BBC Proms 44: Pavel Kolesnikov, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Gemma New; 18 August 2023

kolesnikov.jpgAfter appearing at the 2019 Proms in calf-length shorts paired with orange Nike trainers, Pavel Kolesnikov may have felt he had a sartorial reputation to keep up. On Friday he made his entrance resplendent in what I can only describe as red flowery pantaloons. The outfit suggested we were in for a similarly flamboyant performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. In fact Kolesnikov kept things light, maintaining a chamber-like balance with the orchestra and bringing out the work’s high spirits and good humour. In the slow movement however his right hand sang out effortlessly over the muted strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra to a rapt capacity audience in the Albert Hall.

The concert opened with the European premiere of Samy Moussa’s Symphony No. 2. Moussa is a Canadian working mainly in Germany; the symphony was first performed in Toronto. It seemed however firmly in the American tradition, largely tonal, diatonic and in regular metres, standing somewhere between Roy Harris and the soundtrack to a modern Hollywood thriller. In three movements played without a break, it weaves musical paragraphs out of three short motifs which appear in the first section: a rising brass figure moving through a series of dissonances to a major triad, and two short descending scale figures. Scored largely for a conventional symphony orchestra augmented with a battery of marimbas, vibraphones and the like, it was engaging and accessible at first hearing, though I felt the resounding F major conclusion was a bit too easily won.

The second half consisted of Stravinsky’s Firebird, in its full original version of 1910, offstage Wagner tubas and all. Stravinsky tended to denigrate this work in his later years, partly for its extravagant scoring but also for its passages of “pantomime” music intended purely to illustrate the stage action. In this performance these passages seemed well-integrated into the musical whole, and we were able to enjoy glorious solo playing from the BBCSO principals along the way (even the contrabassoon gets its moment in the sun in this piece). New Zealand conductor Gemma New, surely a prima ballerina in a previous life, seemed ideal for this repertoire, directing with dramatic and muscular gestures and bringing the score to a radiant finish.

William Hale.