On Monday I attended Prom 51 at the Royal Albert Hall, and heard a terrific performance of Brahms’ First Symphony by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Preceding Brahms in the programme was the “World Premiere” of Volans’ Piano Concerto No.3. The word “premiere” strikes fear into the heart of any experienced concert patron; they are typically something to be endured between the works which everyone has come to hear. An accurate impression of Volans’ concerto can be ascertained from the programme notes. The music is described as “spare”, “bleak” and “edgy”, which casual observers could be forgiven for thinking are the only moods of which modern composition is capable. Predictably the composer “mistrusts the whole idea of ‘form’” (in addition, it would seem from the music, to “melody”, “harmony”, and other things which make music worth listening to). Most illuminating of all is the composer’s “anti-conceptual” compositional style; “in practice this means he has no idea what will happen to a piece until he starts it”. More fool the likes of Brahms, who to the best of our knowledge actually thought about what they were going to write before they wrote it.
Suffice it to say that alongside one of the giants of the symphonic canon, Volans’ “concerto” (presumably a composer who so “mistrusts” form would have conceived a less formal title) sounded rather pathetic. It shouldn’t be like this of course. Some classical premieres could genuinely be described as historic events: the epic premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and Fourth Piano Concerto in the same programme, the near-riotous enthusiasm which greeted Elgar’s First Symphony on its first performance, and the inaugural exhibition of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, in a Soviet Union besieged by the invading Nazis. Of course not every premiere can attain these standards. But there does remain a wider point about modern composition, the reputation of which suffers from the kind of racket heard at the Albert Hall on Monday. The nadir of post-modernist composition has passed; there is a new generation of composers who realise the cultural selfishness of failing to add to the stock of compositions which, like Brahms’ First, will stand the test of time. However such composers must hear Volans‘ tuneless noise, and the praise of his fellow conspirators such as the concerto’s soloist, and be tempted by the view that form and melody are relics, rather than the lifeblood of classical composition.
Of course this might just sound like an appendix to the John Cage rant, and there are obvious similarities (though at least 4’ 33” has the benefit of irony). And perhaps Proms audiences really do think form and melody are finished, and only go to see the premieres (there was some applause for the composer when he appeared on stage at the end, although this sounded like polite English applause lacking any genuine enthusiasm). However I would hazard that Volans’ Third Piano Concerto will not be played at the Proms a hundred years hence, which surely tells its own story.