The week in classical: Australian World Orchestra/Mehta; Harrison Birtwistle Day – review

Gliding slowly through the orchestra and across the stage of the Royal Albert Hall to the conductor’s podium, Zubin Mehta, in white tie, tails and high-gloss patent leather shoes, had the dignity and bearing of an ocean liner from a golden age. Of course this 86-year-old, Mumbai-born Indian did not glide at all. He walked with difficulty, with the aid of a stick, but with a graceful determination that inspired welcome cheers from the Proms audience, who were there to hear the Australian World Orchestra make their debut as part of a UK tour.

This diaspora orchestra, founded in 2010 and consisting of Australian players from many world-class orchestras, has the energy of a festival ensemble. That they will only have come together to rehearse last week added to the sense of adventure. The first part of their Prom, Webern’s Passacaglia, Op 1 and Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6 (revised version, 1928), hardly yielded to the acoustic of the Albert Hall, though listening again on BBC Sounds it came across with subtlety and colour. Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées was sung by the soprano Siobhan Stagg in a delicate arrangement by Brett Dean, the Australian composer and violist who, on this novel occasion, was playing in the orchestra and rose from there to take his bow.

Soprano Siobhan Stagg with the Australian World Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Soprano Siobhan Stagg with the Australian World Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. Photograph: Mark Allan

Mehta himself, a rare visitor to these shores though he began his conducting career in Liverpool, has not been at the Proms for more than a decade. Many whose passion for classical music was ignited by Christopher Nupen’s 1969 film of Schubert’s The Trout, featuring the young Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim – evergreen viewing, always worth revisiting – might recall that the handsome young double bass player was Mehta. That sense of a lifelong arc of experience came across powerfully in Brahms’s Symphony No 2 in D, always referred to as a cheerful work – because it happens to be in a major key – but in the woodwind exchanges, the glowing horn solos, the lilting third-movement minuet, this work tugs at the listener with its wistfulness and humanity. Sitting to conduct and using minimal gestures, Mehta however stood, the years falling away, for the evening’s uproarious encore, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in G minor – a fitting pairing: the two composers were devoted friends. The spirit of friendship dominated this entire event.

As it did, too, at Plush, a tiny village deep in the chalk hills of Dorset, a favourite place of Harrison Birtwistle, where many of his works were performed and in some cases premiered in the converted former church of St John the Baptist. Birtwistle’s friend, dedicatee and interpreter, the cellist Adrian Brendel, organised a Birtwistle day for all who wanted to remember the composer, who died in April this year at the age of 87. The star lineup of musicians prepared to come (it wasn’t the easiest place to get to in a week of rail strikes) and perform for a matter of minutes reflected the affection in which he was held.

I arrived in time to hear a run of pieces by some of the composer’s outstanding advocates. Nicolas Hodges, pianist and unfazed champion of the new, reminded us of the jigging virtuosity of Gigue Machine (2011). Brendel and Hodges entered the meditative mood of Variations from Bogenstrich (2006-9) and the baritone Roderick Williams sang a song from the same Rilke setting. The bass John Tomlinson and pianist Andrew West inhabited a scene from The Minotaur (2008) as if lost in a staging of the entire opera. West and the tenor Mark Padmore explored the full emotional reach of (part of) Songs from the Same Earth (2013), settings of poems by David Harsent. Forbes Henderson performed the miniature Guitar and White Hand (2007), Birtwistle’s first guitar piece, its title borrowed from Picasso. Joanna MacGregor gave a tender account of another short work, Oockooing Bird, from the composer’s teenage years.

Bass John Tomlinson and pianist Andrew West.
Bass John Tomlinson and pianist Andrew West performing from Birtwistle’s The Minotaur in Plush. Photograph: Tom Mustill

To complete the circle, in another place – back at the Proms, which for last-minute reasons I heard instead on Radio 3Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra played Donum Simoni MMXVIII (2018), one of Birtwistle’s last works. He wrote it as a musical gift for the conductor and orchestra. Rattle said a few words in tribute to his friend Harry. The short, gruff fanfare provided a laconic upbeat to a red-hot performance, by all accounts, of Mahler’s mighty Symphony No 2, “Resurrection”. Watch it on BBC Four at 8pm tomorrow night.

Star ratings (out of five)
Australian World Orchestra/Mehta
Harrison Birtwistle Day

The Guardian