Sir Harrison Birtwistle has made his peace with the Proms. Sixteen years ago the Daddy of English music shocked the Last Night by pulling the abrasive Panic out of his bag. He was booed. On Wednesday his new Violin Concerto was warmly applauded. Birtwistle has mellowed, but the Proms have also toughened up. This was the second night in succession in which contemporary music filled the concert sandwich. On both nights the house (capacity nearly 6,000) was full. In each case the new work was a concerto for violin.
A decade ago concertos were old hat. No self-respecting modernist composer could have written one and looked his peers in the eye. The fact that even Sir Harry has recanted shows how the musical landscape has softened. His concerto, like Wolfgang Rihm’s Gesungene Zeit (Sung Time) on Tuesday, tussles with the classical conundrum of how soloist and orchestra define themselves in relation to each other.
In Birtwistle’s case, the violin doesn’t oppose the orchestra so much as negotiate its way through dark, threatening timbres in a series of skittish gestures, like a nervously pirouetting dancer. Only occasionally does it enter into brief dialogues with piccolo, cello or bassoon. By Birtwistle’s standards the music is unusually translucent and introspective, but despite the lively advocacy of Christian Tetzlaff with the BBC Symphony under David Robertson, it offered little scope for soloistic brilliance and seemed boxed into a monotone mood by its single-movement structure.
What it needed was a dollop of the extended cantilena that occupies Rihm’s canvas from start to finish. Like Birtwistle, Rihm draws the listener into a spare, ultra-imaginative sound-world without delivering on the promise of his opening statements.
The soloist proposes a high-lying vocalise, inspiring the orchestra to similar flights of song, so that even the tuned percussion wants to breathe in unison. In this second Prom by the Pittsburgh Symphony, it was fascinating to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of the great interpreters of Romantic violin repertoire, championing the music of our time and making it sound, well, romantic.