Year: 2003

Prom 73 – The Last Night

Berlioz
Overture – Roman Carnival
Saint-Saëns
Introduction and Rondo capriccioso
Fauré
Pavane
Phibbs
Lumina [BBC commission: world premiere]
Catalani
La Wally – Ebben? Ne andrò lontana
Gounod
Faust – O Dieu! Que de bijoux! (Jewel Song)
Leoncavallo
Pagliacci – Stridono lassù
Vaughan Williams
The Wasps – Overture
Borodin
Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
Massenet
Thaïs – Méditation
Bizet
Carmen – L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera)
G Grigoriu
Valurile Dunării – Muzica
Elgar
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Wood & Grainger (arr. John Wilson)
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
Parry orch. Elgar
Jerusalem

Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 13 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

And so to the Last Night – the 109th, as Leonard Slatkin mentioned in his speech. Looking ahead, next year’s Proms start on Friday 16 July and the first concert will feature the newly restored organ. My plea is for Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony and then Henry Wood’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Slatkin, as an encore to his potpourri of Picture orchestrations with the Philharmonia Orchestra a few years back, conducted Henry Wood’s version of ’Great Gate of Kiev’, with organ prominent, and there could be no more fitting opening to a BBC Henry Wood Promenade season. I hope Nick Kenyon and his team agree!

But I run, excitedly, ahead of myself. The Last Night of the Proms means the end of a series of 73 concerts (Slatkin referred to “85”, which includes the eight Chamber Music Proms and the four Proms in the Park – Hyde Park, Belfast, Swansea and Glasgow – although that still leaves out the CBBC Prom-in-the-Park on the following day and the four Composer Portraits). It has been a great season. It looked good on paper, and it turned out better in reality. I did 46 concerts (plus three chamber music proms) and – as usual – attended the Last Night as a party, not as a one-off concert which gives completely the wrong idea about what the Proms now is. I still wish that the bitty nature of the Last Night was kept solely to the second half, and hope that in future years one major work can be placed in the first half. The ideal work this year would have been Berlioz’s Symphonie funèbre et triomphale. It’s not done often and would have been a great sing for the BBC Chorus and Singers, and ends with a barnstorming over-the-top celebration that would be entirely fitting for the occasion.

Not that Berlioz was forgotten – the Roman Carnival Overture fizzed and popped as well as calmed down into the most lyrical reaches under Leonard Slatkin’s nimble and observant direction. But none of the other anniversaries were given even a cursory glance. The assembled choirs were required only to sing nonsense; the words to Fauré’s choral version of the admittedly delectable Pavane really make no sense at all (“Pay attention!/Keep the beat!/(Oh, mortal insult)/The rhythm is not so slow!/And the cadence more certain/We’ll take them down a peg or two!/We’ll soon be their footmen!”). And those to the Polovtsian Dances are limited variations on the “Praise Khan” theme, of little poetic or lasting value. Shame.

Mind you we did have proper words, from Angela Gheorghiu who delighted her fans with choice bits of La Wally, Faust and Pagliacci in the first half, before changing into a turquoise number for sultry Carmen (the choirs got there teeth into something a bit more meaningful here) and a Romanian song in praise of Music. Intriguingly, Piers Burton-Page in his programme note took both Gheorghiu’s record company (EMI) and the Proms prospectus to task for getting the composer wrong. It is, he told us, by George Grigoriu (1927–1999) NOT near-namesake Teodor Grigoriu (born 1926). Teodor has written a film score for a movie called Valurile Dunării! Completely different in plot (the film is about anti-Nazi partisans in the Second World War), the operetta tells the life of Romanian bandmaster Iosif Ivanovici (we just missed the centenary of his death – it was last year), who wrote a waltz called Valurile Dunării. Is that clear?

Certainly the sentiments of that song – the power of music – was echoed by Slatkin in his brief speech, interrupted by a mobile phone call (purportedly from Mr Kenyon) which reinforced the point that such devices can be disruptive. “But we’re not playing The Rite of Spring tonight” Slatkin mock-pleaded – the reference to the interruption at the start of the Berlin Philharmonic/Rattle performance (presumably lost to most of the audience both in the hall and in the various parks).

The message may even be getting through, as the audience seemed on far better behaviour than even the most recent years. The parrot-flying boor who always sets up his stall in the centre of the Arena (if they’d kept the fountain for the last night, he would drown!), was more restrained with his hooter this year. After both times we sang “Land of Hope and Glory” the march’s coda was clearly audible to the final chord before cheers took over. Only in the Sailor’s Hornpipe – Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, like last year, adapted to include Welsh, Scottish and Irish tunes which were sung in special vocal arrangements by Stephen Jackson in their principalities – did the clapping and hooting completely obliterate the music, and there was a wholly inappropriate burst of laughter at the beginning of Susan Monks’s cello solo in “Tom Bowling”.

The other soloist was American violinist Leila Josefowicz, who beguiled us (like Gheorghiu, in two different dresses) in Saint-Saëns’s Introduction et Rondo capriccioso (deep orange dress, matching the gypsy rondo theme) and Massenet’s Méditation (pastel beige sleeveless number). I wish she’d had something more substantial to play. I should have said about Gheorghiu that operatic arias out of context leave me stone cold. She has a great voice, but for me that is simply not enough – and why do audiences greet singers with so much more abandon than instrumentalists? Given that four of the items had appeared in a last night over the last 14 years, surely a wider repertoire can be found…

To end was the usual sing-a-long, where once again blind ignorance and the inability of people to read meant that Rule Britannia’s chorus was wrong. It is not “Rule Britannia, Britannia ruleS the waves” but an exhortation “Britannia rule the waves!” – nor is it “Britons never, never shall be slaves” but rather “never WILL be slaves”. For many the ’tradition’ is outdated. I have no problem with said tradition, but I do have a problem with people getting it wrong! If only Slatkin was able to tell the perpetrators off and get them to do it properly (as he almost succeeded doing with the Sailor’s Hornpipe).

Gheorghiu appeared again for the National Anthem (arranged Henry Wood) and then – although originally billed in the Prospectus but not in the evening’s programme book – the now-usual a cappella version of “Auld Lang Syne” was begun in the Arena.

I have left two performances to the end; Vaughan Williams’s The Wasps, which opened the second half – Slatkin having to remove an inflated shark from his music stand, with the comment, “it’s The Wasps not Jaws!” This wonderful work is a relative rarity and it was great to hear it from Slatkin, a passionate advocate of British music. Joseph Phibbs’s Lumina, receiving its world première, was also wonderfully evocative, the inspiration being “light on landscape” he discovered in various parts of New York State while studying there – moving from the wide open landscapes of upstate to the scintillating reflection from the New York city skyline – were all clear in this brilliant score, expertly played. It occurred to me that, with 50 American States, Phibbs might go on to create a series of “Lumini” – one for each, assuming the light strikes him differently. Great reception it got too – thoroughly deserved.

Prom 72 – The Shadow of Night

Birtwistle
The Shadow of Night [UK premiere]
Beethoven
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Diana Damrau (soprano)
Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It’s good to see that even a Proms era of continued and varied change can still accommodate the once mandatory Beethoven Nine on the penultimate night. Even better that the first half can consist of a major recent work by a leading British composer.

Premiered in January last year by the Cleveland Orchestra under tonight’s conductor, The Shadow of Night is the latest in a sequence of substantial orchestral works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle – stretching back at least 30 years to The Triumph of Time and even further to Chorales from 1963. At 25 minutes, and scored for an orchestra in which higher timbres seem almost to escape from the predominantly bass-orientated sonorities, the feel of The Shadow of Night is demonstrably closer to ’Triumph’ than any of the later pieces, albeit with a richness and subtlety of orchestration that Birtwistle has seldom before approached. Powerful and distinctive though his scoring has long been, only latterly can his handling of the orchestra be said to have assumed a confidence bordering on intuition.

Formally, the work proceeds from its genesis in a three-note motif derived from Dowland’s ’In darkness let me dwell’ to a series of plateaux which – first rising in, then sustaining the accumulated intensity – conveys the sense of an ongoing processional, albeit one more abstractly motivated than the famous Breughel-inspired sequence in ’Triumph’. Dürer’s engraving ’Melencolia I’ has been cited as an inspiration – indeed the registral stratification which takes flight in the later stages, only to be held in check by the implacable motion of the lower registers, conveys a tangible attempt to break free from the prevailing sombreness. The outcome, as usual with Birtwistle, is not of matters left unresolved, but rather left undisturbed by the nature of events heard over the course of the piece.

Having championed Birtwistle’s pieces on several occasions with the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi has a rare feel for and understanding of how the music works – something readily conveyed in this expertly prepared performance, which unfolded as the single, arching span surely intended by the composer. The ample acoustic gave space to the terraced interplay of wind and strings, if inevitably robbing the music of some of its immediacy. Certainly a performance at the Royal Festival Hall or Barbican – perhaps for Birtwistle’s 70th birthday next year – would make a welcome comparison.

How to characterise the Choral? The opening movement, powerfully but not ponderously launched, maintained a viable balance between lucidity and intensity, though the cross-rhythmic energy of the development went for comparatively little – leading to a reprise which was superbly articulated if underwhelming. The Scherzo was too streamlined for its bracing humour fully to register, although Dohnányi found an attractive Arcadian luminosity in the Trio. If lacking the inner profundity that others have brought to it, the intertwining themes of the ’Adagio’ rose to a nobly conceived apex – and with the treacherous horn writing securely delivered.

The ’terror fanfare’ opening the finale was disappointingly tepid, but the performance regained conviction in a flowing presentation of the ’Ode to Joy’ theme, Dohnányi steering a safe course through the intricacies of Beethoven’s variational structure. Alastair Miles was the pick of a solo quartet well matched in vocal quality and character, and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir beefed-up the Philharmonia Chorus, which may well have performed the Choral more than any other comparable organisation.

So, a penultimate night well contrasted in content and soundly delivered by all concerned. For this reviewer, the Proms season ended, if not in revelation, then with a high degree of satisfaction.

Prom 71 – Zurich Tonhalle

Strauss
Don Juan, Op.20
Elgar
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich
David Zinman


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

As this year’s Proms season approaching its finale it seems as if some of the best wine had been kept for last. The Zurich Tonhalle is Switzerland’s oldest orchestra. Founded in 1868, it plays in what is acoustically one of the world’s great concert halls, a modest-sized gem, which I urge readers to visit. Among its great guest-conductors have been Furtwängler, Klemperer, Ansermet and Kubelik; and more recently, Sanderling, Brüggen, Haitink and Sawallisch. David Zinman has been at the helm since 1995 and has recently extended his contract until 2007. The Zurich Tonhalle may not be in the orchestral super-league but the benefits to an orchestra of working regularly in a great hall with major conductors over an extended period were on display at this Prom.

For most of the packed audience, one suspects that the Elgar concerto with Yo-Yo Ma was the main draw. However, all three courses were almost equally good (and this is not to forget two encores – one from Ma and a further one from the orchestra).

Don Juan was crisp, classical, understated maybe. Zinman’s interpretation played to the orchestra’s strengths of internal balance and integration, and effectively minimised any slight lack of depth in the string sound. Much care had been lavished on detail. One noticed, in particular, the unusually careful preparation of the music’s joins – for example, the cellos and basses leading into the famous oboe theme, which was beautifully played. The initial reserve paid off as we approached the climax, the screw effectively tightening and the whole moving up a gear to the great horn call. Strauss was a great Mozart conductor, greatly preferring understatement and classical poise in the conducting of his own music; one can imagine him approving thoroughly of Zinman’s clear, unfussy and supremely professional view.

Yo-Yo Ma strode on to a massive ovation and launched into the Elgar almost before one had time to draw breath. This most quintessential Elgar played by a French-born Chinese cellist domiciled in America accompanied by Switzerland’s oldest orchestra conducted by an American protege of Monteux! Why not? It was Hans Richter and Richard Strauss (Germans) who were among the first to recognise Elgar’s genius – and this year in London we have been treated to a resoundingly fine performance of the Violin Concerto from Midori (Japanese) conducted by Mehta (Indian). It is a cause for rejoicing that Elgar now belongs to the world, not just the English (I write as a Scot). A generation ago there was a recognisable Elgar tradition amongst English orchestras, and there were things that even a less than great British band would do instinctively when playing Elgar which no Continental or American orchestra could quite replicate. No longer, one suspects, given the internationalisation of orchestral life.

Yo-Yo Ma may not command the grandest of cello sounds and is sometimes accused of blandness. However, he clearly loves the simple act of making music “with other musicians” and the really remarkable thing about this performance was the self-evident level of interplay with orchestra and conductor, which one encounters all too rarely. This was emphatically not just about a soloist who happened to have a good conductor as accompanist. It went deeper than that with the orchestra’s complete absorption in its task ensuring a performance that had the quality of the very best chamber music.

Ma’s fined-down gossamer sound was turned to particular advantage not just in the Scherzo, despatched with the wistful nonchalant verve expected, but also in the opening movement where the subdued dynamic levels and lack of heroics allowed for details one has never heard before. The emotional heart of the concerto is the dreamlike ’Adagio’. Like a great actor Ma held us in the palm of his hand, compelling several thousand people to hold their collective breath. Was it art concealing art, an illusion without substance? I don’t know, but it worked. For once the finale seemed all of a piece with what had gone before, its slightly understated march somehow sounding less jingoistic than usual and leading back more naturally to the soloist’s final reverie. This was wholly remarkable as an exploration of the work’s special interior world.

Pictures at an Exhibition was equally remarkable and revelatory in a wholly different sense. We have become so used to Pictures being treated as an orchestral showpiece that we tend to underestimate its essential seriousness. Mussorgsky’s piano original was, after all, written in only three weeks under intense emotion as a monument, an elegy, for his dead friend, the artist and architect, Viktor Hartmann. So it came as a welcome shock to hear the music treated as the great piece it undoubtedly is – on this occasion the linking ’Promenades’ were just as important as the ’Pictures’ themselves. Intense care was lavished on each, demonstrating how different one is from the next, and mirroring (as they do) the emotions generated by having viewed the previous picture.

This was a leisurely visit to the gallery, nothing rushed, not even in the faster pieces, everything fully enunciated and characterised. The quality of orchestral playing was for the most part resplendent – maybe the tuba had a little difficulty in keeping up in his solo in ’Bydlo’, but even that had a musical point as the player reached for the ultimate in tuba crescendos; it is worth noting that first horn is of exceptional quality.

The four final pictures led inexorably one to another, building up as a single sweeping tableau, including a ’Catacombs’ of astounding resonant focus, and a ’Great Gate of Kiev’ which was allowed the most unforced culmination capped by a spectacularly large bell. It takes a very good conductor indeed, one with real patience and maturity, to generate this kind of momentum.

Of the two encores, Yo-Yo Ma played the ’Sarabande’ from Bach’s C minor Suite (BWV1011) as if mesmerised; to close we were treated to a deliciously airborne Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 – more Elgar. When the big tune returned in all its glory, Zinman half-turned to conduct the demob-happy Prommers.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Saturday 13 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

Prom 69 – In G

Prokofiev
The Tale of the Stone Flower, Op.118 [selections]
Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Mahler
Symphony No.4

Christian Blackshaw (piano)

Rebecca Evans (soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Whether it was the combination of Beethoven and Mahler or the fact that Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic are currently hot news, there was an absolutely full house.

The programme opened promisingly with three excerpts from Prokofiev’s final ballet, The Stone Flower, which was continuing to occupy him at the time of his death. (By a most ironic coincidence, Prokofiev died in Moscow on the same day in 1953 as his nemesis, Stalin. Friends carried the composer’s body six blocks because no cars were available in the moment of panic that followed Stalin’s death.) By comparison with Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella, The Stone Flower is hardly known. However, Noseda and the orchestra have recently recorded it (for Chandos) and on the evidence of this taster, it should be well worth hearing, the three excerpts here being played with verve and precision, the orchestra straining enthusiastically at the leash but also where appropriate playing with sensitivity. The first oboe in particular contributed seductively to the central Gypsy Dance.

By another of those curious coincidences, Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto featured at the Proms on ’9/11’ two years ago. Almost to the day, Christian Blackshaw and a reduced orchestra gave it with chamber-music delicacy. Blackshaw was a Curzon pupil – indeed he gave a recital dedicated to Curzon’s memory at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last September – and some of Curzon’s own qualities were apparent here. Blackshaw’s playing was at once poetic and understated with care for the quality of sound produced. He has never quite made it into the upper echelon – perhaps his interpretations are a little too self-effacing and pliant – yet his musicianship is thorough and non-interventionist, rather like being with a friend who does not need to raise his voice in order to make a point.

The concerto’s slow movement was particularly successful, Noseda obtaining a weight and attack from the strings which had been lacking in the first movement, as well as playing of hushed intensity at the close; the Finale was playful and non-pressured.

Two criticisms relating to the orchestral sound. Although it may have come across more satisfactorily on the broadcast, it is dangerous to reduce the string band too far in a hall the size of the Albert Hall – there were problems of balance with the brass and wind. Secondly, the trumpets and horns were physically separated from each other – some twenty feet apart – and led to poor ensemble.

Mahler Four may be the World viewed from a child’s perspective – if so, he or she was a very sophisticated child, one with a wicked sense of humour in setting interpretative snares for the unwary conductor, especially in the first movement. Rattle, Elder and now Noseda, to name only the last three conductors I’ve heard in this piece, have all fallen into the twin traps which lurk behind this movement’s seemingly innocent exterior. In the first place they have failed to establish a clear base speed (what Mahler terms Tempo 1) to which to return after the music’s various digressions. In the second, they all misread Mahler’s copious instructions delineating the ’character’ of the music – Frisch (Fresh), Breit gesungen (Broadly sung) – as if they were tempo markings. The dangers become clear when there are twelve such markings in the first 60 bars alone. Without a recognisable base tempo, the music is pulled hither and thither and exists from moment to moment. So it was here. Nothing hung together. There was also some notably insensitive horns – are conductors now so ’New Age’ as to be afraid to quell over-enthusiastic brass?

That said, the two middle movements fared very much better, the ’Death’s Ländler’ second rightly taken “without haste”. The sublime slow movement flowed and was tenderly played, with some especially sensitive oboe phrasing, again, from Jennifer Galloway. The increases and decreases of speed of this movement are all marked ’subito’ (sudden) – and work even better if the gear change is absolutely abrupt, yet both movements spun their magic.

Normally the ’Child’s Vision of Heaven’ finale follows on immediately – it cries out to be played attacca, especially given the Prommers’ propensity to applaud between every movement; here we had a long pause, which dissipated the atmosphere. Soloist and orchestra seemed oddly out of sorts and might have been performing different music, so little did their concept of the piece appear to overlap. Rebecca Evans’s voice is not inappropriate but synchronisation between her and the orchestra was frequently tenuous; one was reminded of Beecham’s bon mot “Do remember to stay in touch”.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday 12 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

Prom 70 – Sacred and Profane

Bach
Cantata 170 – Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust
Rameau
L’Apothéose de la Danse [UK première of an orchestral suite compiled by Marc Minkowski]
Handel
Ariodante – Scherza infida; Dopo notte

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)

Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble
Marc Minkowski


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 10 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After the horrendous over-run of the percussion late-nighter two evenings earlier when the last piece didn’t start until 11.50 – twenty minutes after the concert was meant to have ended! – this season’s final ’late’ concert was back to the Baroque. If it was not as packed as for Dido and Aeneas, there was still a substantial audience, which would be the envy of all other concert halls.

Although none of the performers were newcomers to the Proms there is still rarity value in Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble and Marc Minkowski on these shores.In massed ranks – over 40 players – there was no problem with the sound being too small for the hall, as the programme moved from the sacred to the profane; from one of Bach’s solo cantatas written soon after he had arrived in Leipzig via Minkowski’s new edition of dances by Rameau (from no less than nine of his stage works – ballets or lyrical tragedies – and a harpsichord piece) to two arias from Handel’s Ariodante, which Anne Sofie von Otter has recorded with Minkowski.

In my general antipathy towards Bach (the fawning adulation that ’one-emotional level’ Bach receives constantly amazes me: rapt and spiritual he certainly is, and in the godless 21st-century I understand why people delight in that quality in his music – far better that than the blatant insincerity of a John Tavener, for example – but life is more than one emotion … give me Handel or Scarlatti any day!), I found the cantata, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (Contented rest, beloved inner joy) rather dull.Beautiful oboe d’amore playing from Patrick Beaugiraud, and later flautist Kate Clark, spotlit at the front of the ensemble, aside, there was a sense of dutifulness in this performance, with Anne Sofie von Otter’s runs in the first recitative oddly angular.

Things, however, got better quickly in Minkowski’s own suite of dances from Rameau’s catalogue, entitled L’Apothéose de la Danse (do you think anyone – Minkowski himself, perhaps – will programme this extended suite, about 40 minutes, with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, termed by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance”?).

Minkowski’s suite amasses thirteen pieces from ten works: from the opening Overture to Zäis, via Les fêtes d’Hébé, Dardanus, Le temple de la Gloire, Les Boréades (by contract having to state its copyright to Allain Villain, Editions Stil, Paris – see my review of Christie’s Les Boréades at the Barbican Hall for more on the utterly disgraceful nature of the publishers of this work), La naissance d’Osiris, Platée, La Poule (an orchestration of Rameau’s harpsichord piece The Hen), Hippolyte et Aricie and Les Indes galantes.Like a Mozart serenade, this suite beguiled the ears with constant invention.

However, the show-stealer was Handel.Anne Sofie von Otter, changed from all black to white trousers and a burnished bronze jacket, came back to sing two arias from Ariodante with a completely changed countenance.This was wonderful singing, of wonderful music: two contrasting arias, extraordinarily, the first arias from Ariodante ever to be heard at the Proms.The heart-breaking ’Scherza infida’ – in effect Ariodante’s suicide aria, having been tricked into believing his beloved has been two-timing him – was followed by ’Dopo notte’, towards the resolution of the story (somewhat perversely set in Scotland!) with Ariodante’s hopes lifted, realising the traumas he has gone through, but that the future is bright.Sheer heaven!While no broadcast radio repeat has been scheduled, the performance is available until Wednesday 17 September to listen to via the Proms Online facility.

Prom 68 – Israel Phil

Stravinsky
Symphony in three movements
Rimsky-Korsakov
Scheherazade, Op.35Stravinsky
Petrushka [1947 version]

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Zubin Mehta started the symphony while a discourteous name-badge outfit was still finding seats. Once positioned, there were further distractions while they settled – this lot then appeared disinterested in the concert. (No way for the rest of us to appreciate one of last century’s masterpieces. This irritating pack then delayed the start of the second half with another exhibition of bad manners.) They could have arrived earlier from the reception. They and a few more, even later stragglers should have been refused entry. Those redcoat stewards, some rather brusque, are at great pains to tell audience members to have their tickets available for regaining access after the interval – but seem indifferent to baggage left unattended while said interval is underway (if I’d left a suspect package somewhere, I wouldn’t be going back…). This was, after all, the Israel Philharmonic. What was a nerve-tinged concert anyway was edged higher.

This Prom was the most rewarding (so far) of those featuring foreign orchestras; it wasn’t over-hyped, spun, fawned over or contentiously commented on (and that’s just Radio 3!). While neither the Berlin nor Pittsburgh visits were quite the wholly memorable events they might have been, this Israeli outing proved engrossing and musically memorable.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in three movements has long been a Mehta speciality (like everything in this concert he conducted it from memory). One could, perhaps, suggest this rendition as being too self-contained, the wartime film footage and a flirtation with Hollywood, which seem to be a part of the work’s genesis, here absorbed into an interpretation of musical absoluteness – immaculately balanced, rhythmically buoyant and translucently sounded. (A shame that a ringing mobile was the unwanted third voice as harp and piano got it together in the finale.)

One of Mehta’s strengths is his ear for fine-line equality of timbre. Another is his lucid conducting technique; so good that he has been charged with being a showman, yet his method is aimed at the orchestra. His left-hand can sometimes be satisfyingly immobile, the baton does the work; and the Israel Phil is very much on the beat. (Mehta is its Music Director for life.) One or two tentative solos aside, Scheherazade (played after the symphony to make a long first half) was wonderfully done, Mehta focussing on musical description – no distortion, garishness or crudity. Avoiding Gergiev’s aberrations (and Stokowski’s emendations), Mehta’s subtle, fantasy-threaded version was a tonic; he was as alive to time-signature changes in the last movement as he was to clarity of balance and delicacy of nuance. The listener was allowed room to view.

Petrushka, in its instrumentally slimmed-down 1947 revision, enjoyed vivid characterisation and a rightful sense of burlesque; as in Scheherazade, nothing was exaggerated. Solo winds were very characterful, especially in the ’human’ inner tableaux, and Mehta didn’t pull the strings too strongly elsewhere; the differentiation of instrumental response was as painstaking as it was ear-tweaking.

A stylish Act One Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was played as an encore (not that Radio 3 listeners will know that!) to round-off a concert linked by the master and pupil relationship of Rimsky and young Igor – one of this Prom season’s highlights. Checking Ceefax on arriving home, there was news that two suicide bombers had hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; 15 dead. One wishes the Israel Phil a safe journey to Italy and Poland – and at home.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday 11 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

Proms Chamber Music No.8 (8 September) – “Bully for Berlioz!”

Berlioz (arr.)
La mort d’Orphée – Monologue and Larghetto
Roméo et Juliette – Strophe and Balcony Scene (Scène d’amour)
La Damnation de Faust – Recitative, La Roi de Thule, Will-o-the-Wisp (Menuet des follets) & Romance de Marguerite

Ensemble Carpe Diem

Françoise Masset (soprano)
Catherine Montier (violin)
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Emmanuelle Bertrand (cello)
Jérôme Bertrand (double bass)
Adeline de Preissac (harp)
Marine Perez (flute)
Jean-Pierre Arnaud (oboe)
Philippe Bréas (horn)


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 September, 2003
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

It was a couple of days of Proms curiosities: first, the Vienna Philharmonic sang its collective way through Rossini, courtesy Bobby McFerrin, and then, at this lunchtime chamber concert, there was bargain-basement Berlioz, cut down to an octet (at the most) by the oboist and arranger of the French group Ensemble Carpe Diem, Jean-Pierre Arnaud.

While I may not go as far as an overheard comment that Arnaud is a much better arranger than he is an oboist (his tone is typically nasal, in the French manner), there is no doubt that his skilful filleting of Berlioz’s extraordinary orchestrations are masterpieces of subtlety, and incredibly faithful to Berlioz’s soundworld.They can be easily held alongside Schoenberg’s reduction of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

The programme filled in some gaps not covered in Berlioz’s bicentenary year by the main Proms season up the road.So we had excerpts from two large works, Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust prefaced by a taste of one of the works that failed to win Berlioz the Prix de Rome in 1827, La Mort d’Orphée, described as “unplayable’ by the judges”.It also neatly tied into the Greek mythology theme, and was illustrated by Raoul Dufy’s Cortège d’Orphée on the cards advertising the concert (as usual, part of the V & A’s collection).It tells of how Orpheus’s head was ripped from his body by a group of wild women.Nothing of the wildness was betrayed in the excerpts here, indeed the most pertinent sonority was the harp, for Orpheus’s lyre (Berlioz was not a pianist but a guitarist, which may explain why so much of his music seems determinedly non-Germanic and why no piano is needed in these reductions, the harp a perfect alternative), as soprano Françoise Masset took Orhpeus’s part in standing against the wild bacchantes and praying that his lyre-playing would astonish the world.The short Larghetto was of refined mourning.

The Strophe from Roméo et Juliette is pared down in orchestration in the original score, but here further still, yet missing nothing of Berlioz’s summary of the tale (including actually mentioning Shakespeare’s name) as taken by Masset, while most successful was the purely instrumental Scene d’amour which even dispensed with the harp to weave its magic.The Lecture Theatre’s acoustic filled out the body of sound from the seven players (whereas Masset’s voice in the vocal pieces was just too large for the space) and Berlioz’s melodic invention was allowed full reign.

Catherine Montier swapped her violin for a viola for the dark-hued first excerpt from La Damnation of Faust, Marguerite’s first recitative, dreaming of Faust, and then the haunting tale of The King of Thule, before Arnaud introduced the Will-o-the-Wisp episode in accented English (violist Antoine Tamestit had introduced R & J similarly; depriving – so the concert’s presenter Christopher Cook informed us, disappointedly – Cook himself actually joining in, which had been mooted earlier).This pleasing, fleet-footed interlude led to the final item, Marguerite’s Romance, aching at the loss of Faust.

Given that Arnaud is following in a tradition that dates from long before Liszt made a piano arrangement of Symphonie fantastique, it is good to see this art alive and well.Certainly Berlioz’s unique music can withstand it and even if nowadays we no longer need such transcriptions to actually hear the music (the 20th-century’s onslaught of recording media has put paid to that), these arrangements are certainly very pleasurable in their own right.

An unusual, but intriguing end to this year’s Proms Chamber Music, and one worth catching again on its repeat broadcast.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Sunday 14 September at 1 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

Prom 67 – Tongues of Fire

Xenakis
Nuits
Idmen A & B [UK premiere]
Cage
Third Construction
Wood
Tongues of Fire [World premiere]

New London Chamber Choir
Amadinda Percussion Group
James Wood


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Provocation galore in this lengthy late-night Prom, opening with two contrasting choral works by Xenakis. Nuits (1968) is protest music raised onto an altogether higher plane by the visceral nature of its abstraction. Few recognisable vowel sounds, let alone words, emerge during its mesmeric 10-minute interplay of voices. It should have set the scene perfectly for the complete rendition of Idmen (1985) that followed. Instead, this substantial (28-minute) alternation of two three-part cycles – for chorus and marimbas, and six percussionists respectively – proved something of a disappointment.

The text, from Hesiod’s treatment of the Creation myth in Theogony, makes subversive reading even today. Xenakis’s approach is not a setting as such, but a dissection of the text so that its emotive force is conveyed by the physical qualities of the vocal writing. Yet the result – at least on this occasion – felt contrived and not a touch distended (despite the audience contributions engagingly rehearsed and expertly cued by assistant chorus-master David Lawrence), while the percussion sections seemed to go-over ground covered in the composer’s earlier percussion works, without bringing new elements into the equation. The sense of fatigue, often encountered in the music of Xenakis’s last decade, was perhaps present here too.

Tiredness of any variety has no part to play in John Cage’s Third Construction (1941), an interplay of polyrhythmic textures that is anything but ’minimalist’ in its lack of inhibition and range of timbral nuance. A work that can be rendered either as chamber music, or as a four-person percussion orchestra – which option the Amadinda Percussion Group (following in the footsteps of such pioneers as Les Percussions de Strasbourg) pursued with relish.

Having directed Xenakis with his customary thoughtfulness and zeal, James Wood then presented the world premiere of one of his own works. Composed in 2001 to mark the 140th anniversary of the Yale Glee Club, Tongues of Fire proved an eventful, multi-lingual treatment of the story of Pentecost – amalgamating vocal idioms with a dizzying impact at times bordering on overkill. The mellifluous sound of oil drums is central to the percussion writing, which latter ranges from all-out barrages in the second and fourth sections to the gentle murmur underpinning the setting of Hildegard of Bingen in the third part. Why the Yale premiere was postponed is unclear, but the loss to New Yorkers of such an intricate yet immediate work – trans-cultural fusion as it should be but so rarely is – was the Proms’ gain. The performance seemed formidably well prepared: not for the first time, the New London Chamber Choir deserves a collective medal for its services to new music.

Prom 66 – Stunning Shostakovich

Prokofiev
Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat
Shostakovich
Symphony No.7 in C (Leningrad)

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It is one of those facts of life that so busy is the Proms schedule that not all the regional orchestras can fit in every year. Thus the Hallé were back this year, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which visited last year, have been absent this.Also missing last year, the RSNO made a welcome return with principal conductor Alexander Lazarev, intended as a 300th-birthday salute to St Petersburg and featuring Shostakovich’s epic Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, written under appalling conditions, while the city was under Hitler’s siege.

With the RSNO, in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Lazarev, actually Moscow-born, conducted a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s symphonies over a couple of seasons to tie in with the 25th-anniversary of the composer’s death (as this last season he conducted a Prokofiev symphony cycle). It is good to have a sample of that momentous undertaking – from this thrilling, spontaneous and dynamically wide-ranging performance Scotland must have enjoyed some of the highest-voltage performances.

This is music that means something; whichever of the various programmatic suggestions you favour (the ’official’ anti-Nazi line or the hidden meaning of the enemy being Stalin, etc).Lazarev conducted for all it was worth, positively bouncing at the end, the adrenaline still pumping so he couldn’t keep still, applauding his orchestra and the audience alike.He held an iron grip on the architecture so that, for once, the second, third and fourth movements seemed part of a well-argued whole; often the first movement occludes all memory of the rest.

The wartime advance signalled in the massive central section of that first movement, started at the very edge of audibility.I’m not sure I have ever heard such quiet music in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, and all credit to a mercifully controlled audience that, for the most part, held their nerve, coughs, sneezes, phones, watches and rustling plastic bags to allow this passage, at least, to pass without interruption. From these quietest of beginnings, and supremely steady side-drum players, Lazarev inexorably built a shattering climax, utterly overwhelming and utterly moving.

Curious that the other side-drum-led crescendo, Ravel’s Boléro, was featured the day before – the RSNO knocked spots off the Vienna Philharmonic in total dedication. The second movement offered some welcome light relief, before the slow turn of the tension-screw started again, building – ultimately – to the final climax, for which, somehow, Lazarev and his orchestra had kept some stamina back. No wonder the packed Arena and very full hall went wild.

Earlier, Nikolai Lugansky had been the cool, calm and collected soloist in Prokofiev’s enfant terrible announcement to the world, his First Piano Concerto. Much shorter in total than the first movement of Brahms’s First Concerto, this whizzed by in brilliant colour and fervent virtuosity, but was knocked for six by the Shostakovich.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday 10 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

Prom 64 – Much (Viennese Vocal) Ado About Nothing

Prokofiev
Symphony No.1 in D (Classical)
Mozart
Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Vivaldi (arr. McFerrin)
Concerto in G minor for two cellos, RV531
Dukas
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Ravel
Boléro

Tamás Várga (cello)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bobby McFerrin (vocalist)


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 7 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A curiosity on paper perhaps not surprisingly turned out to be a curiosity in concert. Admittedly one in which the packed hall screamed and shouted for more and, even after the orchestra had left the stage, were rewarded with one last Bobby McFerrin vocalisation. For me it only proved the point that ’less is more’ and the sight of a conductor alone on stage should be reserved only for the most extraordinary events. I have only seen it with Karajan, Ozawa and Abbado.McFerrin is simply not in their league.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the performances here were very routine. McFerrin (who outdoes Jerzy Maksymiuk’s habit of piercing his hair with his baton as he conducts by actually storing his baton in his dreadlocks as he wanders on and off the stage) conducted without reading the scores, presumably because having it would have little effect in bringing some spark of individuality to the performance. In the blurb about him in the programme it stressed his dislike of ’performance’, in that everything should be done naturally, but here the interpretative ideas went no further than getting from A to B – there was no spontaneity in the music. Mind you, given that the Vienna Philharmonic was at his feet, the performances were never less than stylish, but I’m afraid I demand much more from an orchestra that can rightly (if arguably) claim to be the greatest in the world.

Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony was streamlined in a luxurious sort-of-way, with a full complement of strings, which negates the composer’s ruse of dragging Haydn into the 20th-century. In the Mozart (played immediately after the Prokofiev and before the Vivaldi – “We’ve inverted the next two pieces,” McFerrin explained), McFerrin reduced the forces to what we have come to expect for a classical-size band: so few strings in fact that an abnormally large gap appeared between the strings and the woodwind and four horns. You expect nice Mozart from this orchestra, and we got better than nice, but again simply not distinctive.

The Vivaldi was distinctive but only in the most bizarre way. Young co-leader of the cellists Tamás Várga took his place at the front, with McFerrin sat next to him, microphone in both hands, fingering it as if a wind instrument. Let’s be completely clear about this, the idea of one part being sung and the other retained on the original instrument simply doesn’t work. The timbres of voice and instrument are so different, and at times certain registers of the voice simply, well, didn’t register – Vivaldi must have been covering his ears to block out this mockery of music-making. Perhaps if another voice had taken the other cello part … NO – I never want to hear this again!

We then got McFerrin doing his vocal improvisation stuff. Four of them: getting progressively more interesting as he started to involve the audience. Perhaps most impressive was the ’Ave Maria’ to end, most of all because of the (presumably) ex-choristers who knew all the words (there were two around me) as an accompaniment to which McFerrin vocalised Bachian arpeggios, sounding remarkably like a small organ.

The second half swelled the orchestra to include a lady bassoonist (not credited) for Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to add to the credited lady second violinist and lady harpist and then (having shed that bassoonist) brought on a lady saxophonist (not credited) for Boléro. Efficient, well-played but anodyne and characterless, these performances will slip quickly from the memory.What I will never forget is the encore. McFerrin came back and led the brass in the rousing fanfare to the final section of the overture to William Tell. So far, routine. But then the orchestra downed their instruments and sang the rest of the piece!

Now I suppose one shouldn’t be that surprised. The Vienna Philharmonic is about the only orchestra I have ever heard sing (the odd Strauss Family item in New Year’s Day concerts). But singing individual parts was both breathtakingly funny and amazing. Regrettably the final solo improvisation, best left, which McFerrin made from the empty stage could never have topped the audacity of what had immediately gone before.

The VPO is back in town on 17 December at the Royal Festival Hall. Assuming Mariss Jansons hasn’t taken up singing, the programme promises some straight orchestral fare: Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas, Schumann 2 in C and Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Perhaps then the orchestra can shine as the lustrous ensemble it truly is.

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