Prom 61: Late-night Chant

The Twelve
Chant (London premiere)

Louise Winter (mezzo-soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)

BBC Singers
City of London Sinfonia
Stephen Cleobury

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 4 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A fine concert celebrating two centenaries – Walton and Duruflé – and a half-century: Simon Bainbridge was 50 a few weeks ago.

The Twelve is a late work (1965) not heard very often (even rarer in the orchestral version heard here) written for Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford where the composer had been a chorister some fifty years before. The text is by another college alumnus, W.H. Auden, and the result is a celebratory, occasional piece of the sort that Walton excelled. The orchestration adds a sparkle lacking from the organ version – fanfare-like figures, delicate but telling touches on harp and percussion – in short the work of a genius! Unfortunately, though accurate and for the most part well balanced this performance lacked the character and wit so essential to bring the piece to life; the final Belshazzar-like “Let us praise them all with a merry noise” especially having no tongue-in-cheek at all! The distinguished solo contributions (particularly from the baritone Stuart MacIntyre who spat out his consonantswith relish) highlighted what for me is sometimes a big problem with the BBC Singers – the blend or rather the lack of it as a choir. Of course they are amazing and can sing the most complicated works with ease, but when each singer acts a soloist (with a wide vibrato) rather than trying to blend their voices, the resulting sound is not as crisp and varied as it might be.

Bainbridge’s work, scored for twelve solo voices and orchestra, showed the BBC Singers in a much more favourable light – requiring them to act very much as soloists. Chant was written for a performance in York Minster, the voices being amplified and projected through loudspeakers around that wonderful church – here the space of the RAH was used to similar and rather remarkable, though surely not so magical, effect. Bainbridge takes as his starting point a plainchant hymn, ’Ave, generosa’, attributed to Hildegard of Bingen. The original melody is fragmented between voices, the orchestra (with particular concentration on higher instruments – even two centrally placed double basses playing at the very top of their register) – commenting, shading and echoing the voices the voices. Rather in the manner of Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia the soundworld moves slowly from Hildegard to Bainbridge with echoes of the original becoming more and more distant and ghostly as the piece goes on. Though perhaps a little long, Chant is undeniably beautifully ’heard’ by Bainbridge – an imaginative response to an unusual commission. The Singers here were quite excellent, as for that matter were the orchestra and the discreetly handled amplification; the composer seemed very happy with the performance.

Mention has been made of Walton’s slender output and self-critical approach to composition. Compared to Maurice Duruflé, Walton was too prolific! Of the tiny collection of works that make up Duruflé’s catalogue, the Requiem of 1947 is the largest and certainly the best known. Heard here in the full orchestral version (there are two others, one with organ and one for small orchestra), one was able to savour Duruflé’s marvellous ear for orchestral colour – delicate, sophisticated, the plaintive sounds of bassoon and cor anglais much in evidence – a sort of midway point between Fauré and Messiaen perhaps.

Stephen Cleobury caught the ethereal quality of the music very well – the orchestra was subtle or ecstatic as the occasion demanded (the “Hosanna in excelsis” of the ’Sanctus’ being particularly memorable) and the choir became a much more harmonised whole then they had seemed in the Walton. Sadly the only negative point here came from the soloists – or at least one of them. Roderick Williams was his usual commanding and musical presence, but the heart-stopping ’Pie Jesu’ was absurd as sung by Louise Winter – the orchestra played beautifully, but Winter’s over-powering account was more akin to Richard Strauss than Duruflé. An unfortunate blemish on an otherwise commendable performance.

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Prom 60: Fast, Loud and Not All There

Violin Concerto in D
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

James Ehnes (violin)

BBC National Orchestra of WalesRichard Hickox

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 4 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The idea of a concerto can be difficult to pin down accurately. Leonard Bernstein introduced his famous – infamous? – performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Glenn Gould with the question “Who’s the boss in a Concerto?” On that occasion it was due to a divergence of view between soloist and conductor on the matter of interpretation – particularly as regards tempi. Another thought which springs to mind is whether or not a particular concerto is a mere display piece for a virtuoso player (e.g. Paganini) or whether there are other more weighty musical considerations at work.

I do believe that Brahms’s Violin Concerto falls into the latter category. His use of themes and their development is every bit as thought-through as it is in his symphonies. It follows, then, that the soloist is not just a decorative addition to the proceedings, but an integral part of the working-out of the musical argument. The concerto begins as if it were a symphony – in the same key and mood, indeed, as Brahms’s Second Symphony. Hickox presented the opening cogently, with a good sense of ebb and flow. The important dotted-note theme, however, was rather lumpy and this somewhat leaden approach impeded smooth transitions throughout.

James Ehnes, it almost goes without saying is a talented player and, technically speaking, his playing was virtually flawless. But on the evidence of this performance, he does not yet command the necessary weight or gravitas with are needed for a full realisation of Brahms’s concerto. His first entry was quite light and soft-grained – contrary to the forte marking in the score – but he gradually gained in confidence. Arpeggios and scalic passages were dispatched effectively, but lyrical lines were less-well projected. Indeed his tone seemed somewhat lightweight to make the fullest impression in the RAH’s generous acoustic.

During this first movement, there was good interplay and cohesion between soloist and orchestra. The lead into the coda following the cadenza (thrillingly dispatched) was very well handled. The slow movement begins with one of the most beautiful melodies which Brahms ever penned, played first on the oboe and then taken up by the soloist. Enjoyment was marred on this occasion by mannered phrasing and sour wind intonation. The accompaniment was on the heavy side – a much gentler approach was really needed to provide the poise andtranquillity inherent in this music. Brahms’s qualifying marking for the finale – (’ma non troppo vivace’) – was set aside for a straight ’Allegro’ which, whilst providing an opportunity for virtuosic display, was too rapid for all the details of Brahms’s scoring to register. Accented notes from both soloist and orchestra were played for all they were worth and felt exaggerated. The danger of ignoring Brahms’s initial marking was that it left little or no room for the increase in tempo required for the end of the movement which, nevertheless, concluded with panache. I should like to hear James Ehnes play this work again in about ten years’ time when his undoubted technical gifts have been enhanced withgreater musical insights.

This performance of Walton’s First Symphony could be summarily described as ’fast and loud’. The first movement has any number of shattering climaxes, but the positioning of the heavy brass above and behind the remainder of the orchestra ensured that the balance was askew at these key moments.

Hickox played the first movement at a terrific pace – Walton indicates ’Allegro assai’ – and the result was undeniably exciting, with twitchy, nervy string rhythms and baying horns to the fore. But exhilarating as it was, there was a lack of repose in the few calmer moments, and the heavy climaxes all sounded pretty much the same, whereas Walton’s markings suggest otherwise. Having been so fast in the first movement, this left very little in reserve for what should be an even faster ’Scherzo’. The swift tempo adopted did not enable the unusual indication ’con malizia’ (with malice) to register as it should. I think the main problem was that there had been too much ’malizia’ and not enough weight in the first movement. But the orchestra responded with collective virtuosity – rasping trombones and explosive timpani almost made one flinch.

The third movement lacked the required restraint and poignancy to provide a much needed contrast to what precedes and follows it, although the limpid solo flute at the beginning and at the end had the requisite plaintive quality.In the ’Finale’, the big guns were blazing again and Hickox was once more fast and furious leading to an overwhelming climax with the arrival of the percussion. In the very final bars, however, it was a pity that the very short notes Walton wrote were elongated. A shame, too, about the side drum rim-shots which are not prescribed by the composer.

This was, overall, an exhausting and forceful performance, undeniably impressive on its own terms. Not the way one would always like to encounter the work, but an astonishing reminder of Walton’s genius in creating a unique orchestral sound with an orchestra no larger (save for an extra trumpet and a tuba) than that required for Beethoven’s Ninth.

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Prom 59: Toscanini or Celibidache?

Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Amériques (Revised Version)
Daphnis et Chloë – Suite No.2

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Celibidache branded Toscanini a “non-musician”. James Levine reveres Toscanini. Celibidache conducted the Munich Philharmonic from 1979 to his death in 1996. Levine is Celibidache’s successor.

The astonishing if controversial results that the Munich orchestra achieved under Celibidache can be heard on 33 EMI CDs. What is now being accomplished in Munich is anybody’s guess given this nondescript concert. Levine does know the way to seat the strings though – antiphonal violins with double basses behind the centre-left cellos. Levine’s lengthy MET tenure can be judged by regular broadcasts – certainly he has a great orchestra there – and one admires a musician who can steer a company through any one of fifty operas at the drop of a hat. His Verdi is vulgar though and he has persuaded the Munich brass to be bruisers; of course, the Bavarian orchestra is wholly professional in doing his bidding, yet one doesn’t sense a true relationship between them.

At Levine’s “long-awaited Proms debut” (more BBC spin), both Hindemith and Ravel reported the rigidity and literalism that Levine has inherited from Toscanini. Brightly-lit textures, stabbing accents – left, right, left, right… – and stinging brass complete the far-from-done deal. So much for Hindemith – questionably pitched bells in the ’Scherzo’ aside. The Ravel entered with graceless woodwind arabesques, clipped phrasing and spurious dynamics; fibres of sound clotted – no chance of internal layering let alone the luminescence this music needs. True, the ’Danse générale’ was well controlled and patiently built; it’s just a shame about the cheapening explosive contrasts therein.

Just as Barenboim has aligned himself to Furtwängler, so Levine is similarly hidebound by Toscanini’s example; conductor clones is not a good idea. When asked whom I side with, Furtwängler or Toscanini, my answer is Klemperer. I’m not sure there’s any antecedents for Levine’s lacklustre Mozart conducting that seemed to suck Alfred Brendel into giving a generalised account of the solo part; certainly he was less delving than usual. His own cadenzas were noteworthy though and his ornamentation in the latter stages of the ’Romanza’ perked the ears up; so too the hard-stick timpani if not the (expletive-deleted) mobile phone that rung forever in the first movement.

My lady companion thought the Munich Philharmonic needed “a kick up the arse” after the Mozart (her Finishing School closed down a term short!) but I think we’ll pin this on the conductor and wonder about the Boston Symphony (Levine’s the new MD there from 2004). Amériques was better. Varèse’s sonic blockbuster drew smirks from some of the audience; partly the composer’s naïve use of a siren, partly the piece’s kinship (to our ears) to film scores and perhaps the ’thump, thump’ backing tracks that pollute football highlights and those endless previews rammed down our throats on TV and Radio. Yet, Amériques is a serious piece, one potentially shocking and disturbing, a stark description of the urban jungle, of a city’s dehumanising potential. If Levine didn’t always engage with the piece’s super-structure or the fluidity of the opening music, he was in tune with the Busonian ’between states’ aspect and delivered the relentless final section with grim reality. The percussion was not always co-ordinated in a reading that grew in confidence, even if the strings were power-housed out of it by the brass. Predictable really.

For an extra, Levine led an extraordinarily static account of the Act 3 Mastersingers Prelude, Hans Sachs comatose and therefore blissfully unaware of the curdling brass tone that Levine favours. Anyone privileged to have heard Haitink’s sublime conducting of this at Covent Garden a few weeks ago when he closed his tenure would, I imagine, have been disorientated by Levine’s laggard view; it seems for him there is nothing between or behind the notes. Ironically he assumed a Celibidachian tempo. There comparisons end. From Celi the sounds would have hung in the air expectantly and resonated together sympathetically; with Levine, Wagner’s haunting nocturne was dead-in-the-water from bar one.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday, 10 September, at 2 o’clock

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Prom 58: Drones of Death

Alhambra Fantasy
Abraham and Isaac
Homenaje a Federico García Lorca
Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death

Sanford Sylvan (baritone)

Sinfonia 21
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Almost a counterpart to Prom 51 in its diverse treatment of the season’s Hispanic theme. Julian Anderson’s Alhambra Fantasy (2000) has made a fair impact in performances from the London Sinfonietta and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and tonight’s was the most vivid yet. Martyn Brabbins powered through the first section with its graphic evocation of the palace ’under construction’ – to the extent that some of the intricate motivic writing was lost in a blur of activity. Yet this heightened both the contrast with, and the intensity of, the work’s second half – an evocation of the Alhambran landscape sensuous yet poignant in its feeling of unreality.

Ostensibly the odd work out, Stravinsky’s Abraham and Isaac (1963) is among the most fully realised and coherent of his late works – a sacred ballad which abounds in subtle musical inference without the need for depiction at a descriptive level. Sanford Sylvan projected the Hebrew text as an unbroken line of lyrical declamation (hence the composer’s priceless term ’bel-cantor’), while the instrumental component – a melodic commentary which is only rarely an accompaniment – was expressive and precise. The gradual assimilation of ’serial Stravinsky’ into the modern repertoire was well served on this occasion.

Good too that Silvestre Revueltas has finally taken his place at the Proms. In contrast to his high-octane orchestral blockbusters, Homenaje a Federico García Lorca (1935) has a chamber-like density of utterance. Varèse-ian extremes of register find a natural interface with Milhaud-esque polytonality in music whose febrile rhythmic energy is shot-through with a wrenching emotion that anticipates the tragedy of Spain in general and Lorca in particular.

And so to George Crumb, whose music is currently enjoying a revival after its popular acclaim in the late ’60s and ’70s. Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968) is the most extended and musically the most wide-ranging of his Lorca-based compositions. Four of the poet’s most characteristic verses, expressionist in their dark intensity, are interspersed with ritualistic interludes whose percussion writing spreads across the ensemble to draw in the singer.

Yet Crumb is as mindful to vary the emotional quality of the songs (compare his ’Song of the Rider (1860)’ with that of Simon Holt’s Canciones – heard in Prom 51) as he is the cumulative intensity of the refrains – culminating in a visceral ’spatial’ cadenza for two drummers and a setting of ’Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water’ which retreats quietly and cathartically into itself. A further impressive showing from Sylvan, among the most versatile singers of his generation, and playing of vibrant energy from Sinfonia 21 – no mean outfit itself when it comes to versatility of repertoire.

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Prom 57: Ives and Mahler Parallels

A Symphony: New England Holidays
Symphony No.1 in D

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

What a smart piece of programming! Ives and Mahler took what the world has to offer and put it in their music. Both these pieces gestated for some time having been begun when their composers were in their early ’twenties. As Mahler knocked his symphony into final shape, Ives started to compile his musical depiction of four American national holidays. These composers share innovation, remembrance, exploration and an image-related soundworld.

Ingo Metzmacher’s unfolding of Ives’s four-movement symphony, each section performable separately, was a revelation – a labour of love for the conductor and a painstaking re-creation of supposedly difficult, not to say bizarre, music. It couldn’t have sounded more lucid here, Ives’s individuality apparent in every bar, his nostalgic, perhaps defiant embracing of American life in all its diversity made personal and universal. Metzmacher underlined Ives’s kinship with Mahler and revealed that, musically, Ives’s insularity uncannily presages Berg, Birtwistle and Carter; the opening of Decoration Day has a Wozzeckian taint, the following cor anglais motif hints at Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, while the final “explosion” of The Fourth of July reminds of the coruscating denouement of Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra (as Bernstein conducted it!). Such premonitions are at odds perhaps with the childhood memories that Ives distils into the music, save the final movement, Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day, which is more timeless in its sense of awe and continuance.

Ives is a problem composer for some – no doubt his inclusion of ’popular’ elements, the seemingly haphazard styles, scoring and harmonies, and the metric collisions, all play their part to nonplus ’traditional’ mindsets. Metzmacher’s conducting was a revelation at just how exacting Ives is (helped by a critical edition) and, for all the musical diversity along the way, how integrated his thinking is – the impossible complexities of The Fourth of July are intentional, yet there is much that is beautiful, both starkly and sensuously (Decoration Day almost Debussyian), with quadrilles and folk tunes rubbing shoulders with visionary musical thinking. This seasonal symphony, beginning in winter, proved a compelling and haunting experience, Metzmacher scrupulous with Ives’s use of perspective – the faraway cornet intoning ’Taps’ in Decoration Day, the small string group at the back of the orchestra in Fourth of July, and the backstage brass group that closes, with the chorus’s hymnal, Thanksgiving so movingly.

The one blot was the crass decision to put a spotlight on the Jews’ Harp player (Washington’s Birthday) – how cheap can you get?

Mahler too used distance; in the opening bars of the ’Titan’ symphony (Mahler dropped this epithet) it’s a backwoods trumpet. Metzmacher aligns himself to the German tradition of Klemperer and Erich Kleiber, and to his senior contemporary Michael Gielen (what a shame Gielen didn’t continue to work with the BBCSO after his ’Guest’ period elapsed). Anyone familiar with the young Klemperer’s work will know that he could put his foot down and Metzmacher’s brisk and bracing account of Mahler One is perhaps something Klemperer could have delivered at a Kroll concert in the ’twenties – flexible and exacting. Not without poetry, lilt or exquisiteness, Metzmacher’s account was something of a romp but without ever being gratuitous. Such vernal freshness was welcome in a symphony that gets played too often. If not everything came off, and the horns were too prominent, there was much to beguile and thrill, an assertion of Metzmacher’s ability to get an orchestra on his side and deliver something intrinsically musical.

One of the best Proms of the season and perhaps the Ives will prove to be the single most important performance (along with David Robertson’s Sibelius Five).

As a postscript, although I rather the BBCSO was not looking for a new Chief Conductor, given Metzmacher’s and Robertson’s breadth of repertoire and imaginative programming, one hopes that both are in the frame.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday, 6 September, at 2 o’clock

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Prom 56: Exemplary Elijah

Elijah, Op.70

Elijah – Alastair Miles (bass)
The Widow – Janice Watson (soprano)
An Angel – Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
The Queen – Rachael Lloyd (mezzo-soprano)
Obadiah – Kim Begley (tenor)
Ahab – Thomas Walker (tenor)
The Youth – Alexander Main-Ian (treble)
Rebecca Nash (soprano)
Daniel Jordan (bass-baritone)
Darren Jeffery (bass)

Trinity Boys Choir
London Philharmonic Choir
Philharmonia Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 1 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“Never was there a more complete triumph – never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art”. So reported “The Times” following Elijah’s first performance at Birmingham Town Hall on 26 August 1846.

Whether or not one shares the view of this oratorio as being a great work, there is no doubt of its immense popularity (although this was only its third Proms performance) and, indeed, the affection in which it is held by generations of singers and concert-goers. Already predictable in style when composed, Mendelssohn nevertheless tapped in effectively to the musical taste – particularly British musical taste – of the time, much to the wrath of many of his contemporaries, notably Richard Wagner.

Kurt Masur adopted an approach that seized on the dramatic implications of the score and, mercifully, ensured that there was no unnecessary lingering even in the most restrained and contemplative movements. The opening recitative – an unorthodox way of beginning an oratorio – found Alastair Miles in commanding and authoritative voice. Mendelssohn wrote that he imagined the prophet as “strong, zealous and even bad-tempered, angry and brooding”, and Miles certainly had no difficulty in conveying these qualities, but I missed a more gentle and resigned approach at reflective points such as in the poignant aria “It is enough” where the cellos played most beautifully.

Other soloists were also impressive – Kim Begley a strong, operatic Obadiah and Janice Watson sympathetic as the Widow. A word of praise, too, for the treble Alexander Main-Ian for delivering his lines with considerable confidence.

Many performances (and recordings) of Elijah choose to ignore Mendelssohn’s allocation of some numbers to soloists, but Masur rightly insists on following the composer’s directions and so the Double Quartet, “For he shall give his angels charge over thee”, and the well-known trio, “Lift thine eyes” gave the requisite contrast to the big choral sections. The choral singing was superb throughout, responsive to dynamics and the shaping of phrases. Entries were unanimous as were word-endings. The cries to Baal were suitably impassioned, and the precision of rhythms helped prevent any muddiness of texture.

The London Philharmonic was on excellent form, with warm-toned strings and characterful and expressive woodwind solos. I would have preferred less-reticent timpani, but this was as convincing an account of Elijah as one is likely to encounter.

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Prom 55: Old-fashioned Beethoven

Symphony No.2 in B, ’To October’
Symphony No.9 in D minor, ’Choral’

Melanie Diener (soprano)
Paula Rasmussen (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Gambill (tenor)
Eike Wilm Schulte (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 31 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was an interesting piece of programming – Shostakovich’s ode to October and Lenin, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy can surely never have been coupled together before.

However peculiar the pairing, it worked in practice. Shostakovich’s Second Symphony remains one of his least performed – this was its first airing at the Proms – and serves to remind us just what a radical musical mind the young composer had. In this work, which is arguably not really a symphony at all, Shostakovich experiments with sonority and textures – there is rarely a memorable melodic moment as such and the concept of conventional development of musical ideas is set aside. The remarkable fugal section, which has thirteen independent parts, is surely unprecedented in music, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic revelled in the extravagantly virtuosic writing here, whilst at the outset, the mysterious string figures were played as a mere whisper with no hint of a crescendo – as the composer intended.

The wilder moments were wild indeed, with high trumpets and rasping trombones cutting effectively through the texture.The final choral section sets words by Alexander Bezymensky, and Shostakovich apparently found them “quite disgusting”. They are indeed jingoistic to the point of embarrassment, praising as they do “October, the Commune and Lenin”, but whatever Shostakovich may or may not have thought about them, they make a powerful impact – especially when so throatily and convincingly delivered as they were on this occasion by the BBC Symphony Chorus. There is also an interesting moment of typical Shostakovich irony, when after the chorus utters the name of Lenin for the first time, trumpets blare out a ’warning’ note, so perhaps the composer’s message is not quite so clear-cut, or towing the party-line, as it might appear.

In sum, this was a thoroughly convincing performance of this interesting work. After the interval, however, things took a different turn. In some ways, Salonen’s approach to Beethoven was quite old-fashioned, with the woodwind doubled, horns reinforcing wind lines in the ’Scherzo’, and tempi were on the whole fairly steady. However, there was an alarming lack of tension and drama throughout, as if Salonen was content just to ’play the notes’ – and extremely well-played they were too. It may seem an impertinence to suggest it, but the conductor appeared not to have any particular interpretative view of this monumental work. The first movement ambled along, but the ferocious eruptions, which should occur from time to time, were nowhere to be found. In the ’Scherzo’, instead of a sense of danger, it was all light and airy (in spite of outstanding timpani playing) and the ’Trio’ was too fast.

The third movement was more ’Andante’ than ’Adagio’, and where was the sense of world-weariness, or resignation, even, which is inherent in this music? This movement is surely much more then an agreeable set of interesting variations. The ’Finale’ began tamely, and although the famous theme grew majestically, it was only with the entry of the voices that things really started to take off, as if the singers (the chorus especially) were keener than the conductor to convey Beethoven’s vision of universal brotherhood.

Eike Wilm Schulte was an authoritative baritone, and the quartet blended reasonably well – no mean feat in this work – with Melanie Diener a radiant soprano. Again, the chorus distinguished itself – a tribute to its chorus-master, Stephen Jackson – but the whole rendering fell far short of being “feuertrunken”.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday, 5 September, at 2 o’clock

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Prom 54: West Coast Calculation

Ibéria (Images pour orchestre)
Piano Concerto No.1
Romeo and Juliet (selection)

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 30 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After the blood and guts playing of Gergiev’s Kirov forces and the luminescence of Abbado’s youthful troupe, there was always a risk that Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic would come across as merely professional. Their programme, while shrewdly conceived to boost back-catalogue sales, never seemed to promise revelations. That said, the conductor is an immensely gifted musician whatever the packaging might imply (in this case a new and expensive haircut) and the technical polish of this concert was undeniably striking in its own way. The strings had a soft, even sheen, with even Prokofiev’s highest-lying violin lines smoothly negotiated.

Perhaps the Debussy opener suffered from the proximity of that very special La Mer from Abbado. The Proms’ Spanish theme had presumably dictated the choice of Ibéria and the performance was characteristically spotless, clear-textured and somewhat disengaged. In the first movement, the musicians took a while to settle: the slower central portion’s blend of oboe and solo viola in unison was not very pleasant. Things looked up with ’Les parfums de la nuit’ – not ideally sultry maybe (despite the heat of the venue) but beautifully turned with more in the way of idiomatic rubato. The transition to ’Le matin d’un jour de fête’ was deftly achieved, even if the main body of the movement was again rather too rigid and driven.

Yefim Bronfman enjoys a special relationship with the conductor. They have made several discs together and he has lately been playing Salonen’s own solo piece Dichotomie. Clearly tonight’s concerto held no terrors for him whether of the interpretative or technical variety. A burly, bear-like presence, he surprised the Prommers with his clean and articulate playing, neither falsifying the work with excessive lyricism nor exaggerating its rough edges. There was a hint of blandness at times in the very security of the orchestral response, although both percussion and winds (a truly lovely first clarinet!) contributed a great deal to the success of the slow movement. Bronfman was keen to demonstrate his lighter side with (what seemed to be) an impromptu dose of Scarlatti – a surprise bonus in any event.

Salonen’s own encore at the end of the evening was a notably deliberate makeover of the final segment of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye’, presumably designed to showcase his fabulous string section. That same element of calculation was present in the selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, taken from the versions in the suites but re-jigged into a sequence roughly in line with the ballet scenario. Here was brilliance and virtuosity in spades, along with a certain sterility. The last time I heard the ballet complete the maestro was Mstislav Rostropovich and the results could scarcely have been more different. With Salonen, there are no lumps and bumps but little sense of affection or love. Too much polish at the expense of the natural ebb and flow within a phrase and this sort of music can lose the will to live as surely as Juliet herself. While we applauded and went away happy, we were not greatly moved.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday, 4 September, at 2 o’clock

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Prom 53: Prophecies

Kullervo, Op.7
The Trojans at Carthage – Lamento and Trojan March
America (A Prophecy)

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Raimo Laukka (baritone)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
London Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Adès

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A complete Prom conducted by Thomas Adès was never likely to be routine, and in its programme and ordering, the present concert was indeed an engrossing if at times frustrating event.

Adès has apparently wanted to conduct Sibelius’s Kullervo (1892) for some years, and tonight’s performance gave evidence of a thoughtful and informed approach to the textural and editorial uncertainties of this ambitious symphonic cantata; one which the composer all but abandoned after initial performances had effectively established his reputation as ’the’ Finnish composer.

Interpretatively, there were numerous strengths. The diverse ’Introduction’ was guided decisively but flexibly, emerging not just as an introductory movement but as a compact overview of the work as a whole. ’Kullervo’s Youth’ had a brooding quality without the hypnotic slowness that Osmo Vänskä drew from this music at a memorable Prom five years ago. The male choruses were bracing if unidiomatic in ’Kullervo and His Sister’ – though, after a tentative and insufficiently seductive central interlude, Susan Bickley galvanised attention with her sisterly revelations; compared to whom, Raimo Laukka was dependable if far from riveting as the perennially unlucky tax collector. Adès fairly jog-trotted through ’Kullervo Goes to War’, hardly the energetic scherzo it should be, but controlled momentum going into the climactic stages of ’Kullervo’s Death’ with absolute sureness.

Yet there was an underlying sense that this was an assured final rehearsal rather than a fully-realised performance. Kullervo’s considerable impact depends primarily on the cumulative amassing of incident over its 70-minute span – a sure indication of the organic mastery and inevitability of transition that Sibelius was to master. Adept at highlighting salient detail, Adès often seemed unable to marshal it into a focused and coherent overall design. What emerged was less than the sum of its parts: an attentive approximation of what this piece is and can be.

Whether for logistical or aesthetic reasons, Kullervo occupied the lengthy first half, leaving the remaining items to take up the barely half-hour second part. The gaunt, Gluck-ian ’Lamento’ is only part of the ’Prologue’ that Berlioz wrote in 1863 for the separate staging of the final three acts of his summatory epic The Trojans. This and the orchestral version of the ’Trojan March’ make an unlikely but effective diptych, and were played with commitment. Maybe the enterprising Adès will give us the complete ’Prologue’ in the composer’s bicentenary year?

The concert concluded with America, Adès’s prophecy of cultural collapse and social disintegration that has inevitably taken on ominous overtones during the past year. In two fluid but tightly organised sections, America manages to touch on the salient features of a century of American music; without ever suggesting other than an authentically personal vision. Susan Bickley gave the declamatory, asexual-sounding Mayan texts with total conviction, while the choruses brought a smouldering anger to their contribution drawn from medieval Spanish and Latin sources. The visceral orchestral writing was projected with marginally less impact than in Adès’s Birmingham performance earlier this year, but the overall effect was never less than impressive. Anyone who has doubted the soul behind the intricate technical façade of Adès’s musical thought needs to hear this piece.

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

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Prom 52: Musical Mahler Emotionally Underwhelming

Symphony No.3 in D minor

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
London Symphony Chorus (women’s voices)
Trinity Boys Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Eliahu Inbal

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

What is it with Mahler 3? It seems to have a cruel effect on conductors. Some 19 years ago, Michael Tilson Thomas’s indisposition with the Philharmonia led to a young man being whisked to London, from Finland, to take over the performance and learning the score so-to-do in just a week. That man was Esa-Pekka Salonen, and I’m sure, originally, both the Concertgebouw and the Proms office wished circumstances were otherwise in Riccardo Chailly’s absence (a serious shoulder injury the cause) that Salonen was not on tour with his Los Angeles Philharmonic and could again step into pole position (like he had also done in February 2001, when Haitink cancelled an LPO performance of the work).

With Sinaisky taking over the RCO’s first Prom the previous night, it was left to Israeli maestro Eliahu Inbal to take over the Mahler. Billed as a Prom debutante (although our esteemed editor swears blind Inbal did a fine Dvořák 5 in a previous Prom season … Thanks, Nick, for the “esteemed” – hopefully we’ll both go far! – and, yes, Inbal conducted the BBCSO at the Proms on 8 August 1983 – Ed.), Inbal had certainly galvanised his Concertgebouw troops in rehearsal so that their unrivalled Mahler tradition (dating back to performances with the composer himself, let alone 50 years with one of the greatest Mahlerians, Wilhelm Mengelberg) was preserved intact.

Yes, this was a fabulously played and organised performance. At no time did one fear that the orchestral textures might have torn and fractured. The off-stage post-horn solo (unfortunately not individually credited in the programme, but presumably one of the two principal trumpeters Frits Damrow or Peter Masseurs) was superbly handled, and had obviously been carefully rehearsed, with RAH or BBC staff on hand to open appropriate doors; my seat afforded me a glorious view of these expert arrangements, which were not a distraction, but rather an enhancement. Also, Inbal had his choirs (a proper boys’ choir to boot, which Mahler would have approved of, however sexist) sit down for their last “Bimm Bamm” entry, allowing a seamless flow into the long-breathed closing ’Adagio’. This is always tricky – leaving them standing as you move into the last movement, you have to wait until the first tutti climax, over ten minutes in, before the chorus can sit without being intrusive (an early Salonen performance in Edinburgh with the RSNO proved that point).

But Inbal’s performance was full of such wise judgements, and the packed Albert Hall was rewarded by a tremendous performance of Mahler’s notes.But – and despite its excellence there is a serious “but” – I was not moved one millimetre. I could marvel at the Concertgebouw’s miraculous string tone, pungent wind solos and, for the most part, beautifully rounded brass tone (I’ve heard all but Mahler’s Second and Eighth symphonies given by the orchestra in Britain, courtesy Bernstein – 4 & 9; Haitink – 4 & 6; and Chailly – 1, 4, 5, 7 & 10), but the emotional import of the music made no impact at all. Even Michelle DeYoung, singing this music previously at the Proms with Haitink, could not break the pattern of stagnant feeling or, worse, emotional retardedness. Perhaps, unfairly, it is that Haitink performance, with the BBCSO, that is my benchmark for the work: at the end I was barely holding my composure, so moved had I been, that when asked if I had enjoyed it I promptly burst into tears (it is probably the single most profound performance I have ever witnessed). My expectations were perilously high, therefore, and were left emotionally underwhelmed.

For once, it seems that being in the Arena was not the ideal spot.Although from my stalls seat I caught it only once or twice (including a bizarre pitchless duet with Michelle DeYoung in the fourth movement), Inbal’s own vocal interjections were a distracting addition to the whole performance. Intriguingly, Inbal is not the only grunter or singer-along in his profession; but somehow Sir Colin Davis, Giulini, Pollini or – indeed – Sir John Barbirolli can/could get away with it!

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

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