Year: 2001

Prom 73: The Last Night – “Dignity in Distress” (2)

Verdi
Overture – The Force of Destiny
Nabucco – Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves
Finzi
The Fall of the Leaf
Canteloube
Songs of the Auvergne [five selections]
Bach, orch. Respighi
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582
Adams
Fanfare, Tromba Lontana
Barber
Adagio for Strings
Tippett
A Child of Our Time – Four Spirituals
Beethoven
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral) – Finale
Parry, orch. Elgar
Jerusalem

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Janice Watson (soprano), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone), Timothy Robinson (tenor), Kim Begley (tenor)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 15 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

As Leonard Slatkin reiterated from the Royal Albert Hall stage on the night, the Last Night, this was not the evening wanted by anyone. Yes, he knew as well as we did that everyone was wondering what an American would do to the traditions of the Last Night, and how the new (“Me,” he said pointing to himself) would affect the traditions (“You,” pointing at the audience), but for this year such thoughts had to be shelved in the wake of the atrocities that had unfolded five days before in New York and Washington.

Nick Kenyon, controller of the Proms, had addressed us equally briefly before the concert went live on air, not only to BBCs 1 & 2, Radios 2 & 3, the BBC World Service, 40 countries and – Kenyon informed us – 300 Public Broadcasting Services in America. He recognised that the changes to the programme – which stripped away Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance and Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs culminating with Arne’s Rule Britannia! – was controversial. While welcoming the continuing debate that those changes had engendered, he asked us to respect the changes in the spirit in which they were made – at least for the duration of the concert.

By and large the reaction was dignified, but all credit to Kenyon for facing a potential lion’s den, because the ’continuing debate’ about the Last Night traditions has unveiled a blinkered minority (not too far away from such examples as Northern Irish Orangemen blatantly causing offence by walking up a road they should not – all because they won’t allow themselves to see another point of view). This was epitomised by a correspondent to The Times, on Friday the 14th, who claimed to be a regular Prommer, who called Kenyon’s decision “hysterical and illogical” and who said he would sing ’Land of Hope and Glory’ regardless – such views betray the utter selfishness and insecurity of unreasonable people. There are those who argue that during the war the singing of such ’patriotic’ songs served as an all-important morale boost. Of course, no one is denying that. But the circumstances are simply not the same. If Britain was affected in the way that New York and Washington is, then there may have been some justification for such defiance. Singing of how we once ruled the waves (if not the world) would seem callous in view of the appalling scenes witnessed by us all. It was the recognition of others’ suffering that had to override our inherent wish to party regardless. Perhaps, more importantly, we should remember that Mark Elder was ’sacked’ from conducting the Last Night in 1991 after he had questioned its appropriateness in the light of the Gulf War. In retrospect we would probably agree with him, even more so when one reflects that, however tragic and appalling the recent American atrocities are, America has been behind equally horrendous attacks on innocent populations in order to protect its own ’self-interests’.

If it had been Sir Andrew Davis, or any other British conductor, in charge of the concert, then the ’solution’ would have been different.But Leonard Slatkin is an American (as was the originally scheduled soloist, Frederica von Stade) and it must have been incredibly difficult to have to preside at all, let alone conduct complete irrelevancies such as ’Land of Hope and Glory’ and ’Rule Britannia!’. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against these pieces; indeed, I like singing them, and I have no problem if they retain their hold on the Last Night’s second half.

What I dislike intensely (and it is not the same thing at all) is the audience that the playing of such music attracts. I have done eleven Last Nights, ten in the Arena, and the drunken hooray-henries, who tread the borderline with hooliganism, is getting too much to take. I am delighted to say that this side of the event was almost completely eradicated on this occasion, albeit in the worst of possible situations. Yes, the odious klaxon man who comes to the first six concerts of the season as a Prommer, solely to get his last night ticket, was there still, thankfully his klaxon unused (or, perhaps, God willing, confiscated). He is one of those self-appointed traditionalists who when, in previous years, has been asked not to ruin the music by paaap-paaapping during it, turns round aggressively and accuses the requester of not knowing how to have fun. On Saturday he spent the whole of Barber’s Adagio letting out the string on a helium-filled American Flag-decorated balloon – so much for his contemplation during the music for the thousands that had died: completely, utterly insensitive – selfish in the worst sense – and completely out of tenor with the general mood. Why he is not banned I do not know.Thankfully the TV broadcast opted against shots which included sight of the balloon.

Precedent for such a removal may have already been set. The first half was interrupted during silences and stage changes by a lone voice high in one of the boxes shouting “God Save the Queen” and “Long live America”. The first couple of times such sentiments received warm approbation, but later in the concert it began to get embarrassing, which explained the prevalent “Ssssshhh”-ing that followed, let alone the single salutary retort from the Arena, “Long live Iraqi children”. No such interruption in the second half, and I wondered whether the perpetrator had been requested to leave the Hall.

By now it will be apparent to any reader that I fully endorse the changes that were made. It not only accurately reflected the broad view of the public – certainly the vast majority in the Hall – but it made for a better concert. The Last Night will always remain a curious beast. It attracts so many people who have no comprehension about what the Proms really are, and yet it is the single annual concert that, in its variety of short pieces, best approximates to the original style of Proms’ programmes over 100 years ago.

Intriguingly, the afore-mentioned correspondent to the Times claimed that the Proms didn’t belong to Nick Kenyon, but they belonged to the Prommers. Perhaps, before we get to the actual music, we should examine that statement, and the blind idiocy that is enshrined within. Who runs the Proms? The BBC. Who funds the Proms? The BBC. The audience may pride itself in being unique, but the Proms would not exist by the audience alone. All the season tickets sold each year (roughly for the Arena grossing about £77,000) would not pay for one choral concert, which leaves 72 other concerts to fund. The idea that the Prommers own the Proms is as ludicrous as it is blind. We should be thankful that the BBC continues to invest in Sir Henry Wood’s overriding principals, but it is folly for regular patrons to believe that they exist solely for their pleasure.

I was intrigued to read that Parry’s setting of Blake’s Jerusalem, as orchestrated by Elgar, was receiving its 50th performance at the Proms. It was first heard in 1942, and so has not been an annual feature since then, with twenty omissions. So much for immutable tradition then! It was though the most fitting of endings, even though there were leaflets handed out with alternative words in a (literary if not literally) feeble rewrite by those ostensibly supporting small farmers during the foot-and-mouth epidemic.Thankfully no one seemed to take any notice and sang Blake’s original, emotive and apposite words about building a society for the common good. Beautifully “orchestrated” too was the front-row Prommers, dressed as ever in dress suits (not all traditions went by the wayside), who turned and linked hands and started the traditional (of more recent hue, admittedly) rendition of ’Auld Lang Syne’. A chorus member told me that after that, when they were leaving the stage, an audience member by the organ alone sang “Land of Hope and Glory,” lost to the rest of the audience in the cavernous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

Back to the beginning and the first three items, which remained as the original programme. As with the moving Verdi Requiem on the penultimate night (Prom 72), the two Verdi excerpts – for the centenary of his death – here were completely subsumed into the continued reaction to the atrocities in America. The Force of Destiny – the very title presupposes that for every action there is a reaction. The BBC Symphony dug into its fateful chords with steely determination. The massed choirs sang poignantly as Hebrew Slaves, the words calling for strength to bear untold suffering achieving a heightened meaning in the circumstances.

Gerard Finzi’s The Fall of a Leaf, a delicate example of English pastoralism, offered a nostalgic and perhaps naïve centrepiece to the first half, while the Season’s pastoral theme was also reflected in five songs from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, sung – not by Frederica von Stade as she was unable to fly from the States – by Ann Murray. Judging the occasion to a tee, Murray’s demeanour was restrained, but not without the occasional glint in her eye, especially in the final song, ’Chut, chut’, where a girl is sent to look after cows and finds the opportunity to collect a number of kisses. Earlier, the most famous of the songs, ’Baïlèro’, had bewitched with its languorous refrain, while ’La fiolairé’ (The Spinner), ’Brezairola’ (Lullaby) and ’Uno jionot posouro’ (A Lovely Shepherd Lass) continued the pastoral reverie.

The first half ended with a replacement for the originally scheduled The Rio Grande of Constant Lambert, in the shape of Respighi’s monumental orchestration of Bach’s organ Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582). This sombre edifice, like a funeral march, has only been conducted before at the Proms by Sir Henry Wood (in 1937 & 1938) and Leonard Slatkin – with the Philharmonia Orchestra – last year. Its appropriateness, in its slow trajectory, was voiced by a lady sitting a few seats away from me who remarked that in the Fugue all she could picture were the two airliners smashing into the World Trade Centre, and the unimaginable horror that ensued.

It was, of course, the all-too recognisable similarity of that image to the title, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which, for the second time, led to the abandonment of it at a Last Night (in 1997 it was deemed inappropriate after the death of Princess Diana). John Adams was represented instead by his mournful fanfare, Tromba lontana, with its two antiphonal solo trumpets, before Leonard Slatkin prefaced Barber’s Adagio with a request for a minute’s silence. Only a couple of week ago Slatkin had conducted the work, in Prom 42, but here the performance represented America’s memorial music, allowed each person to reflect on the enormity of the events in their own way. Although we had been specifically asked to restrain our applause there was some spontaneous clapping, perhaps recognition of the searing intensity the strings had brought to the music.

Sir Michael Tippett’s Spirituals from A Child of Our Time beautifully fulfilled its difficult task in this rearranged concert. Using a musical form we regard as quintessentially American, but written by an Englishman, who was appalled at the senseless brutality of the killing of innocents, in Tippett’s case a reflection of the rise of Nazism. The four spirituals chosen, played as originally ’set’ in the Oratorio, were an apt and soothing balm for the hurt and horror. ’Steal Away’ was followed by ’Nobody Knows’, ’By and By’ and ’Deep River’; (’Go Down, Moses’ being omitted).

The healing process now needed was epitomised by the finale of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, heard in context just a week earlier under Osmo Vänskä (Prom 66). Like Vänskä, Slatkin used the new Bärenreiter edition, edited by Jonathan Del Mar, and was careful to reflect every new nuance that pioneering work has done to an old, favourite friend. The well-matched quartet of soloists and the combined choirs matched the eloquence and brilliance of their orchestral colleagues in Beethoven and Schiller’s plea for universal brotherhood.

It is good to report that, in the face of the horrors of extra-musical events, Slatkin’s bonding with the BBC Symphony Orchestra seems ever closer and his well-judged, brief speeches bode well for not only a long-standing partnership as the Orchestra’s chief conductor, but also as a great conductor of a traditional Last Night. He called us, God willing, to the same place at the same time next year and promised us a return to tradition. That is what tradition is all about: not slavish, blind following of outmoded dogma, but a flexible – indeed evolving – response to our times and collective will.

I suspect the Last Night will never be the same again, but I would not want to deny Leonard Slatkin at least one attempt at the traditional line-up, when the world can revel in the eccentricity of ’mad Englishmen’ waving flags and singing as if they did rule the waves. Let us hope that next year’s world events allows us to act the world’s fool without more pressing matters to worry about.

Finally, one word about the first of the two anthems we sang at the very start. I have never sung the American National Anthem before, but was somewhat amazed to find myself singing about “The rockets red glare / The bombs bursting in air / Gave proof thro’ the night / That our flag was still there”. It seemed somewhat incongruous that we were singing such belligerent words in honour of a devastated country that had just been on the receiving end of such violence. Perhaps ’God Bless America’ (sung, of course, to the tune of ’God Save the Queen’) – even in the originally programmed Charles Ives/William Schuman version – would have been more appropriate.

Prom 73: The Last Night – “Dignity in Distress” (1)

Verdi
Overture – The Force of Destiny
Nabucco – Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves
Finzi
The Fall of the Leaf
Canteloube
Songs of the Auvergne [five selections]
Bach, orch. Respighi
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582
Adams
Fanfare, Tromba Lontana
Barber
Adagio for Strings
Tippett
A Child of Our Time – Four Spirituals
Beethoven
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral) – Finale
Parry, orch. Elgar
Jerusalem

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Janice Watson (soprano), Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone), Timothy Robinson (tenor), Kim Begley (tenor)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin


Reviewed by: Harry Mills

Reviewed: 15 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There has been a great deal of discussion and, indeed, controversy about The Last Night of the Proms this year. If you were to go to the BBC Radio 3 ’Message Board’ you could be forgiven for thinking that the dropping of items such as ’Land of Hope and Glory’ and ’Rule Britannia’ were calculated insults tothe English people. Unfortunately, ’Little Englanders’ are alive and well even after the terrible tragedies of 11 September.

As a Prommer of 16 years standing (literally!) I would like to give my perspective on the Last Night. From the moment that the aircraft hit targets in New York and Washington, thediscussions between Prommers was not whether but how the BBC and Leonard Slatkin would change the Last Night programme. I heard no dissenting voices when the initial changes were announced. The revised programme was both sensible and totally in keeping with the new situation the world faced.

At this stage we were led to believe that there was a possibility that the National Anthem was not going to be played. As it is never a formal part of the programme we were not sure if it was just a rumour; however we felt that it should be played and we sent an e-mail to the BBC saying that the Prommers would sing the anthem at the end of the concert even if it was not programmed.

In fact, the concert began with both the US and British NationalAnthems. This was the logical and very moving start. The concert continued with the published items – Verdi, Finzi and Canteloube. Ann Murray’s voice is not what it was but she sung with great intelligence. The Bach, as orchestrated by Respighi, I have heard performed by Slatkin – but I have never felt such intensity before. The first half had been conducted with controlled passion (the Canteloube an honourable exception) and Mr Slatkin made a very moving and understated speech. His ability to bring a light humour even to this evening was testament to his skills as a communicator and bodes well for when the Last Night returns tonormal – we hope – next year.

The second half began with Tromba lontana by John Adams; for the second time Short Ride in a Fast Machine had been dropped from the Last Night because of tragedy (the first being the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997). Then Barber’s Adagio – described movingly by Slatkin as America’s music of grief. There was a minute’s silence before and no applause after this piece. Unfortunately, a few people did clap after the Adagio but I think it likely that they were foreigners who simply had not understood Mr Slatkin when he requested no applause. For anyone present at an earlier BBC Symphony Prom (No.42) when Leonard Slatkin had programmed the Adagio, the immense improvement in the quality of playing and the intensity of the piece was staggering. Many in the audience were in tears at the end of this.

The Four Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett were beautifully performed and a wonderfully apt choice to show the ’special relationship’ between the USA and Britain. Slatkin then conducted a fervent performance of the finale from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – a massive message of hope, received loud and clear by the audience. Slatkin was not the only person on the stage clearly overwhelmed by the reception.

Finally, we came together, performers and audience, for Jerusalem. The singing of this traditional closing item was quite astonishing. Never in my experience has so much passion and feeling been shown in this item. For me this was the only way to close the concert. Slatkin was correct in saying that we had tohave an item of the traditional Last Night included. Jerusalem was the only possible choice. Magnificent! It was also great to see Slatkin singing along with us.

My final thoughts are that this was an extraordinary concert, the like of which I hope never to hear again. However I am deeply honoured to have been in the Royal Albert Hall last Saturday. Leonard Slatkin was wonderful in controlling not only his emotions but also the whole evening. This was a terrible way to end his first Proms season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra but I hope this partnership will go from strength to strength. My admiration for him (already high) has grown in leaps and bounds after Saturday.

If anyone still feels that we should have sung ’Rule Britannia’ or’Land of Hope and Glory’ I would be very surprised. This was the most moving Last Night I have ever attended.

Prom 72: 14th September 2001 – Verdi Requiem

Verdi
Messa da Requiem

Fiorenza Cedolins (soprano)
Carolyn Sebron (mezzo-soprano)
Vincenzo La Scola (tenor)
Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass)

Chorus of Teatro Comunale di Bologna, London Voices, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Daniele Gatti


Reviewed by: Paul Hutchinson

Reviewed: 14 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“May God have mercy”. The words of Daniele Gatti before he raised his baton to conduct this performance of Verdi’s masterpiece; at once, a timely and fitting tribute to the victims of the terrorist outrages in New York and Washington on 11 September – and a humble plea that we may survive the potential terrible consequences.

The ensuing performance turned was something of a curate’s egg – good in parts with a team of variable soloists; while the choral singing was generally admirable, there seemed, at times, a lack of smooth assembly between the Bologna visitors and London Voices. Gatti’s tempi, generally on the slow side, mistook ponderousness for prayerful dignity and solemnity.

A tentative start from the soloists in the ’Kyrie’, with the usually excellent Roberto Scandiuzzi sounding woolly and wobbly; although he overcame this and went on to deliver his solos with firmer tone. The ’Dies Irae’, with its wrathful anger, was taken at a deliberate, almost foursquare tread, but became fiery and awesome at the ’Tuba mirum’, given with tremendous resonance in the brass. A fitting warning to evil-doers. ’Quid sum miser’ found the soloists under par, although the Hall’s notorious acoustic did them no favours here. Truly marvellous brass and superb choral singing marked out the ’Rex tremendae’ as one of the highlights of the performance.

The ’Recordare’ always strikes this reviewer as one of the most poignantly beautiful sections of this Requiem. With its gentle, rocking accompaniment, it suggests a dark-hued painting of the penitent Mary Magdalene contemplating a crucifix, pleading for forgiveness and mercy. The soloists listened to each other and united as one in this gentle prayer. The ’Offertory’ section brought forth some unease in intonation from Cedolins, but the tenor, Vincenzo La Scola,sang the lovely ’Hostias’ with sweet tone, if without a trill.

The ’Sanctus’ is a big, bright and splendid outburst of joy to God; this performance had it all – inspirational choral singing and glowing, ringing brass.

Gatti’s penchant for slow tempi hindered the soloists in the ’Agnus Dei’. This very short prayer begs Christ, as the gentlest of creatures, the sacrificial Lamb, to grant eternal rest to the departed and to take away the sins of the world. Gatti’s hesitant conducting was felt more than anywhere else to dull the legato line – sluggishness in place of tranquil dignity.

The ’Libera me’ is the most overtly operatic section in a work famed for its theatrical expression. An image comes to mind of a pious Italian woman, her black shawl wrapped tightly around her, as she pleads to Heaven for deliverance from eternal death. It requires a singer with a voice capable of far-reaching dramatic expressiveness – both fervent and submissive. (No wonder Walter Legge begged Callas to be the soprano soloist in both of the studio recordings he produced!) Very few sopranos of my experience have ever approached this challenge. Cedolins, however, acquitted herself very well indeed, with sweet tone and a lovely top-note at the climax.

Verdi’s alleged agnosticism led him to end his setting of the Requiem Mass not with a bright, uplifted countenance, one certain of salvation, but with a soul, humble and contrite, pleading to be delivered – Libera me, libera me…

Prom 71: 13th September 2001 – The Rose Lake

Sibelius
The Oceanides
Tippett
The Rose Lake
Beethoven
Symphony No.6 in F (Pastoral)

London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For their Prom appearance this season, Sir Colin Davis and the LSO chose a programme of subtle contrasts. Unique in his output for its non-Finnish mythology as it may be, Sibelius’s The Oceanides has a cumulative momentum that typifies the major works of his maturity. Its control and resolution of material, poised between the chromatic and the modal, marks out the beginning of a process that was to culminate in the Seventh Symphony. Davis encouraged a reading of breadth and inevitability, moving with unforced control to the spellbinding climax. Would that more of today’s composers who claim a rapprochement with tonality had but a fraction of Sibelius’s mastery of means.

Davis gave the premiere of Sir Michael Tippett’s The Rose Lake at a memorable concert back in 1995, and has revived it on numerous occasions. The consistency of his approach was borne out by the present performance – rapt and long-breathed, if with a touch too much emphasis on the rhapsodic, discursive nature of the material. What began life as Tippett’s Fifth Symphony mutated into a ’song without words for orchestra’, though with a sureness of focus that continues his quirky but logical symphonism. As with the other works of his last creative decade, Tippett touches on tonal centres directly yet unexpectedly: at the close of the work, the feeling that a powerful but intangible process has been experienced is inescapable. The LSO were committed to Tippett’s alternation of the laconic and the ecstatic, with the rotatom players performing feats of physical dexterity.

No conductor post-Wood and Sargent can have performed Beethoven’s ’Pastoral’ at the Proms with the frequency of Colin Davis. His fifth account in thirty-four years brought an enviable control but little sense of pantheist radiance. Tempi were swift but never headlong, giving the ’Scene by the Brook’ an attractive lilt – the counterpoint of birdsong plaintively realised – and the ’Peasants Merrymaking’ a sturdy, amiable gait. Yet the opening movement lacked any real sense of emotional involvement, the ’Storm’ passed by forcefully but hardly elementally, while the final ’Thanksgiving’ proceeded beneficently if blandly to its conclusion. The quality of the LSO’s playing was rarely in doubt, but its not hard to imagine a more fervent response had Davis been intent on probing the music’s depths rather than merely acknowledging its hallowed status. The audience seemed appeased but hardly moved, but then this is music that should go beyond the comforting to the cathartic.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Friday, 21 September, at 2 o’clock

Prom 70: 12th September 2001 – Paris 2

Berlioz
Overture to Benvenuto Cellini
Schumann
Symphony No 2 in C
Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring

Orchestre de Paris conducted by Christoph Eschenbach


Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 12 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Another offering from the polished and committed Paris Orchestra, with the stylish, always controlled conducting of Christoph Eschenbach; and, as with Prom 68, a work – The Rite of Spring – that benefited positively from a large acoustic space.

It’s surprising to me, though no doubt a product of historical fashion, that Schumann’s symphonies – especially the ’Rhenish’ – have been so little aired at the Proms. Less surprising, however, that the Second, which is the most puzzling of the four, should be the least well known. Just witness the analytical gyrations the programme-note went into to describe the work.

Eschenbach has conducted for so long that it is easy to forget he began as a pianist. However, his Schumann betrayed his origins – well-shaped detail, excellent ’vertical’ control of sound, but not always the smoothest sense of flow. At the symphony’s opening one looked for more direction, a longer sweep of conception, a greater sense of how the introduction would develop into the movement proper, which was neat rather than impassioned, looking back to Haydn rather than Beethoven, reminiscent of Eschenbach’s piano interpretations. The development was measured, the lead-back to the recapitulation appropriately enthusiastic, the coda exact – everything in place if nothing really extraordinary.

Eschenbach took an analytical rather than dance-like approach to the scherzo; again, especially in the trio sections, reminiscent of his piano-playing. There was no shortage of lightness or energy, and the movement ended with the appropriate scurry; excepting the finely moulded second trio, there could have been more colour and variety. The slow movement that follows is difficult to interpret. The orchestra offered some very fine playing, notably in the horns, and the performance was always careful and affectionate, but in the end, its mystery was not fully elucidated.

In the episodic finale it seemed as if Eschenbach was playing one of the many sets of Schumann’s miniatures.This started too foursquare and markedly improved with the arrival of the song-like theme halfway through (a reminder that Eschenbach has made many prized recordings as a Lieder accompanist). The counterpoint of the development and the reprise of the main theme were also excellently delivered. Although Eschenbach kept the orchestra reined-in at the close, he caught the mood of a hard-won but triumphant conclusion. A good performance, but not one that had the intuitive rightness of Masur’s ’Spring’ in Prom 56.

As the previous night’s Symphonie fantastique had shown, Eschenbach can control Berlioz’s sometime rambling structures and complex textures. A lively account of the Benvenuto Cellini overture bore this out. Eschenbach conveyed both the disorder and energy of this evocation of Renaissance Rome without losing sight of the music’s direction; these skills came to the fore in The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky’s ballet gives the orchestra every chance to show its virtuosity, especially the bassoon that opens the work. Eschenbach rose to the conducting challenge admirably. The polish of the playing did not prevent him conveying the elemental and disturbing elements of the ’sacrificial dance’. Stravinsky’s characteristic ironic humour, the absolute exactness with which the difficult rhythms were delivered, and the almost Symbolist presentation of the ’Mysterious Circles of Adolescent Girls’ were other highlights. This was, however, a French rather than Russian performance – ultimately urbane and civilised more than primeval and shocking. As for the whole concert, this Rite was emotion subordinated to intellect – French wit led by German efficiency.

Proceedings were enlivened by a percussion section whose deportment – ranging from the stillness of the stone guest to a timpanist who fancied himself as an extra in “Napoleon” – was a veritable ballet of its own; its contribution was always accurate, most notably in the ’Dance of the Earth’.

For encores, Smetana’s ’Dance of the Comedians’ – real edge-of-seat playing – and a fizzy account of Berlioz’s version of the ’Rakoczy March’.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 20 September, at 2 o’clock

Prom 68: 11th September 2001 – Paris 1

Beethoven
Marcia funebre (Symphony No.3 – Eroica)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G
Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique

Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Orchestre de Paris conducted by Christoph Eschenbach


Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 11 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The line between civilisation and barbarism, life and death is very narrow. We live in an age when we hide from death, when it is shut away in hospitals, beneath sheets, and inside body bags. In the West we have not, for a very long time, seen this scale of death, only in war, plague or earthquake. So it is impossible to find a just level of response, to something doubly shocking – in its scale and where it took place.

It is difficult to know, therefore, how to square one’s reaction to terrorism, which cannot pass unnoticed even in a concert review for this day. Of all music, Beethoven surely best exemplifies the indomitable nature of the human spirit, its struggle against odds. Beethoven is a symbol of aspiration, resistance and heroism. If one could choose only one representative to plead the fragile case of culture against darkness, one would surely choose him.

In a change to the advertised Beethoven overture (The Creatures of Prometheus), the concert began with the ’Funeral March’ from the “Eroica”. It is reasonable to speculate that the performers themselves were in a subdued mood. Certainly, Eschenbach’s was a careful, deeply felt and slow account, with an increasing sense of regeneration towards the end, played under a veil of mourning.

Hélène Grimaud made her Proms debut in the concerto she recently recorded (Teldec). Her performances are always eventful and never routine. As so often, the first solo entry (which here, famously, is the very opening of the work, the first time in concerto-history) was a microcosm of the soloist’s approach. Grimaud was more severe and deliberate than might have been expected, more reserved than in her recording, but with the combination of sweetness and power which is her trademark. Her playing continued more reflectively and discursively than I had anticipated.

There is no doubt Grimaud has developed the vision and strength of interpretation that characterises the mature artist. She is able to present detail – for example the fine delivery of staccato ornamenting the second subject – in the context of a wider structure. Moreover, she is at ease with a wide variety of voices and emotions – the powerful bass octaves near the end of the exposition, the serenity of the lead-in to the development, the gradual building of tension through the movement. There were many felicitous moments – the passage in the treble near the end of the development was magically done, or the counter-melody in the left hand at the return of the second subject. Towards the end, Grimaud injected a greater urgency. The cadenza itself was playful and allusive, and its octave passages openly virtuosic.

The slow movement found Grimaud convinced and sure, beautifully breathed long sentences characteristic. It seemed as if Orpheus tamed the beasts of the orchestra. Perhaps dialogue lacked the last degree of understanding; only the cadenza-like climax really disappointed, delivered with too great a stillness. The last movement was quite different; it was as if Grimaud were one of her beloved wolves let off the leash. There was an immediate sense of electricity, Grimaud wilful, at times wayward, always with an evident love for the music.

Are fashions in Beethoven playing changing? Long ago, we were used to Schnabel’s poetry, or Kempff’s distinctiveness; then the aloof, printed-score-in-sound as exemplified by Pollini. Now there seems to be a move towards something more impressionistic, fragmented, deconstructed even, as we hear in Uchida – who wrings the last drop of emotion from everything she plays – Zimerman (witness his RFH recital this year), or here, Grimaud. She played the finale as if it were in part an improvisation, a scattered collection of fleeting thoughts, yet which made perfect sense in the context of an absolute belief in form. There were occasional lapses – there could have been a stronger contribution from the ’cello solo, and Grimaud’s passagework was untidy towards the end; a memorable finish to the concerto though, the final phrases quite enchanting.

The Paris Orchestra made an excellent start to Symphonie fantastique. The idee fixe stole in, the playing graceful and detailed; Eschenbach had a fine sense of structure. One felt, however, and continued to feel, that slightly cool Berlioz was Eschenbach’s view rather than the effect of the day’s events.

The waltz movement was very French, on a light rein – neat and ironic. The wind-playing, especially flute and clarinet, was especially fine. In turn, the slow movement was tender and well-shaped, building slowly, without one doubting a sense of vision. It seemed almost 18th-century, chiselled rather than anguished, insufficiently disturbed by the stormy middle section, and with only one moment of unbridled agitation at the main climax.

Did the emotional thermometer rise with ’March to the Scaffold’? Certainly, the opening was sinister and dramatic, with an excellent contribution from the brass; the last spark was missing, the march more martial than demonic, delivered with sprightly rhythm, with style and élan, but over-controlled.

The last movement found the Albert Hall, its acoustic I so often criticise (and which again harmed contrapuntal passages), come into its own. The eerie off-stage bell, combined with the disturbing music of the witches’ Sabbath – in particular the brass’s ’Dies Irae’ had immensely more power and impact in so large a space. Eschenbach managed to combine bacchanalian anarchy with German discipline. The audience was in raptures; my enthusiasm is more measured, but on an evening when a powerful dose of life-affirmation was needed, this concert made a noble and notable effort.

Prom 69: 11th September 2001 – Percussion old and new

Stephen Whibley
Monsoon
Ligeti
Síppal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel
Jan Bradley
In-Line
Xenakis
Rebonds
African traditional arr. Sugumugu
Welcome to Africa
Message to Shango, the God of War
One Africa

Katalin Károlyi (mezzo-soprano)
4-MALITY [Adrian Spillett, Stephen Whibley, Jan Bradley and Geir Rafnasson – percussion]
Julian Wharburton (percussion solo)
Master Drummers of Africa/Lord Eric Sugumugu


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This late-night percussion Prom took on a different complexion in the light of events across the Atlantic, the least of which was the almost 30-minute delay to the starting time.

Essentially in two halves, the variety of music on offer certainly lived-up to its ’Percussion Old & New’ title. The energetic quartet, 4-MALITY, presented pieces by two of its members. Stephen Whibley’s Monsoon draws on aspects of African and Asiatic drumming in a vibrant extended workout, though the opening section on marimbas proved less scintillating when transferred to drums as a direct rhythmic palimpsest. Jan Bradley’s shorter and more sustained In-Line fuses line and accompaniment in an exhilarating toccata-like motion with subliminal elements of change-ringing.

Between these items, Síppal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel proved as memorable an experience as at its UK premiere last February. 4-MALITY’s tight but ’informal’ manner really brought out the biting humour of Ligeti’s vivid settings of all-too-idiomatic texts by Sándor Weöres, and Katalin Károlyi’s almost acted rendition of them. A further tribute to Xenakis rounded off the first half, Julian Wharburton tackling the virtuosic abstraction of Rebonds with cool determination and, towards the close, enough fallibility to reinforce the human focus of the musical conception (and could that possibly be ’The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ that emerges out of the intricate rhythmic counterpoint?).

After a platform rearrangement, Lord Eric Sugumugu led out his Master Drummers of Africa – surely the ultimate synthesis of drumming idioms – for a charismatic Proms debut. Having acknowledged the day’s atrocities in his opening ’blessing’, Sugumugu directed proceedings with the ancient authority of one who is part-seer, part-master-of-ceremonies. The range and type of percussion instruments employed was a treat for the eye as well as the ear, with (unnecessary?) amplification and lighting adding to the mood of celebratory ritual. After the ceremonial Welcome to Africa, the ’orchestra’ continued with the visceral Message to Shango, the God of War, which took on ominous and even angry tones in the wider context.

The set culminated with One Africa, an appeal for unity across the continent, which drew the diminishing but still determined audience into palpable accord. Whatever the individual cultural background, here was one anthem to peace in which everyone could share.

Proms Chamber Music No.8: 10th September 2001

Schubert
Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock), D965
Piano Trio No.1 in B flat, D.898

Emma Bell (soprano)
Ronald van Spaendonck (clarinet)
Elisabeth Batiashvili (violin)
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Steven Osborne (piano)


Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 10 September, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A lunchtime concert given by representatives of Radio 3’s “New Generation Artists”. Predictably a concert characterised by enthusiasm and freshness, if not the last degree of finish.

Late Schubert is more poignant than late Mozart. Mozart seldom betrays a sense of the untimely end to his life; his maturity appears timeless. Schubert, instead, is still exploring, on the brink of something; in each of his late works, however lyrical or satisfying, we feel regret for what did not have time to be developed. This is true of the very last work, The Shepherd on the Rock, more cantata than song, written for lyric soprano, but with a range and set of demands that occasionally benefit from a bigger voice.

Emma Bell is clearly a most promising soprano. She can already sing with delicacy and lightness; her piano and pianissimo tone is sweet and engaging. In her performance there were many memorable and touching moments – the yearning of the shepherd expressed in “und singe, und siuge,” the catch of hope in the voice at the start of the final section, “Der Fruhling willkommen”. At all times she conveyed a delight in the melodic line and communicated well the emotional immediacy of the words. However, she is not yet comfortable with the piece’s demands – the low note at “kluefte” has trapped many lyric sopranos, and her tone projection in forte passages and in crescendos is not yet completely controlled. Time, one imagines, will also bring greater emotional depth to passages, “In tiefem Gram,” for example, where the shepherd protagonist is lamenting the beloved’s absence.

Ronald van Spaendonck gave a really splendid account of the clarinet part, sweet-toned, romantically committed, and impassioned. His consistency was the highlight of the performance. Steven Osborne was a more retiring accompanist, always sensitive, and with moments of insight – such as with the scales in the final section – but essentially self-effacing.

Osborne’s reluctance to take a starring role extended to the Trio. The initial impetus of the first movement undoubtedly came from Elisabeth Batiashvili. Osborne again saw his role as bringing order and rhythmic stability to his more wayward companions. Batiashvili’s sweetness of tone and strength of attack were impressive throughout, though neither was at the cost of disturbing the chamber texture.

The first movement had many impressive moments – the ’bird-call’-like piano decorations over the strings in the development, an increase in emotional intensity to reach the recapitulation; there was constant attention to detail, but as an interpretation, it lacked the last degree of vision. At times, Osborne did take a more heroic role (as at the end of the exposition), but one felt his concern to preserve the (excellent) balance restricted his own self-expression.

The admirable slow movement contains many opportunities for duetting, for sustaining emotion through long paragraphs, and the three players were faithful to both the score’s letter and spirit. It was a near-perfect negotiation, but a negotiation none the less. This trio of instrumentalists had neither the complete intuitive understanding of a long-established trio, nor the ultimate star-quality that may well come to them as soloists. Again one felt a lack of an organic whole or the affinity of interpretation when a chamber group is a single instrument with many limbs. Sometimes, the moments of greatest emotion seemed tacked on, in their place and far from arbitrarily, but without a sense of inevitability or flow.

The scherzo passed with the exuberance of young players who love the music but, for this reason, seemed too much of a stampede and not enough of a dance, more relentless than relaxed for so sunny a work, reminding more of the harshness of the G major string quartet. The finale was precise and lively, witness the triplet ornamenting of the second subject, yet never quite took flight, never quite showed enough variety or character.

These criticisms are judged by the highest standards, by the interpretations of those who have performed this music for many years. The chosen Prom exhibit, a Victorian female costume, was a reminder of the essentially domestic nature of Schubert’s music during his lifetime. As for the performances, whatever its imperfections, it conformed to Schumann’s verdict on the B flat Trio – “a work which makes the world seem fresh and new again”.

Prom 67: 10th September – Goehr Premiere

Schoenberg
A Survivor from Warsaw
Alexander Goehr
… second musical offering (GFH 2001) [first complete performance]

  • Overture with Handelian Air [Halle Opera House commission: UK premiere]
  • Concerto with Double [BBC commission: world premiere]
Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)

Sanford Sylvan (narrator)
Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus
Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Forty years ago, Alexander Goehr received his first Proms performance, and it may well be possible to trace his musical development over the eleven works performed since then. Back in 1985, … a musical offering (JSB 1985) … had its premiere at the Proms and now, … second musical offering (GFH 2001) has been unveiled here.

Not so much a sequel, rather a continuation of Goehr’s preoccupation with the Baroque as a touchstone for his own compositional explorations. The two parts (performable separately) of this 33-minute work complement each other on a number of levels. The first, Overture with Handelian Air, subsumes an air from the Keyboard Suite in D minor into an elaborate yet, owing to the pervasive use of the source material, introductory movement in which rhetorical dotted rhythms contrast with vigorous fugato writing. The emergence of the air in the guise of a postludal harp concerto is an attractive touch, with the notes G-F-H (G-F-B flat) providing a link from this movement to its successor.

Concerto with Double ’for orchestra’ is an even more extensive take on the ’concerti a due cori’ that feature some of Handel’s most intensive orchestral writing. Yet the two-orchestra opposition is less apparent than the trenchant contrasts in pace and texture, amounting almost to a set of variations on the initial air, whose ’double’ returns affectingly to round off the work, now in the rich aural context of a notably enlarged Handelian orchestra.

It is no criticism of Goehr to say that his music has rarely, if ever, courted popularity or easy acceptance. The polite if rather disinterested applause that greeted this premiere will suggest to some an absence of communication between composer and audience. So it is worth considering just what Goehr is effecting here: the reinvention, and from the inside, of the idiom of an ’old master’. The laconic, even detached mode of expression houses an affirmative sense of continuity between that past and our present. This, far more than easy gratification, is surely what makes durable composition; music that can be returned to over time – as the continuity is itself continued.

Leonard Slatkin gave a well prepared and often characterful reading of this substantial work which, with its robust instrumental interplay and intricacy of ensemble, must be the toughest of this year’s Proms commissions. Earlier, he had directed a fluid, intense account of Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, the BBC Symphony at one with the lightening changes of mood and motive that underlie this unnerving score. Sanford Sylvan was an animated narrator, less concerned to evoke time and place as to convey the terror of one who witnessed the last days of the Ghetto, which the chorus of ’Shema Yisroel’ counterbalanced with a sense of resistance to oppression of all times.

Some approximate choral singing, though not the exquisitely judged semi-chorus contribution, was the only real flaw in a vibrant and involving account of A Sea Symphony, with the BBCSO hitting possibly its best form this season. Although completed in 1910 when the composer was 38, the overriding feeling of a new talent on the threshold of a new century has rarely been more directly conveyed. Joan Rodgers sent out the opening movement’s clarion call to ships with vivid abandon, while Simon Keenlyside mused thoughtfully in ’On the Beach at Night Alone’. Both soloists were raptly expressive in the finale, where the urge to new discovery is evoked with mingled wonder and a touching vulnerability. Even at the outset of his maturity, Vaughan Williams has his sights set on what lies beyond human perception, and what can only be envisaged through imaginative realms.

Prom 66: 9th September 2001 – Beethoven 9

Beethoven
Concerto in C for violin, cello, piano and orchestra, Op.56
Symphony No.9 in D minor (Choral)

Elisabeth Batiashvili (violin)
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Steven Osborne (piano)
Amanda Roocroft (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Kurt Streit (tenor)
Peter Rose (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä


Reviewed by: Jason Boyd

Reviewed: 9 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This concert devoted to Beethoven was always going to be something of a ’feel-good’ Prom. Beethoven’s ability to speak to the soul, and his overcoming of insurmountable obstacles – his own heroic grappling with deafness – can give the most desperate person hope.

Of Beethoven’s seven recognized concertos his ’Triple’ is the most neglected – partly for practical reasons (three soloists are more expensive than one), and three soloists do not fit the Romantic ideal of the individual against the mass; a shame as it’s a delightful work. I did feel a potential problem was each soloist grappling for the limelight; however, all three worked well as a team, especially the interaction between Elizabeth Batiashvili and Alban Gerhardt. They were always looking at one another so as to communicate their phrases physically. Importantly, they seemed to enjoy playing, exchanging smiles and nods of approval. Steven Osborne seemed rather isolated in the far-right corner, sometimes straining to see what the other two were doing. Maybe he should have been on the left of the stage, thereby having a fuller view. This is not to criticize his performance, but he was more accompanist than soloist, which, perhaps, was Beethoven’s intention. Gerhardt was a little fierce, producing a rather non-sweet, aggressive tone. Batiashvili gave a mature rendition for somebody only twenty-two – a star of the future.

The epic Ninth is a celebration of life. Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote it, and at the first performance had to be tapped on the shoulder to bring to his attention the applauding audience. Rather than be bitter, Beethoven produced a work in which good overcomes evil, major overcomes minor; in the finale he sets Schiller’s ’Ode to Joy’. Osmo Vänskä’s conducting was impressive – nothing flamboyant; everything was precise, particularly with regard to dynamics. I must mention the excellent playing of timpanist Goran Rigby whose rhythmic accuracy in the scherzo was pleasing. The solo singers worked well as an ensemble; Peter Rose’s opening declamation was strong, clear and well articulated, giving the others a good benchmark. Amanda Roocroft sang with particular vigour and beauty. A great Prom well performed – I left the Albert Hall believing that anything is possible with a little Beethoven to back you up.

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