One of the musical anniversaries being celebrated at this year’s Proms is the 150th birthday of Henry Wood. Works that the conductor introduced to the UK at the Proms make up one of the strands woven through the season, and Peter Eötvös’s concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra included three of these “Henry Wood novelties”, all of them now modern orchestral classics.
They were performed with the scrupulous attention to detail that always informs Eötvös’s work as a conductor – he didn’t work so closely with Pierre Boulez in the 1970s and 80s for nothing – and the orchestra was at its most attentive and precise. But these pieces never quite hit the marks they should have done. Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune was matter-of-fact rather than languorous, despite the fluid beauty of Daniel Pailthorpe’s flute solos, and Bartók’s Dance Suite more urbane than cheerfully rustic. And though the BBCSO’s principals again shone in the suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird (the now-standard 1919 version rather than the 1910 one that Wood conducted in 1913), it remained earthbound rather than enchanted.
Eötvös brought his own latest orchestral work too, just two weeks after its world premiere in Granada. Alhambra is a violin concerto that was composed for Isabelle Faust, the soloist here too. It’s a single movement lasting about 20 minutes, which the composer likens to “a walk through the mysterious buildings that make up the Alhambra” with a main theme derived from a musical “spelling” of the name of the Moorish palace. A mandolin (far more audible on the broadcast than it was in the hall) shadows and supports the solo violin, whose discursive line seems constantly to trigger the iridescent orchestral activity, so that it becomes a showpiece for the orchestra as well as the soloist; the BBCSO certainly didn’t pale alongside Faust’s brilliance.