Firebird, Boulez, Ravel, Prom 36, BBC Proms, Albert Hall, 12 August 2015


Programming at the Proms can be outstanding, and this was a case in point. Starting with Boulez’ Figures – Doubles – Prismes for an evening whose climax is Firebird was an inspired choice. An article in the programme describes this piece for three ensembles — appearing on stage as a single orchestra — as a response to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, but for me its abstract beauty seemed to be telling a story of energy and yearning in a far off land, expressed particularly by glockenspiel, xylophones and other percussion. Beautiful music with a strangely gripping, emotional ending.

After an early interval came Ravel and Stravinsky. Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in World War I, showed its intriguing colours under the baton of François-Xavier Roth with superb left-handed piano playing by Marc-André Hamelin. The occasional oriental flavours created by woodwind and high notes on the piano made this music fit well into a programme starting with the Boulez and ending with Firebird.

It was Diaghilev’s idea to create a ballet on this Russian fairy tale where a beautiful princess is kept captive in the magical gardens of Kashchey the Immortal, until being rescued by Prince Ivan — a story that Rimsky-Korsakov turned into a one-act opera with no firebird. For the ballet, Diaghilev had difficulty finding a composer and took a chance on the young Stravinsky whose complex rhythms became a challenge for the dancers at the 1910 premiere in Paris. It is a strangely magical ballet, almost the opposite of Swan Lake where the prince falls for the enchanted Swan rather than any real princess. Here too the most intense relationship is between Ivan and the enchanted Firebird, who helps him destroy Kashchey’s power, yet he ends up with the princess.

One of the great things about ballet music at the Proms is the concentration on music rather than dance, and François-Xavier Roth gave a performance of Firebird that far surpassed anything you are likely to have heard at the Royal Opera House in recent years. Apart from the notable final scene it expressed an air of mystery more than theatrical effect, and although Mikhail Fokine’s wonderful choreography was absent it was a delight to watch the strings heralding and accompanying the firebird, and the man on the magic carillon who appeared briefly in the organ space above the orchestra. Little details like this help give the Proms an extra frisson of excitement making them well worth attending in person rather than simply listening to on the radio.

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