Founded in 1895 to popularize classical music among Londoners, the Proms concerts, an eight-week musical extravaganza managed by the BBC since 1927, still retain a populist element. Held in the Royal Albert Hall, the festival occupies one of the world’s largest classical music performance spaces, with a capacity exceeding five thousand. The floor stalls section is standing room only, harking back to a time when theater attendance was a far more casual affair. Dress is also casual, with t-shirts outnumbering jackets and nary a tie in sight. Young people attend in reassuringly large numbers, helped by ticket prices low enough to be described as “democratic.” Perhaps most importantly, drinks are allowed in the auditorium.
The Proms’s programming is so vast that unifying themes abound. This year marks numerous centennials: the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the deaths of Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger, the end of the World War I, and the advent of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. But even with these occasions, there is still ample space to explore unrelated repertoire. An August 24 concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra honored the Proms tradition of popularizing standard classics with a keen pairing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5.
Piano Concerto No. 21’s expressive march, which dominates its Allegro first movement, rises furtively from the strings and expands grandly in the brass.
The Mozart concerto is one of the best known among the composer’s works for orchestra and piano. It premiered in 1785, just as Mozart was coming into his prime. Already on Europe’s musical map from childhood (a childhood which included a lengthy stay in London, as the program proudly notes), Mozart enjoyed a series of stunning triumphs in the 1780s as he developed his individual style. Grandeur in his operas had already begun to flow in Idomeneo, which premiered in 1781, and found its fullest expression in The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787). And he scaled the Olympian heights of harmonic sophistication with his Symphony No. 40, which premiered in 1788. Piano Concerto No. 21’s expressive march, which dominates its Allegro first movement, rises furtively from the strings and expands grandly in the brass. The Andante movement and concluding Rondo also modulate harmonics with exquisite sophistication. Under the conductor Sakari Oramo’s direction, the BBC players delved into the music with mathematical precision. The English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor kept up with a balanced technique, even if the playing at times sounded a bit too cutesy for Mozart.
It has long been said that Bruckner wrote the same symphony nine times—a cruel quip that is neither aesthetically nor mathematically accurate since his final symphony was left unfinished. Here we see Romanticism at its other end. While Mozart anticipated its stirring themes, by the time Bruckner rose in the shadow of Wagner and Brahms, the only possible path forward seemed to be making the idiom grander and grander. But Bruckner was cleverer than that, and one can discern in his symphonies’ roving harmonies and furtive dissonances hints of the Expressionism that would arise by the turn of the twentieth century. The Fifth Symphony, which was composed in the 1870s but did not premiere until 1887, sat on the edge of this divide. Bruckner himself was by then too sick to attend its premiere and never heard it performed.
As often happens, the symphony’s traditional fanfares and solid bass line tempted Oramo into neglecting the more advanced elements in the score, which sounded more retiring. The more expansive scale of the Romantic reaches in the performance had punch and certainly benefited from the BBC ensemble’s practiced work with the high-German Romantic repertoire. But a subtler variant might have done the work greater justice.