Prom 44: LSO/Rattle review – Jungle Book-inspired scherzo delivered with verve

Royal Albert Hall, London
An all-20th-century programme showcased the wit and brilliance of Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, although Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast lacked bite

By the time of his death in 1950, Charles Koechlin’s work list ran to more than 200 opus numbers, but only two orchestral pieces by this elusive and teasingly uncategorisable French composer, who studied with Massenet and Fauré, and whose pupils included Poulenc and Cole Porter, have been performed at the Proms. One of those is his “monkey scherzo”, Les Bandar-Log, the final instalment of a cycle of orchestral works inspired by episodes in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It was also the piece that opened Simon Rattle’s concert with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Named after the troupe of monkeys in Kipling’s story, Les Bandar-Log is a musical satire on the fads and fashions of 20th-century music, combining elements of wispy impressionism with dour, strait-laced neoclassicism, atonality and 12-tone writing. What binds it together is Koechlin’s brilliance as an orchestrator, and his ability to clothe every strand of this constantly changing musical narrative in glowing instrumental colours. At its best, Koechlin’s music is unlike any other of its time. It is also the kind of multilayered, quick-witted music in which Rattle and his orchestra excel.

Gerald Finley at Prom 44.
Impeccable … Gerald Finley at the Royal Albert Hall. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

They followed it with another rarely heard score demanding similar instrumental virtuosity – Edgard Varèse’s Amériques in all its original 1921 glory, which calls for an orchestra of 150 players, including 13 percussionists, almost 50 wind players and an extra off-stage brass group. In a more focused acoustic than the Albert Hall, it could have been sonically overwhelming. But the cavernous space took the edge off its elemental power, in which the European modernism of Debussy and Stravinsky confronts the hard-edged brutalism of the new world that Varèse had encountered for the first time.

After these two extraordinary pieces, Walton’s Proms staple Belshazzar’s Feast seemed almost like an afterthought, even with the combined voices of the London Symphony Chorus, and the senior and youth choirs of Orféo Català from Barcelona. In fact, a smaller choir might have given the performance more bite and presence. Gerald Finley was the impeccable solo baritone, and Rattle ensured that every element was in the right place at precisely the right time. Still, even he could not prevent the whole thing seeming just a bit meretricious.

Available on BBC Sounds and on BBC Four on 23 August. The Proms continue until 14 September.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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