Prom 73: The Last Night

Britten (arr.)
The National Anthem
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Matthews, Weir, Ruders, Sawer, Torke, Payne, Lindberg
Bright Cecilia; Variations on a Theme by Purcell [BBC Music Magazine commission: world premiere]
I Was Glad – Coronation Anthem
Jerusalem (orch. Elgar)
Cinderella Waltz
Selection of Songs
Anniversary Fanfare
Henry V – Suite (arr. Sargent; with narration)
Orb and Sceptre – Coronation March
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (abridged and interpolating All Through the Night, Charlie is My Darling – arr. John Wilson – and Irish Tune from County Derry, arr. Percy Grainger)

Samuel West (speaker)
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Audra McDonald (soprano)
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 14 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After the extraordinary events of last year’s Last Night it was almost inconceivable that it could ever be the same again. There were some ungracious members of the audience that booed during the second half’s traditionally patriotic fare; there was even a black-cloth skull and cross-bones that appeared during the perhaps unexpected rendition of Rule, Britannia! On the whole the feeling was different – the world has turned and the presence of an American conductor taking charge of an essentially English event was a little much for the die-hards at the end of the 108th Season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.

Leonard Slatkin got the balance just right – recognising tradition but without forcing the long out-dated colonialism that has been a past feature. In recognition of the two centenary composers featured at this year’s proms, the first half opened with Walton, with a Richard Rodgers medley sandwiched in between Parry and Sir Henry himself in the second half.

The theme of this Last Night seemed to be reversion. Henry V was as arranged by Malcolm Sargent, and first played on the penultimate night of the first post-war season. Samuel West added Laurence Olivier-type cries of “Cry God for Harry, England and St. George” to Walton’s ever-popular score. For this listener, however, convincing as West was, I was distracted by this intrusion on music that has been elevated out of the film-underscore genre to the concert hall.

Brightening the first half was a set of variations to celebrate the tenth anniversary of BBC Music Magazine. In a manner that has now been well tried, seven composers (Lukas Foss having dropped out) took a theme from Purcell’s Ode to Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music, and wrote variants there-upon under the co-ordination of Colin Matthews who stated Purcell’s tune and then elaborated on it for variation one. The style and characterisation of each variation was controlled by Matthews and there was obviously some careful collusion between composers for a coherent, seven-movement work rather than a disparate collection of two-minute miniatures. Despite adopting, on the whole, a concordant sound-space, the styles of each variation varied from a “post-Elgar-esque” ’Scherzando’ by Judith Weir to a sweetly swung ’Giocoso’ by American Michael Torke. The whole work was rounded off by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s take on the ’Great Gate of Kiev’ – Great Gate of Purcell; Stanley Kubrick meets Henry Purcell.

The first half ended with a totally uninspiring and unexciting performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. On the whole too much attention was placed upon the direction ’Moderato’ and the excitement that is usually present in the faster passages of the first movement never stood a chance in this lack-lustre performance. There was some beautiful playing by Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, though this was sadly done to death by an over-keen horn player that demanded to be heard above all others.

The second half opened, unusually, with Elgar’s First Pomp & Circumstance March – with the synonymous lyrics of A C Benson, “Land of Hope and Glory”. Elgar himself never liked the words being set to his march, though in later years he mellowed a little and unable to beat them he joined them and conducted march and words.

Leonard Slatkin decided to do away with the single, formal speech adopted by previous conductors in favour of a compere role, introducing some of the pieces. Recalling Hindemith’s “Gebrauchsmusik” – music for the people, by the people – this socialist, all-encompassing style worked well. I felt that I was not being played to, rather I was involved in the process of music-making, and without me the recipe would be flawed.

After Parry’s Coronation Anthem, I Was Glad, which included the middle “Vivat Regina!” section, normally only played when in the presence of the Queen, Audra McDonald took up the compere’s role for a sequence of songs by Richard Rodgers. Like Parry, I was glad, very glad to hear some of the lesser-known collaborations of Rodgers and Lorenz Hart – especially ’To Keep My Love Alive’ from A Connecticut Yankee. Too often the lyrics of Hart are said to have tied Rodgers’s hands, and to have been quirky and unimaginative – well a lyricist that has the skill to find a rhyme with ’appendectomy’ has all the imagination that I need! Slatkin took to the piano for another Hart number, ’Spring is Here’ from the 1938 show, I Married an Angel. This was a nice touch, though I think he could have found a better piano arrangement or improvised to better effect. Moreover, what happened to the Robert Russell Bennett arrangement mentioned in the programme?

After the Rodgers we were on the home straight with Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs in a new arrangement by John Wilson. Again, perhaps in recognition of the way the world has become more polarised over the past twelve months, the Sea-Songs have moved inland and included songs from Wales, Scotland and, strangely, Ireland. Why strangely? Well, Great Britain only includes England, Scotland and Wales – if you add Northern Ireland you have to say the United Kingdom; strange but true. This arrangement once again reverted back to earlier versions – using Wood’s version of Arne’s Rule, Britannia. This has lead to much carping as it was not separately included in the Proms guide; people thought it omitted. How easy it is to forget that Sir Henry included it in his Fantasia and it was Malcolm Sargent that replaced that with his own version in 1953.

One other reversion has to be to the length of the concert, which started at 7.30 and finished at 10.45. Value for money? I am sure that Henry V or even the Grieg could have been dropped without the audience feeling short-changed. Finally Parry’s Jerusalem as orchestrated by Elgar, and then the National Anthem – not the standard, loud, unfeeling standard, but Britten’s arrangement for the opening of the Snape Maltings concert-hall in 1967. Opening in hushed tones, the choir alone sings the first verse with everybody joining in for the second. According to one of the choral singers, the programme says, the Queen declared that she had never before been so affected by the Anthem, adding “and I have heard it once or twice before”.

Tonight was a very special night. It was the first “proper” last night for Leonard Slatkin and as an American taking charge of a quintessentially British night I felt that he brought to the occasion a sense of pride in our heritage without underlining the jingoism that has plagued some Last Nights. Sir Henry Wood pointed out the distortion that had crept into the text of the chorus – Britannia, rule the waves in exhortation rather than in assertion. Just one year on from the events of September 11 we must look forward to a different kind of world where we should try to live along side one another despite our differences. Perhaps the international language of music might be one small step on the road to fulfil this goal.

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Prom 72: Italian Mahler

Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Mussorgsky orch. Shostakovich
Songs and Dances of Death
Symphony No.5

Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 13 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In terms of funding and critical esteem, the RPO remains the Cinderella of the London orchestras, but it is not always easy to see why. In Daniele Gatti the players have arguably the most individualistic and inspiring music director in the capital, and his concerts, while none too frequent, are rarely run-of-the mill events. His gestures are economical yet enormously expressive and he has a rare gift for moulding phrases in ardently romantic style. Still firmly ensconced at Bologna’s Teatro Communale, he has chosen to maintain a balance between operatic and symphonic work. How much concert repertoire he actually has under his belt I cannot say: tonight he was giving us two of his warhorses.

Romeo and Juliet came up freshly, tightly controlled at the start where the wind have to come in ’cold’ but wearing its heart on its sleeve at nodal points. The Mahler, which he recorded with particular success a few years back, shone brighter. With Gatti, one is conscious of Mahler the great conductor of opera as one never is with, say, Riccardo Chailly. Unlike his compatriot, Gatti keeps the Fifth on the move, sometimes erratically yet always combining high drama and a passionate lyricism. Textures are relatively lean and classical. As on his commercial disc, the switchback ride can be unsettling as well as stimulating. Tonight’s ’Adagietto’ began with fashionable swiftness and a highly Italianate drive, only to relax into a more conventionally rapt treatment. Subtlety of inflexion is the conductor’s trump card. That insanely overlong ’Scherzo’ was subjected to extremes of nuance and an extended dynamic range – a noble effort to keep the ship afloat! The ’Finale’ was, for once, as light and mobile as it ought to be.

In between the two purely orchestral works we had Olga Borodina, statuesque in a bizarre-looking Soviet-era frock fringed with fur. If seemingly less involved with the texts than some of her predecessors in this music, she creates an equally imposing sonic presence, warm, stately and steady, without intrusive vibrato. With Gatti ’s attentive support, there were some magical pianissimo effects. When you could hear them.

In truth, noises-off came near to wrecking this Prom for music-lovers in the hall. There was near-constant coughing, chatter, the unwrapping of sweets, the dropping of coins, two mobile phone incidents and a police siren. A pity when it so clearly offered some of the season’s most buoyant music-making. True, the RPO’s strings remain problematic. Lacking the richness and weight of bigger names, they are sometimes drowned out – in this respect Gatti’s antiphonal placement of the violins has its downside. There was deserved acclaim from a full hall. No encores though. Instead the conductor offered a brief, off-the-cuff, end-of-term salutation to his wife! Very Italian…

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Prom 71: Music First and Last

Symphony No.96 in D (Miracle)
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Almost at the end of this year’s Proms, and what could be more welcome than a coupling of two symphonic classicists, directed by the most classical – that is, interpretatively self-effacing – of present-day conductors.

Although Bernard Haitink is not known primarily as a Haydn conductor, his sane and unaffected approach to one of the lesser ’London’ symphonies is a welcome tonic to the overt point-making of numerous ’authenticists’. Best, in all senses, were the sanguine ’Andante’ (how did Haydn continually avoid blandness in such movements?), and the buoyant ’Menuetto’ – with its elegantoboe writing (a shame though about the restive audience). The outer movements are less interesting only because Haydn produced so many finer such movements in his symphonies and quartets of this period, but Haitink’s approach – incisive but never over-driven – made the most of their appealing character.

Both throughout his career and at the Proms, Haitink has put Bruckner at the forefront of his programming, and this account of the Fourth brought back memories of a memorable Seventh with the LSO at the Barbican some four years ago. The so-called ’Romantic’ is not quite so all of a piece as its successor – but, when given with such unobtrusive rightness as here, has a Schubertian ease all its own. The opening movement unfolded in broadly cumulative paragraphs, spacious and majestic. Some uncertain solo horn work was an unfortunate blemish, and brass playing throughout the work was not without a certain edge, but ensemble was otherwise excellent – with string playing that, in terms of London orchestras at present, is surely in a class of its own.

The performance was at its best in a wonderfully lucid ’Andante’, unerringly paced and its vast dynamic range scrupulously conveyed, and a biting though never brazen ’Scherzo’ – momentum subtly varied in a way that prevented any feeling of repetitiousness, with a ’Trio’ affecting in its winsome dance motion. Haitink adopted a notably flowing pace for the ’Finale’ – allowing its climactic peaks to emerge naturally, and with the awkward structural join from the development to the reprise securely negotiated. The coda – surely Bruckner’s finest formal afterthought – arrived with that sense of inevitability that marks out a seasoned and a great Brucknerian.

A packed Albert Hall gave Haitink an enthusiastic reception. Modest as ever, he pointedly took the score away with him on his final appearance – the mark of a musician for whom music has always been both the first and last consideration.

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Prom 70: September 11 – A Year On

Composer Portrait – Julian Anderson

Sea Drift *
Poetry Nearing Silence

Julian Anderson in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Marie Vassiliou (soprano) *
Contemporary Consort of the Royal College of Music
Tim Murray

Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Imagin’d Corners [London premiere]
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
Symphony No.5

Elisabeth Batiashvili (violin)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A prom for September 11 might have seemed like a poisoned chalice, but Sakari Oramo and the CBSO grasped the nettle with this programme of bold contrasts.

With a title drawn from John Donne, and its complex but always audible combination of just and equal tuning, Imagin’d Corners, Julian Anderson’s first commission as Composer-in-Association with the CBSO, made a brief but scintillating impact at the Symphony Hall premiere earlier this year. Its overall effect this evening was appreciably, and understandably, different. Certainly the opening section, with its four offstage horns, made an evocative impact given the spatial possibilities of the Albert Hall. By the same token, the central section, in which the concertante players move to the centre of the platform, lacked rhythmic and harmonic clarity – but the virtuosic final section, with horns and orchestra in vibrant accord, more than left its mark.

Clearly a work whose musical physiognomy changes according to acoustic, which will make future performances all the more interesting. Moreover, its richly translucent soundworld, following on from the coolly remote take on Whitman’s Sea Drift and the pithy but affecting sequence of vignettes comprising Poetry Nearing Silence which both featured in the Composer Portrait earlier, demonstrated the variety and depth of Anderson’s music to a telling degree.

No acoustic, however, could have made Elisabeth Batiashvili’s account of Prokofiev’s concerto sound other than exquisitely attuned. The soloist’s lyrical opening melody was delicately floated, emotions throughout the first movement subtly held in check so that the transformation of themes in the ’Finale’ felt the more fulfilled – and fulfilling – in consequence. Batiashvili was equally alive to the opportunities for display, the ’Scherzo’ flying by in scintillating fashion. Wonderfully refined playing too from the CBSO, with Oramo astutely bringing out the unusual degree of thematic interest in the tuba writing. A performance to treasure.

So might Oramo’s account of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony before too long – an absorbing performance, the vital structural connections across sections and between movements generally well judged, which never quite attained incandescence. Tension in the first movement’s opening ’Tempo giusto’ was a mite inflexible, and the flowing emotion of the following ’Adagio’ could have arrived more inevitably at the prolonged climax – whose anarchic side drum cadenza was, as so often, a little too well behaved. The second movement, opening at a relatively moderate tempo, surged impressively into a visceral ’Presto’, then built powerfully to the return of the main theme and an almost faultlessly paced run into the defiant closing bars. As with his often-impressive Fourth Symphony, Oramo’s Nielsen is still in the process of becoming – but the process is an engrossing and rewarding one even so.

And as a commemoration of the tragic events just a year ago – Ives’s The Unanswered Question, sounding suitably ethereal and not at all remote, though it was a pity that an often restive audience could not have taken on board its implications more fully.

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My First Last Night – Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed: 10 September, 2002

It was supposed to be a concert like no other. It was supposed to be special. It was supposed to break with tradition.

It did, but not like anyone could have dreamt.

For over a year, I had waited for September 15th. On that night, I would stand on the podium in the Albert Hall and lead the BBC Symphony, Chorus, Singers and an audience of almost 7,000 in the Last Night of the Proms. No American had ever done this before and only one other non-UK citizen had been in that position.

I was on my way to the studios at Maida Vale on the afternoon of September 11 to begin work on my speech for the concert. We had done a performance of the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony the night before and I was feeling exhilarated. Lots of jokes, puns and other ideas were coming at me right and left.As I stepped into a taxi, I could vaguely make out the voices on the radio, which the driver had on at the time. Words like “twin towers, Pentagon, terrorists” were coming from the announcers. I asked the driver to turn it up and, like almost everyone else, was taken to a place I did not want to be.

My mobile could not get through to my house or office in Washington. My wife and son were there. He would have been in school. We live about 20 minutes from the site of the destruction. When I got to the BBC, I tried calling but to no avail. Were they all right? What about the members of my orchestra? The Kennedy Center is about 5 minutes away from the Pentagon. What were they doing that day?

It was on the radios at the studios. It was on the computers.But there are no televisions, so the images were not emblazoned in my mind’s eye yet. Still stunned, I actually started to write the speech. Every five minutes I changed my mind about what do say, what to do, and where to be. No one had any answers. It was time to get back to my flat and get to my family.

About 7 in the evening, the phone lines began to clear up.By now, I had seen that horrific sight on television far too many times. When I got through, assured that everyone was fine, I had a lot of decisions to make, not the least of which was whether or not I should conduct this concert. My wife felt that I must, that there was a reason that I was in London at this particular time.

As the evening progressed, I was in constant communication with Nicholas Kenyon. We were to begin rehearsals the next morning. We both agreed that the traditions of the past were not appropriate for this Last Night. Some were to have quite the opposite sentiment, as I would learn later. But we did not yet have a plan for the program other than realizing that some of the more frivolous items should be scrapped.

As the orchestra assembled for the rehearsal, I told them that we had not yet decided on the appropriate course of action for the concert but asked for a moment of silence for all those who perished, remembering that this was not just an attack on Americans. We then did what we do best, played music. The first piece was the overture to La Forza del Destino, by Verdi, certainly appropriate and one that we knew would stay on the concert. As we ended, Nick stood behind me and asked for a pause in the rehearsal so we could discuss the other items for the concert that was now just three days away.

The finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was the main choice of the BBC. I interjected the four spirituals from Sir Michael Tippett’s Child of our Time. The combination of American Spirituals set to an English composer’s music seemed just right. We did not know if the evening’s soloist, Frederica von Stade, would be able to fly from the States to be with us. Later that day we knew that would not be possible.

The decisions about the traditional patriotic works, which conclude the concert, were not easily made. I had looked forward to doing them and feeling the joy and sense of occasion that makes this night so special. However, it was just not the right thing to do. This was not a time for isolation.The Last Night celebrates the end of what, for me, is the greatest festival of music in the world. It is for the people and because it is now seen and heard all over the world, this was the time for the music to make a statement of brotherhood.So Land of Hope and Glory, the Sea Songs and Rule Britannia would have to be set aside for this night. Only Jerusalem would remain.

Word was passed on to the Prommers, as it was felt that they would best reflect the sentiments of the public. They would have to see to it that everything was kept under control. No balloons, no klaxons, no banners. There were no complaints, only understanding and support, for which I will always be grateful.

The question of anthems came up. Usually they are played at the end of the concert. I wanted to start with both the UK and US pieces. Some of the musicians felt that we should not play either but, ultimately, we put them at the top. Radio and television wanted to know what I was going to say and asked for a script. I do not usually speak this way, preferring to be off the cuff. But I jotted down a couple of things and handed them in.

By the time of the concert, all the details had been sorted out. I have never experienced the feeling of nervousness that I hear so much about, but this was as close as I have come. As I walked onto the platform, the feeling in the hall was overwhelming. Everyone knew that they had to be there. The audience had been handed the words to the Star Spangled Banner and when we started, I have never experienced my own country’s anthem sung with such meaning and feeling. Our words are about an attack on American soil from the past. Now they had a new meaning.People who had experienced this in Britain could understand this in a way that few Americans, until four days prior, could not. God Save the Queen felt as if the bond of the two peoples was more solid than ever.

For me, personally, Barber’s Adagio for Strings was the emotional catharsis of the evening. In the States we play this in the way that Nimrod is used here. Neither work was intended for solemn occasions but the musical content has made it so. I had asked the audience to refrain from applause but a few probably did not hear me. It did not matter. I was reduced to tears and was grateful for a few minutes to recover before the next item.

Yes, I spoke. Three times actually. And I had a script, which I discarded after the first sentence. This was a time for words from the heart, not a piece of paper. I hope I said the right things. There was one moment when I used a light pun that I had planned on originally. When I finished, someone from the Arena shouted “God Bless America”.

I came back to the dressing room, and did two things that I do not normally do. I shut the door and I cried. My mobile began to ring and it was my wife and son, who had heard the concert on the radio at home. They were supposed to have been with me on this special night. They were.

Since that time a year ago, things have been put in somewhat different perspective. I received hundreds of letters and messages supporting what we had done. There were also a few that gave a quite opposite set of opinions.As we made decisions of what we would do this year, those thoughts have come to the fore. I wanted to do the traditions of the Last Night, but many believed that this was the time to change. So we will keep most everything as it was, with a few minor alterations. With the furor that has been written over, especially, Rule Britannia, I think it best that everyone reserve judgement until they hear what we are going to do.There have been many alterations to the sequence over the years and we will continue to celebrate the positive aspects of this night. It still ends this most wonderful of festivals and that is what is important.

So I still hope that this will be a concert like no other and that it will be very special. Last year will always be the most moving musical event in my life. This year I hope will be the most joyous, filled with optimism, glory and music.

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Prom 69: Unsettling C major

Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor
Symphony No.8 in C minor

André Watts (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 10 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The opening of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto immediately compels attention – quiet chords on the piano, building in intensity and leading to arpeggios which herald the arrival of the first theme played on the strings. The piano is marked ’fortissimo con passione’, and it was the ’passione’ which was underplayed in this performance. André Watts is a sensitive player with the requisite fluidity of technique to encompass Rachmaninov’s often fiendish writing, but on this occasion, his tone seemed under-projected. Whether this was a result of misjudging the RAH’s acoustic, or a deliberate artistic decision, the fact remains that this was an understated, rather restrained reading of the concerto.

However, there was still much to enjoy and appreciate, and Slatkin was a sympathetic collaborator and accompanist. He drew warm, expressive playing from the strings at the start and the woodwind and horn contributions blended most effectively, but one really needed a more fiery approach all round at moments such as the march-like episode where the opening theme returns and the piano has spiky rhythms which demand to be driven home. Tension mounted towards the end of the movement, andthe conclusion was suitably brusque and forceful.

There was an almost impressionistic feel to the start of the poetic slow movement where Watts’s reserve proved effective, and he ensured that the rippling piano writing was well integrated into the whole, whilst Slatkin encouraged eloquent playing from the orchestra to paint a moving sense of regret and nostalgia. In the ’Finale’ one could again admire Watts’s nimble fluency, and be grateful for the fact that the ’big tune’ was treated with nobility on its initial statement from violas and cor anglais, yet a sense of culmination and urgency was missing, although Slatkin drove the final pages onward with commendable energy.

The more meaty material of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony was another matter. Throughout, one admired the corporate concentration and commitment of the orchestra who responded eloquently to Slatkin’s impassioned direction and interpretation. Perhaps the opening paragraph might have been delivered more forcefully, but the first violins’ statement of the opening theme was poignancy itself. As the movement progressed one was conscious of a gradual building of tension and when the first great climax emerged, with horns howling out the opening motive, the effect was all but overwhelming. The ’Allegro’ section which ensued was characterised by sharp articulation and strutting trumpets heralded more than a sense of militaristic danger.

The great adagio chords, which are like cries of pain (and return in the ’Finale’), were tremendous in their impact and gave way to the cor anglais’s sorrowful melody, hauntingly played by Geoff Browne. The second movement was anything but a light interlude, the skittish wind solos more suggestive of hysteria then light-relief, whilst the momentum of the third was relentless. Here, the trumpet’s interventions, seemingly circus-like, were once again filled with menace and as the movement veered towards its conclusion, thunderous timpani added to the tension. In the fourth movement, there was an extraordinary sense of desolation, with the flutes’ eerie flutter-tonguing suggesting something other-worldly.

The ’Finale’ begins with a perky-seeming melody from the bassoon, but as ever with Shostakovich such moments are tinged with irony and as the movement gathered pace, eventually collapsing onto those huge chords heard earlier, Slatkin ensured we were caught up in the composer’s nightmare world. “All my symphonies are tombstones,” Shostakovich apparently once revealed. This was a remarkable performance, with conductor and orchestra at one in conveying Shostakovich’s bleak desperation and which made one ponder this statement anew. Certainly, the concluding pages contained no hint of comfort or peace. Rarely indeed can the chord of C major have sounded so unsettling.

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Prom 67: Dohnányi at Play

Till Eulenspiegel
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The final week of the Proms, which affords a snap shot of the state of four of the five London Symphony Orchestras (a week, unusually, without international visitors), opened with Christoph von Dohnányi bringing his Philharmonia Orchestra to the Proms for only the second time since becoming Principal Conductor in 1997 (in 2000 Slatkin came with them; last year Renée Fleming and Eschenbach). It was certainly good to see him back on the Albert Hall platform.

As for his final Cleveland Orchestra performances as Music Director at the Barbican in June, Dohnányi is as clear-sighted as ever in how he wants his performances to sound: no unfussy interpretative interpolations, just fidelity to the score. For some this sounds emotionally bland, but I revel in hearing what composer’s ask for, and – as here – scores suddenly sound new.

That Dohnányi seems to have mellowed was apparent in the opening work, a spirited, almost impish performance of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, with the Philharmonia players (including no less than four percussionists with football rattles – a humorous exception to Dohnányi’s fidelity to the printed score: Strauss asks for one!) revelling in Strauss’s musical characterisations. Often this vast orchestral pantomime can seem laboured and hackneyed. Not here, and Dohnányi risked some wry smiles along the way.

I warmed equally to the Beethoven concerto and Dvořák symphony.Emanuel Ax was typically precise in his enormously satisfying assumption of the solo part, managing to keep his concentration through the hugely disruptive barrage of coughing (particularly in the slow movement), while the slimmed-down Philharmonia offered secure support. I was taken by surprise by the first movement cadenza – stated to be by Beethoven but much more robust than I had remembered, which Ax played for all it was worth. Bravo!

Dohnányi’s non-interventionist approach suited Dvořák’s delightful work exceedingly well, the Philharmonia on fine form with its Principal Conductor.I hope that Dohnányi will be constant conductor from the Philharmonia’s annual Prom from now on – it is a partnership that is helping to bring London’s orchestral life back into the very highest league.

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Prom 64: Tantalising Tango

Sones de mariachi
Falla orch. Berio
Seven Spanish Popular Songs
Estancia – Suite
Concerto for bandoneón
Fuga y misterio *
Romance del diablo *
Nocturna *
A fuego lento *

Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano)

Horacio Romo (bandoneón)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Tango Quartet: Horacio Romo (bandoneón), Cynthia Fleming (violin), Christopher Westcott (double bass) & John Alley (piano) *

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

I thought of the headline waiting for a tube at Paddington, an indication that I was going to this concert optimistically and unbiased. Now, I’m angling for a complementary case of a particular canned drink!

The tango craze, the dance that is, passed me by. I had expected the RAH to be full – it wasn’t – and I had anticipated a more vibrant evening in terms of atmosphere. Is the tango’s soulful, intoxicating, sexy close-harmony dancing really for the Royal Albert Hall’s vastness? Is not the Mexican fiesta negated by a concert’s formality? Ah, for the RAH’s former status of hot, sweaty tinderbox, which might have localised this event! (The new air-conditioning is successful.)

The versatile BBC Concert Orchestra played with characteristic commitment and resource to Peruvian-born Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s dynamic, choreographic communication. Poor programming allowed the exuberant Huapango and the harmonically fickle Sones de mariachi to cancel each other out. In Mexico, several beers and a Chilli con Carne later, who cares about the order; in Kensington, Falla’s settings would have slotted well between señores Moncayo and Dimas’s picture-postcards. The evening’s best music, by far, Falla’s original piano part now enjoys an authentic-sounding and classy orchestration by Luciano Berio that is more Falla than Berio excepting a few subtle buffo touches from the Italian master. Ann Murray’s warmly communicative singing was a pleasure.

So too Horacio Romo’s exhibition on the bandoneón – beyond criticism – as he seduced and shimmied his way through Piazzolla’s concerto. Standing, right leg perched on a box, shoe-shine style, Romo’s raised knee balanced his box of tricks as his athletic, masterly hands squeezed and extended the panels and digitised the keys of the accordion-like instrument. Shame about the piece though, which lacked anything memorable over its 20-minute span and suffered a limited palette of strings, percussion and under-used harp and piano. I wonder if Berio’s thought of writing for bandoneón – a Sequenza – if anybody can, it’s him.

The pieces for ’tango quartet’, platform logistics aside, would have contrasted better between Tangazo and Estancia. The group played uninhibitedly led by the now seated Romo. The music still resistible, the Bachian fugal writing of Piazzolla’s Fuga y misterio impressed, and even I responded to the nostalgic if overlong Romance del diablo, although not to its commercial seam; I understand why the old-guard of Tangoists (!) didn’t take to Piazzolla’s new methods. Julián Plaza’s up-beat Nocturna suggests that Argentina doesn’t sleep – while the flame of Horacio Salgán’s A fuego lento burns rather brighter than the title suggests.

The concert fusion that is Tangazo grows from its subterranean opening to colourful scoring and a seeming bid to write for a TV series; its 14 directionless minutes peter to a cop-out. Ginastera’s gaucho-and-pampas Estancia ballet is mostly fast, loud and aggressive as sectionalised here. Despite impressive techniques this wore rather thin before the end and even the one ’relaxed’ number has climactic intensity just around the corner. ’Less is more’ may not be an Argentinean characteristic.

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Prom 63: Post-modern Tchaikovsky

Color [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Midori (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 6 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Older listeners may continue to think of him as an accomplished pianist and younger viewers will notice the resemblance to Patrick Stewart late of the Starship Enterprise, but tonight’s conductor is one of the most sought after properties on the international circuit. Indeed, the energy and focus of his music-making is currently sweeping all before it – and compensating for any lack of interpretative originality. It was certainly a surprise to find him slotting in a return visit to the Proms – he has no previous association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – but who better to galvanise that sometimes lacklustre band into positive results in the standard repertoire?

The only non-standard offering came from Marc-André Dalbavie whose Color was written for Eschenbach’s Orchestre de Paris. On this evidence, Dalbavie is another young composer who has moved on from the rigorous world of Boulez via the Spectralists Grisey and Murail to stake out an iridescent territory of his own. What he does in Color is to construct a static, unmistakably French-sounding sculpture that nevertheless begins to key into conventional (or should that be American?) expectations of developmental concert fare, echoing what a composer like Saariaho (with a not dissimilar background) has achieved. “An atonal piece with tonal chords” is how Dalbavie himself describes his shimmering, three-stage circle of sound. Around twenty minutes long, and without memorable material as conventionally understood, it nevertheless lives up to its title and does not outstay its welcome.

I was hoping that Samuel Barber’s accessibility might silence the maddeningly intrusive cougher situated behind my right ear. Not so, even when the concerto soloist was a star name: Midori (Goto), once billed as “Little Midori” and now at 30-plus making that difficult transition from Sony Wunderkind to mature artiste. She has had a great career, although Tully Potter, writing in The New Grove, makes no bones about her small tone and bland interpretative manner. It was almost as if she was determined to prove him wrong on this occasion. True, the sound did not carry and the daunting size of the venue did nothing to inhibit her maddening tendency to launch phrases below the threshold of audibility. The ’Finale’ was very neatly done, much assisted by an alert accompaniment. But what sank the performance for me was its insistently rhapsodic style. The first movement, more ’Andante’ than ’Allegro’, repeatedly threatened to grind to a halt, while the long-drawn tempo for the opening paragraph of the slow movement, more ’Largo’ than ’Andante’, made no sense whatever in the context of the movement as a whole however beautifully achieved. There were some breathtaking entries with Midori daringly fining down her tone and eschewing vibrato. Nevertheless, something much more straightforward would have disguised the joins better.

The big question remained. Would Eschenbach’s very positive gesticulation and body language engender a special performance of the Tchaikovsky? Technically this was first rate, with a taut, bullish edge that often comes with conductors who start as pianists and/or percussionists (Rattle comes to mind). The first movement was a heavyweight, full of big tone and careful phrasing. In the second, Eschenbach encouraged the sometimes reticent strings to emote forcefully, even stickily, and there was plenty of upfront articulation from the winds too where required. Nothing was left to chance, the conductor favouring first one section then the other, making counter-melodies almost obsessively clear. The ’Scherzo’ brought a veritable tour de force. Here Eschenbach sometimes refrained altogether from conventional gesturing (very much in the Bernstein manner), apparently leaving the pizzicato strings to get on with it, while insisting on penetrating, peasant-like intrusions from the woodwinds. The ’Finale’ had impressive rhythmic definition and considerable verve. Yet one could not say whether the ending was meant to be affirmatory or riven with hysteria or both. It was fast certainly, but one noticed the precise moment at which Eschenbach chose to ratchet up his tempo. Lucid, controlled and keenly projected as it was, I felt this account lacked emotional warmth. Perhaps though this is as good as it is going to get in our post-modern age. The players deserve high praise, above all perhaps Julie Price’s ultra-sensitive, seamless bassoon.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday, 13 September, at 2 o’clock

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Prom 62: Goode Mozart

Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453
The Rite of Spring

Richard Goode (piano)

BBC Singers (women’s voices)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 5 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Richard Goode is a pianist capable of moulding together extremes – humour and high seriousness, attention to detail and an unbroken melodic line, intellect and emotion; a very classical modernity, in fact. And without ever appearing to force his personality onto Mozart’s G major concerto, Goode made the work emerge as many-faceted, full of emotional depth and variety, and undeservedly neglected compared to the later concertos – an utter masterpiece. Goode’s is a sleight of hand of which only the greatest pianists are capable, giving music the strongest possible characterisation without apparently doing any more than playing the notes.

The initial delicacy of the orchestral textures, and the conscious communication between orchestra and soloist, set the tone for the whole. While preserving an eighteenth-century dignity and poise, Goode’s contrastsbetween relaxation and intensification gave the work a constant sense of improvised yet logical evolution.

The coolness of the slow movement made it the least successful of the three, although Goode’s intuitive understanding of the long paragraphs was exemplary. The ’Finale’ was the undoubted highlight of the whole evening.Both Goode and orchestra injected wit and high spirits into the variations, their dialogue giving a sense of drama and life that was pure opera.

The acoustic of the RAH was the enemy of the performance. A rendition this intimate, with such attention to the work’s chamber-music affinities, and Goode’s concern for a true pianissimo, must have been all but lost in the higher reaches of the hall.

Ironically, Debussy’s Nocturnes benefited greatly from the space and grandeur of the RAH. The trumpets of ’Fêtes’ and the women’s voices in ’Sirènes’, artfully placed in the Gods, literally added another dimension of atmosphere. Tortelier’s conducting was always sympathetic and lucid. One might have asked for darker ’Nuages’ (clouds), but the spring and energy of ’Fêtes’, as Apollonian as Boléro is Dionysiac, and the enchantment of Sirènes were delightful.

In The Rite of Spring, Tortelier’s final choice as the BBC Phi’s stepping-down Chief Conductor, he was again alert to the idiom and emotional purpose of the music, perfectly combining the sweetness of the folk melodies and the rhythmic energy of the dance. Again, it was in passages of reflection or mystery that one hoped for a more profound evocation of the sublime. The occasional fluff and moments of astringent tone aside, although one might have asked for a greater weight of sound, the players were musically impressive throughout.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 12 September, at 2 o’clock

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