to sing through the robust orchestration, but Vsevolod Grivnov and Kostas Smoriginas were buried beneath – a shame as their exposed solos were ardently and beautifully delivered. The refined voices of the BBC Singers, stranded way behind, floated over the visceral music more like a commentary than a part of the ecstatic communal celebration. It probably came across better on the radio.
In between came the spare textures of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, disappointingly stranded in the cavernous acoustic, and John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music. Like most of Adams’s non-opera music, there seems to be something missing – a cushion of words, or a movie it could soundtrack. Although this one was, according to the composer’s own programme note, booed for its radicalism on its 1982 premiere, it sounds to me like the sort of thing Sting might write on a day off. Adams serves up the superficial characteristics of Reich-style minimalism – the harmonic repetitions, the rippling arpeggiation - without the formal intelligence. The syrup-bathed first section demonstrates how readily the simple becomes banal if it’s fussed-over. The ironically recycled themes of the livelier second part, a sort of stoner Ride of the Valkyries, owe most of their appeal to subliminal recognition.
It was easily the best-performed (and received) work of the evening, but then the Royal Albert Hall acoustic finds it harder to defeat a full orchestra. Another reason to hate the 80s.