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FringeReview UK 2019

BBC Prom 44 Koechlin Varese Walton

BBC Proms

Genre: Live Music, Music

Venue: Royal Albert Hall, Kensington


Low Down

Simon Rattle conducts the LSO LSO Chorus (chorus-master Simon Halsey) Orféo Catala (chorus master Pablo Larraz) and Orféo Catala Youth Choir (chorus master Esteve Nabona) in Charles Koechlin’s Les Bandar-log, Edgard Varese’s Amériques (original version) and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, soloist Gerald Finley.


A Varese premiere, twice distilled. Not only a first of the original version of his Amériques at the Proms, but a first in any version of this work proves the pivot of this evening’s riotous parade.

Time was I queued for seven hours just to be sure of a Rattle ticket, in 2012, even 2017. 45 minutes before this Prom 44 start and I was in without any trouble. Simon Rattle’s star hasn’t so much fallen as dropped into London. His first six months at the LSO were sold out. Now, and without that unique instrument the Berlin Phil, he’s becoming – dare I say it – part of the aural furniture. May he continue to – well, rattle it like this.

Rattle conducts the LSO, LSO Chorus (chorus-master Simon Halsey) Orféo Catala (chorus master Pablo Larraz) and Orféo Catala Youth Choir (chorus master Esteve Nabona) in Charles Koechlin’s Les Bandar-log, Edgard Varese’s Amériques (original version) and William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

Koechlin who lived from 1867-1950 just got better and better, and it’s absurd he’s not even as well-known as Albert Roussel and Erik Satie. Les Bandar-log Op 176 dates from 1940, the last of his Jungle Book-inspired pieces which had started in 1917. It’s his best-known work and compacts his late-impressionist and modernist identity in a witty but profound teaching lesson.

The monkeys he’s referring to are fashionable composers chattering with their latest fads; Schoenberg and 12-tone, neo-classicism, but always refining and being subverted by Koechlin’s own melodic gifts and aesthetic. The atonality becomes balletic, the 12 tone parody beautifully-edged, as if Karajan was beautifying Berg as once happened; and the same goes for the galumphing idiot fugue that transforms into sleek Schola-Cantorum-style fuguing of a serenity Roussel or Magnard might have recognized. Then the resolution. The forest returns to the serenity of the opening, before the chattering. It’s a if the base-note is Koechlin’s own vision of music. It’s not a mere wash: it’s edgy and gritty but unforgettably serene in resolution.

It’s a great place to start, but there’s so much more: orchestral, sure. Try the Seven-Star Symphony (No. 1) and his Hollywood obsession (especially for Lilian Harvey), Le Buisson Ardent of 1945 only five years before his death and sounding close to Messiaen. Or there’s his Viola Sonata, or Heures Persennes in piano or orchestral versions. His Symphony No. 2 of 1943-44 – and his later ones – attest to his last decade providing some of his finest most forward-looking work.


Varese (1883-1965) lost his French impressionist music bar one song in a disastrous Berlin warehouse fire in 1913, having sought out Ferrucio Busoni and his Young Classicism there. Emigrating to the U.S. he was offered conducting breaks but refused most. Instead by 1921 he’d completed the original version of Amériques. It was and remained too much for any orchestra to tackle and in 1927 having written further works, he reduced its scoring. It startled even then.

This is the next stage Stravinsky didn’t take, the link between the Rite and post-war re-energizing of modernism: it’s far more exciting, far less proscriptive than 12-tone. Amériques and Varese’s small clutch of works was stymied from widespread recognition first by their ferocity, then the composer’s tiny output. Varese moved to electronic music in the early 1930s. Exactly – before it was invented; thus spending his entire career on experimenting on just two more pieces before his triumphant 1950s elevation to aural prophet.

Yes, there’s recognizable flickers of the Rite here, especially towards the end. And the sheer aural freedom with sirens and much else is one released particularly by Stravinsky, though by now younger composers like Jacob Ornstein and Henry Cowell were exploring pianistic clusters, and George Antheil was only a year or two away.

Amériques shivers on the cusp of works either lost or in one instance destroyed and his revolutions. Varese leaps into ‘all discoveries… all adventures’ with an intuitive ferocity, a disinhibition he never revisited. He’d go on to develop an extraordinary language, then go further; and in each phase the charge of Amériques survives. But it’s still the most thrilling score he ever produced.

Indeed by the time Amériques was fully performed, Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique had been premiered in Paris in 1926. But then other works of Varese like Hyperprism, Intégrales and Arcana had already established Varese’s prior claim to orchestral outrage. And Varese is more substantial than any of these – something always recognized.

The opening flute recalls not only Debussy but the Rite. It’s a haunting melody though with a hint of steely menace, and unfolds like Boléro on an acid trip. But the processional – it’s not unlike Birtwistle’s Triumph of Time from 50 years later – describes a different arc. It’s as if we’re on the Hudson or along New York’s traffic highways being subjected to sudden blares, those sirens of riverboats, the sheer exuberant inhumanity of New York. Grand chorales sounding from abysms, the percussive raps alternating with memories of the flute’s signature call up a four-note guignol, almost self-parody. But it’s deadly and you see in this Varese’s build-up. Again we’re reminded of the Sacrificial Dance of the Rite, but here, there’s a mechanistic triumphalism and something spectacularly violent in the sky-scraping brass fanfares screeching to the top of their game.

This is one of the greatest orchestral works of the 20th century and its performance by Rattle – those massed brass choirs, the bristling winds particularly that lonely noise-hardened flute and the subverted strings, all danced through a welter of percussion that show the LSO as you’d expect at the top of its game. This remains for me the highlight of the 2019 Proms so far.

It’s said this is the loudest music ever performed here. Really? Quite why William Glock didn’t programme it 50 years ago is beyond me; it’s the kind of thing he did. I’m glad we didn’t have to wait till the obligatory centenary. But I hope it returns in 2021.


How to follow that? With choirs, of course, and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Gerald Finley featured as the baritone storyteller. ‘Why not throw in a couple of brass bands, my boy. You’ll never hear the piece again’ said Sir Thomas Beecham helpfully when Walton sought his advice about the Leeds commission. Oldham-born Walton knew his northern brass, and where the brass there’s brass. It became of course an instant classic on its 1931 premiere.

Osbert Sitwell’s neat idiomatic distillation of the climactic feasting and Writing on the Wall (Walton’s original title) gives small clue of what Walton did with it.

The striking thing though is the delicacy between the brass fanfares, the clarity and hush of the storytelling. And of course the way Walton gives each section of orchestra its chance and holds back those brass bands till the climax of feasting, just before the final ‘praise’.

Finley nails the solo role with clarity and a quasi-Biblical delivery, if such there is. Rattle’s a master of orchestral and choral layering, and thrills to the banked choirs and their sudden shout of ‘Slain!’ Well, so do we. Rattle holds enough in reserve yet never remotely underwhelms and the ferocious unleashing is enough to make you think of how this extraordinary Oratorio must have sounded in 1931.

As that great choral (and exceptional orchestral and chamber) composer Herbert Howells said, Belshazzar’s Feast shut the door on further developments in this genre. So it’s good the tradition effectively came to an end on such a high. An exceptional concert then, but it’s Rattle’s genius for the fresh and new that endures.