BBC National Orchestra of Wales: Ketting, Bartók, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 11 June 2013

Otto Ketting – Symphony No. 1
Béla Bartók – Piano Concerto No. 3
Modest Mussorgsky – Khovanshchina: Act 1 Prelude, arr. Shostakovich
Sergey Prokofiev – Symphony No. 7

Conductor: Jac van Steen
Piano: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet



Tonight’s concert was by no means the last in which Jac van Steen will conduct the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but it was his final appearance as Principal Guest Conductor; a position he has held for eight years (and will take up for the Prague Symphony Orchestra in September), during which time he has helped to make the orchestra the excellent ensemble it is today. Van Steen has been a forthright champion of contemporary music in particular and many Welsh composers have benefited from his skills as a workshop leader, as well as a concert interpreter, in initiatives such as the annual Composition: Wales event. So it is in keeping with his pioneering spirit that this farewell programme should have offered not just two works by major 20th century composers (and a third piece arranged by another), but the UK première of an early piece by a Dutch compatriot of his barely known to UK audiences: Otto Ketting, who died last December aged seventy-seven.

Fittingly enough, the theme of the evening was ‘entrances and exits’ – meant irrevocably in the case of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 (as well as the Mussorgsky extract); the last works their composers wrote before they died. Ketting’s youthful Symphony No. 1 (completed in 1959 when he was just twenty-four), was the ‘entrance’ item on the programme – although here too, ‘endings’ were palpable beyond van Steen’s tribute to his late friend, in that direct musical references to Alban Berg’s final works (the Violin Concerto and incomplete opera, Lulu) are embedded in the piece itself; a clear homage to Berg and his teacher Arnold Schoenberg. Indeed, Ketting nails his loyal stylistic colours so firmly to the mast that it proves difficult at times to hear his individual voice. But what colours he paints! The Symphony is sumptuously vivid and the material – purportedly the first use of serial technique by a Dutch composer – is organised with a precocious formal exuberance, which the BBC NOW rose to match with some superb playing after a brief wobble in the upper strings. This is beautifully wrought music, and, if we agree with Ketting that ‘music should be about emotions and experiences, time and surroundings – besides being about music – no matter to what extent these are concealed or stylized’ – then it is also successful music.

It is always tempting to look for embryos of later development in a composer’s beginning pieces (regarding Ketting, I simply say that all the music of his I have heard has more than repaid the listen). Likewise, ‘late’ works are habitually viewed through the lens of impending mortality – whether or not the composer knew his or her end was coming and regardless of their age. Final works in particular are often scrutinised for some kind of artistic apotheosis, or whether they might show the composer turning back to earlier or simpler styles perhaps as the end looms; the apparent paradox of creativity and death, it seems, holds us in thrall. Bartók and Prokofiev were both terribly ill and in precarious wider situations as death approached. The Hungarian had been in exile in America since 1940, longing for his homeland and struggling to make a living. He and his wife Ditta were concert pianists and it was for her – rather than to a paid commission – that he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3, apparently as a birthday gift, but in all likelihood too, as a means for her to earn an income after his death. The piece is strikingly different to the more angular percussiveness of Bartók’s previous Piano Concertos and its neo-classical refinement and light, lyrical tone have widely been seen as both a pre-death distillation, as it were, of his maturest style and the culmination of a return to simpler idioms heralded by his reconnection with folk-inspired verbunkos in 1938 (in Contrasts and the Violin Concerto No. 2).

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, tonight’s soloist, has performed and recorded all three Bartók piano concertos to great acclaim and proved a brilliant and effervescent interpreter on this occasion with the solid support of BBC NOW. Lucid textures and elastic rhythms were delivered with elegance and panache, with just the odd hint of brittleness, but with particular clarity in the third movement’s imitative counterpoint – as well as wistful poignancy in Bartók’s second movement paraphrasing of Beethoven’s ‘Solemn Song of Thanksgiving’ from the A minor String Quartet Op.132, celebrating a recovery from illness that Bartók was not to share.

Prokofiev was another composer-pianist who had also known exile, but he returned as a celebrated international figure to the now Soviet Russia in 1936 (having left post-1917 Revolution) – alas for his enduring moral reputation at home and abroad, just as Stalin’s murderous show trials were reaching their peak; as Stanislav Richter dryly said of him: ‘Principles weren’t exactly his strong point.’ Despite a successful career, his final years were clouded by the humiliating denunciation it is plain he never expected from the authorities in 1948, leading to his painfully forced written admission that ‘Beyond doubt I have been guilty of atonality … I [now] intend to aim at a clear musical speech that shall be acceptable to my people.’ Hence the melodically-rich, romantic, backward-looking style of Prokofiev’s late works can be seen as coming from a desperate need for official redemption rather than some gathering quietude before death.

It is extraordinary how much hostility the Symphony No. 7 has generated, regardless of its popularity with audiences. Richard Taruskin has pronounced it ‘saccharine stuff, and the most unlistenable of all to any who know what bloody hands coerced the pretty sounds.’ How ‘pretty’ those sounds are is, indeed, a matter of opinion and I personally wince at Prokofiev’s underlying bleak sardonicism; perhaps more so, even, than at that in his most aggressive works, such as the late-futurist Symphony No. 2 (1924-5). Tonight’s performance superbly emphasised the work’s equivocal nature with van Steen coaxing rounded melodic warmth and genuine melancholy from his entirely willing and able orchestra, without neglecting the frequent acerbic asides and ominous undercurrents (I know of no other composer more threatening with a tinkly glockenspiel). The big, open textures of the first movement were beautifully balanced by an at times dystopic waltz (with wonderful, raspberry brass) and a third movement which proved how far from being sedative Prokofiev’s nominally sedate Andantino espressivo can be. The fourth movement simply got more painfully expressive – to my ears at least – the more apparently cheerful the mood.

But before the Symphony came a rare chance to hear the Act 1 Prelude to the opera Khovanshchina by Mussorgsky; a 19th century compatriot of Prokofiev’s, who contrastingly remained in many respects an enfant terrible his entire, short life (he died alcoholic and destitute in 1881 aged just forty-two, leaving Khovanshchina uncompleted). This gem was performed in the fine arrangement made in 1958-9 (around the time Ketting was composing his Symphony No. 1) by Prokofiev’s younger colleague and rival Shostakovich, whose political and musical reputation – also in contrast to Prokofiev, and regardless of the enduring popularity of many of Prokofiev’s works – has, post-Cold War, enjoyed a far more positive press. Admittedly, for Prokofiev, there was no real chance of a thaw so to speak, in the sense that he happened to die the exact same day as Josef Stalin on 5 March 1953 and, hence, did not live to see any softening of the system. He was also buried on the same day as the dictator’s funeral. Reputedly it was Shostakovich – the man who had suffered so greatly under Stalinist dictat for so many years and who had found Prokofiev to be a ‘hard man’ who ‘didn’t seem interested in anything other than himself and his music’ – who lingered longest at his fellow composer’s graveside, his face an unreadable mask; unreadable, perhaps, as Prokofiev’s final symphony ultimately proves to be.