Year: 2004

The Last Night of the Proms

Dvořák
Carnival – Overture, Op.92
Strauss
Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.11
Vaughan Williams
Five Mystical Songs
Barber
Toccata festiva
Maxwell Davies
Ojai Festival Overture
Puccini
Madam Butterfly – Humming Chorus
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Oklahoma! – O what a beautiful morning
Porter
Kiss Me, Kate – Where is the life that late I led?
Gilbert & Sullivan
The Mikado – I’ve got a little list
Sousa
Liberty Bell March
Elgar
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (arranged and added to by John Wilson and Stephen Jackson)
Parry orch. Elgar
Jerusalem

“The National Anthem”
“Auld Lang Syne”

Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)

Simon Preston (organ)

David Pyatt (horn)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

And so to the Last Night of the Proms, one of our few remaining national rituals, no longer just a concert, more a media event. Pandering to that peculiarly English love for getting dressed up in outlandish gear and acting silly, the evening now represents an annual moment of madness and a collective letting-down of hair. To some a distasteful demonstration of nationalistic tendencies, to others a harmless musical party, the Last Night is all these things and many more.

Whatever one’s opinion, the very real achievement of Proms 2004 – 86 concerts this year (including the chamber music and composer portraits at the Victoria and Albert Museum) – is to have reached an audience wider than ever before, 250,000 in the Albert Hall itself, and in addition to Radio 3 and the World Service, an increasing number of concerts have been televised; not always in sync though (either as simultaneous broadcasts by Radio and Television or in analogue/digital accord), and there is the rest of the musical year, outside of the Proms, to consider for primetime TV coverage. For the first time, the Last Night was broadcast live on giant screens to the outdoor Berlin Sommerfest.

On this occasion the carefully-crafted programme touched on three recurring themes of this year’s season: “East meets West” (Puccini and Sullivan), “1934 England at the Crossroads” (Elgar died, Peter Maxwell Davies born) and “Back to Bohemia” (Dvořák). We were also treated to a goodly dollop of American music including Sousa’s posthumous theme music for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.

Talking of Python, it looked as if the concert might come a cropper when a visibly pumped-up Leonard Slatkin made a quick initial baton charge through the orchestra, took a flying leap at the podium and very nearly missed it! Dvořák ‘s Carnival Overture made a fizzing opener, one that also touched the heart in its quieter moments, especially Celia Craig’s cor anglais playing.

David Pyatt’s performance of the Strauss was also at its most memorable in its quieter moments where he produced a ravishing variety of tone-colour. The orchestra’s accompaniment, sensitive in the long-breathed slow movement, was distinctly scrappy in the finale.

The highpoint of the entire concert came with Thomas Allen (who turned 60 just the day before the Last Night) and the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus joining the orchestra for Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs to texts by the early-17th-century poet, George Herbert, and first performed at the 1911 Worcester Three Choirs Festival. These settings are too little known and they are infinitely touching, especially the third song, “Love bade me welcome”, an extended meditation on the Eucharist. It takes a great artist like Allen to reduce a boisterous Albert Hall audience to complete silence, but that is just what he did, even between the songs. The combined chorus responded sensitively to Leonard Slatkin in the quieter episodes as well as resoundingly in the joyous concluding Antiphon, “Let all the World in every corner sing”.

Samuel Barber’s Toccata festiva, a substantial work written for the inauguration of the new organ at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1960, here received a fine performance at Simon Preston’s capable hands and feet (the cadenza makes a feature of some natty footwork on the pedals). Yet, while this may have been a wonderful opportunity to hear the restored Royal Albert Hall organ in full flood, musically it seemed distinctly small-beer, certainly just after the wonderful Vaughan Williams.

The second half opened with Peter Maxwell Davies’s Ojai Festival Overture, an engaging piece written for the Ojai (Oh-hi) Festival in Southern California and first performed there by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the composer in 1991. Max was present, clearly in the peak of fitness despite his 70 years; after acknowledging the applause, he ran back to his seat in double-quick time.

The melancholy intensity of the Humming Chorus was all the more effective with so large a choir. Then Thomas Allen (unnecessarily amplified) was once again a delight in the numbers by Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, his comic timing in the latter a joy, as was his little list – replete with references to that well-known judicial humorist, Lord Hutton, and to violinists sporting wet T-shirts.

Before the tiresome or timeless concluding trio of pieces, John Philip Sousa’s Liberty Bell March was given in lively fashion. The Liberty Bell itself is in Philadelphia and was originally cast in London’s Whitechapel Foundry and soon developed an irreparable crack after it arrived in Philadelphia – could this be symbolic for the current state of US/British relations?

Sir Henry Wood’s Sea-Song Fantasia was memorable for a particularly fine cello solo from Susan Monks before being interrupted by the unwelcome inclusion of “All through the Night”, “The Road to the Isles”, “Danny Boy” and the “Rio Grande” – whilst this all maybe politically correct and fine and dandy for the outside audiences in Swansea, Glasgow, Belfast and Manchester, it made for a dragged-out evening in the hall, and completely disrupts Wood’s original arrangement.

This is where the Faustian requirements of television production make a mockery of musical common sense. Also, in order to bring the sequence to its natural rousing conclusion, “Rule Britannia” absolutely demands an imposing figure to be a master of the ceremony – here, rather perversely, choir and audience sang it and the result was decidedly limp. The traditional way should be reinstated in future. Some traditions are best kept.

Heretically, since the Last Night is now a world-wide event, would it not make sense to drop the National Anthem – remember how we all used to dash for cinema exits when it was regularly played – and to conclude the evening with Parry’s setting of Blake’s “Jerusalem”? Many more people actually know the full words to “Jerusalem” – and it’s by far the better tune.

Sadly, this year’s Last Night not only took place on the third anniversary of ‘9/11’ but also marked the end of Leonard Slatkin’s tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Also departing, one of the orchestra’s Leaders, Michael Davis. One looks forward to seeing them both again, many times, somewhere else.

BBC Philharmonic

Dvořák
The Water Goblin, Op.107
Rusalka – Song to the Moon
Puccini
La bohème – Musetta’s Waltz Song
Manon Lescaut – Intermezzo
Bellini
I puritani – Mad Scene
Shostakovich
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Anna Netrebko (soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 10 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The most consistently satisfying performance came at the beginning of the concert. Dvořák’s musical depiction of an Erben ballad brought to vivid life by Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic in a rendition delightful in its buoyancy, touching in its melody and beguiling in its detailing. Noseda shaped, stretched and characterised Dvořák’s material just enough to create a real sense of narrative but avoid melodrama. Excellent playing, committed and focussed, as throughout the evening.

The applause for Dvořák’s was lukewarm, undeserved, while the reception for Anna Netrebko was out of proportion. The Bellini aria was cut – on the spurious grounds that the concert was rather long (albeit no longer than any other ‘long’ Prom) – and which lacked incident, deranged or otherwise, and culminated in a dodgy-sounding high note. Netrebko certainly has a ‘beautiful voice’ and this aspect of the Bellini was satisfied, although her tone is squally above the stave. Her Slavic timbre was most disposed to the Dvořák, voluptuous, the highlight, although she and Noseda didn’t always agree over rubato, and not all her notes were true, and her Puccini, flirtatious in person, lacked musical poise, though there’s no doubting her stage presence, confidence and outreaching singing. Puccini’s orchestral Intermezzo, with fine solo string playing at the beginning, rose passionately.

Applause after the first two movements of the Shostakovich was ruinous (Noseda conjured silence before launching the finale), “bastard audience” was muttered by someone a few seats away – a useful description. Shostakovich was played to an orange-coloured organ console. (Actually the grey tinge used for part of part one was quite attractive. Could that be the standard next year? And surely one colour per concert is enough?) Noseda’s view of this popular (great?) symphony proved very interesting, especially in the first and third movements. The former, unusually long-drawn, was convincing in its control and sustained intensity; the slow movement, a little too throbbing initially, settled into an engrossing interior world with remarkably quite pianissimos, on the threshold of inaudibility, that built to a searing climax notable for Noseda highlighting some clarinet prodding that is usually swamped by the strings.

The scherzo had been a little too manipulated, and the problematical finale, specifically the coda – do you sincerely tow the party line and accept “just criticism” or offer false, robotic rejoicing – found Noseda just too triumphal, too animated, too fast. Mravinsky knew the code here; his disengagement makes the point all too clearly about Shostakovich’s manufacture. Noseda’s ease suggested that the composer had totally capitulated.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Charpentier
Grand office des morts
Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues
Te Deum

Orlanda Velez Isidro & Olga Pitarch (sopranos)
Paul Agnew & Jeffrey Thomson (high tenors)
Topi Lehtipuu & Marc Mauillon (tenors)
João Fernandes & Bertrand Bontoux (basses)

Choir and Orchestra of Les Arts Florissants
William Christie


Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 9 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This year sees the tercentenary of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s death, and London has already been graced with many performances of the French master’s works. Coincidentally, Les Arts Florissants are celebrating its jubilee this year; so it is only fitting that, as one of the final performances at this year’s Proms, we should have some of Charpentier’s most sublime music performed by such illustrious exponents of French Baroque music.

The ‘Grand office des morts’ performed here was a speculative configuration for such a service, comprising the Messe pour les trépassés H2, the Dies irae H12, the Motet pour le trépassés: Plainte des âmes du Purgatoire H311 and the De profundis H156. Two such likely occasions were the funerals of the Duke of Guise and Marguerite de Lorrain, both relatives of Charpentier’s patron at the time, Mademoiselle de Guise.

Tutti, ensemble and solo sections were uniformly excellent, with Charpentier’s characteristic contrasting between string and wind sections being made much of in the intermediary ‘symphonies’ and his use of Air de Cour (secular, ‘courtly’ song) techniques (like the ubiquitous port de voix – roughly equivalent to an appoggiatura or anticipazione della syllaba – or the free melismatic decoration of significant words) highlighted with great taste and skill by the vocalists. High-tenor Paul Agnew perhaps got a little carried away with a vocal delivery that was more suited to the opera house; but it must be remembered that Charpentier was in the habit of using professional singers from the theatre as soloists in his sacred music, particularly for performances of his justly-celebrated Leçons de Ténèbres.The Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues (Mass for many instruments in lieu of an organ) came about through the intercession of Mademoiselle de Guise: a commission for a new organ by the Spanish monks who inhabited a nearby monastery fell through and Charpentier was called upon to write orchestral pieces for masses sung during the week-long festivities that had already been planned to celebrate the expected organ.

This performance consisted of a male choir chanting the ‘Kyrie’, ‘Gloria’ and ‘Sanctus’ off-stage while the orchestra provided the ‘organ’ commentary between verses. The contrast between austere chant and multi-coloured orchestral ‘responses’ was further highlighted by Charpentier’s imitation of organ registration, realised to perfection by Christie’s band – a recorder consort, oboes, a serpent and other instrumental exotica enhanced the strings and fleshed out the score with vivid timbres and myriad rhythmic subtleties.

The grand Te Deum, still Charpentier’s best-known work, was preceded by an amazing March for solo timpani written by Jacques Danican Philidor (1657-1708) and performed with startling virtuosity by Marie-Ange Petit; a wonderful moment ensued when, having finished the March, she immediately began to hammer out the familiar opening rhythm of the Prélude instrumental before being joined by the orchestra. The rest of the performance was equally compelling, with fine young tenor Topi Lehtipuu particularly affecting in the opening of the ‘Te per orbem’ and sopranos Orlanda Velez Isidro and Olga Pitarch models of reflective purity in the ‘Fiat misericordia’. The trilling trumpets capping the work were a knockout.

We were treated to a heavenly encore, the first movement of André Campra’s Requiem – a wonderful way to end a wonderful concert.

Czech Philharmonic

Dvořák
Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Sarah Chang (violin)

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The last major international orchestra to this year’s Proms (Les Arts Florissants and William Christie notwithstanding) was the Czech Philharmonic. It made its first visit 35 years ago, in 1969, when it gave three concerts, and then (from David Harman’s ever-more convoluted ‘past history’ section in the programme) not seemingly again until 1998 when conducting honours were shared between Libor Pešek and Sir Charles Mackerras.

Mackerras was back for an entirely appropriate all-Dvořák programme in this Dvořák’s centenary year. Indeed it took place on Dvořák’s actual birthday (although the centenary is the anniversary of his death). And no Dvořák celebration could be complete without the Czech Philharmonic. What is even more refreshing is that this was a special concert mounted solely for the Proms. With Mackerras rehearsing Martinů’s The Greek Passion at the Royal Opera House (opening 15 September), the Czech Phil flew to London to rehearse too.

And it proved to be a programme full of resonance. The both back- and forward-looking Scherzo capriccioso, full of Smetana-like nationalism as well as heralding Straussian wit and panache, was a great opener, only the 12th time it has been played at the Proms, despite being championed by Sir Henry Wood, and given here with distinctive, authentic timbres.

Sarah Chang in a dress perhaps more suitable for Sarasate’s Carmen transcription (vibrant red, with a black-lace pattern à la flamenco), was a forceful combatant in the much derided if actually always-infectious Violin Concerto (once heard the finale’s theme is never forgotten). With a slow movement of ultimate poise and delicacy, the outer movements were less happily secure, Chang’s boisterous attack not necessarily in accord with the authentic idiom of the orchestral players. What sounded like a car alarm (but which may have been one of the Hall’s exit alarms, as there seemed to be restriction in allowing people outside at the interval) disrupted the textures, but the performers were unabashed.

A mobile phone chirruping Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake waltz was just as incongruous a disruption at the end of the scherzo in the New World Symphony, but nothing could sway the stamp of authority on this music by conductor and players, given a gloriously unsentimental rendition that made real music at every turn, refreshing the score that other performances cannot reach. One feels for this orchestra, in particular, when promoters ask for popular Dvořák. How many times have they played this symphony? And how many times has Mackerras conducted it? And yet it came alive in a deliciously distinctive way, the commitment by every player visible, from the famous cor anglais solo in the Largo to virtuoso triangle-playing in the scherzo.

The Proms has been lucky in its recent New Worlds. Jansons and the LSO gave a vibrant reading a couple of years back and, earlier, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Herbert Blomstedt re-forged the work anew for this pair of jaundiced ears.

To that tally can now be added the Czech Philharmonic and Mackerras. Even though he is perhaps best known for his championing of Janáček (without Mackerras the world would probably not be celebrating the 150th-anniversary of Janáček’s birth this year), Mackerras’s credentials as one of the greatest conductors alive were bolstered by this life-enhancing concert. It was rounded off by a, for once wholly appropriate, Slavonic Dance encore, in C (Op.72/7), for which Mackerras seemed to be conducting from a violin part!

London to Prague: come back soon!

Psappha

Maxwell Davies
Fantasia and a Ground on Two Pavans, after Purcell
Missa super L’homme armé
Linguae ignis
Stravinsky
Ragtime
Renard

Fiona Shaw (actress)

Jennifer Langridge (cello)

Peter Bronder (tenor)
James Oxley (tenor)
Pavel Baransky (baritone)
Maxim Mikhailov (bass)

Psappha
Nicholas Kok


Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 8 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

On the very day of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s 70th-birthday, the Proms offered a celebration with this late-night performance of works from his 1960s’ ‘expressionist’ phase together with a very recent item, delivered by the Manchester-based ensemble Psappha.

Psappha has evolved as a kind of northern successor to the Fires of London, the brilliant and explosive sextet which Maxwell Davies co-founded in the mid-60s (initially as the Pierrot Players) and which was the vehicle for the dazzling series of chamber and music-theatre works which poured out of him over the ensuing 20 years. He disbanded the group in the mid-80s in order to paint on a broader canvas, a characteristic gesture of the almost ruthless clear-sightedness with which he has also more recently ‘shut up shop’ on his symphonic cycle and stage works. Psappha revisited this territory (a new recording of the seminal Eight Songs for a Mad King and its sister work Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot has just been released to inaugurate Psappha’s own label) as well as performing some much more recent work of Davies. Both of these aspects featured in their Proms debut, authoritatively conducted by Nicholas Kok.

The Fantasia and a Ground on Two Pavans, after Purcell opened the concert just as they had begun many a Fires concert. These exquisitely outrageous re-inventions of Purcell typically make a serious, even ‘dark’ point under cover of their highly entertaining surfaces, their stylistic references ranging even beyond the ubiquitous foxtrots to take-in bluegrass. Psappha’s performances were lovingly realised but I missed the brazen flamboyance that is at the heart of this music. The tiny band’s sound was also dissipated in the vast space of the RAH, the harpsichord being virtually inaudible from where I was sitting.

The ‘parody mass’ Missa super L’homme armé (1968) is a work very much out of the same stable as the Purcell realisations. It assembles wild and fantastical excursions and disruptions around the bedrock of an incomplete and anonymous 15th-century Mass setting based on the eponymous popular song, which reappears throughout the work in a variety of guises. At various points, a speaker intones extracts in Latin from Luke 22, here very effectively taken by Fiona Shaw (better known to the world as Harry Potter’s aunt). She first appeared before the performance began clad in monastic garb wandering around the arena perusing her book. Was it a Proms nutter? She slowly became drawn into the work’s explicit drama before a kind of reverse transvestite flourish saw her reveal a glamorous dress from underneath her habit and exit out of the hall screaming the final lines of text.

Truth to tell, this is one of the very few works of Davies’s which time has not been kind to. Even in its 1971 revision (which removed a rare electronic dimension from the original), it has a camp sensibility which feels somewhat marooned in the era it was written and the trajectory of the piece can be confusing unless you are very familiar with it. Again, it was not helped by an accurate if under-characterised performance which seemed altogether too polite, although admittedly I may be suffering from an extreme identification with the almost frightening intensity and sculpted wildness of the Fires of London’s performances.

Psappha brought us right up to date with Linguae ignis (2001-2), a beautifully written and proportioned study for cello and ensemble – a combination that explicitly harks back to the Vesalii Icones of 1969 (whose mock-Victorian hymn was prefigured in the Missa). Plainsong is systematically transformed into another, both of which form the basis of the Mass for Westminster Cathedral written at the same time. The first one, ‘Dum complerentur dies pentecostes’, is stated at the outset by the solo cello in unusually unadorned form. It sets in motion one of those rapt, inwardly reflective adagios that are such a feature of Davies’s music. With transparent compositional technique, this morphs into an allegro which reaches an ‘inverse’ climax in the shape of a quiet meditation by the cello on the second plainsong ‘Veni, creator spiritus’. The drawn-out time perspectives retrospectively make the work seem longer than its 13 minutes, a familiar Davies ‘trick’ that can also be heard in the handbell-drenched coda of the First Tavener Fantasia of 40 years earlier. The solo part was delivered in a beautifully eloquent performance by Jennifer Langridge underpinned with great sensitivity by an expanded Psappha.

Two of Stravinsky’s works imbued with the earthy rasp of the cimbalom (an instrument Davies has written wonderfully for) completed the programme. The still amazingly original Ragtime refracts a period dance-music through a Cubist prism in much the same way Davies treated Purcell’s dances. This performance was well-marshalled but I missed something of the essence of the music, Stravinskian tang and bite.

A rare outing for the barnyard fable Renard ended the concert. This marvellous piece positively reeks of Russian earth and was here brilliantly dispatched by Psappha and a plangent quartet of male voices. Special mention must also be made of Tim Williams’s inspired cimbalom playing.

A disappointingly small audience was nevertheless enthusiastic and even knew enough not to applaud between the Purcell realisations (half-hearted applause between movements having become more or less standard at the Proms now).

A slight torpor seemed to hang over the concert as it does at many a late-night Prom. I cannot believe I am the only person who finds it dispiriting to be still listening to music at 11.30 p.m. knowing that I have a last train to catch. Could the BBC rethink its policy on late-night concerts, especially as these days much contemporary music is ghettoised in these slots. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, in alternative venues if needs be, seems a much better time to be listening to challenging music and would surely attract a bigger turnout as opposed to the music professionals who make up a large part of these late-night new-music audiences. Better a full house in a small venue than a smattering across a large one.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Saariaho
Orion [UK premiere]
Bartók
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle [sung in Hungarian]

Prologue – Mátyás Sárkösi
Judith – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Bluebeard – John Tomlinson

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste


Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 7 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

An interesting programme mixing Kaija Saariaho’s large-scale symphonic piece Orion, inspired by the myth and the constellation of Orion in a night-time sky, and Bartók’s operatic masterpiece telling the tale of the sinister Bluebeard and the secrets of his castle.

Saariaho’s Orion was here receiving its UK premiere having been first heard in Cleveland in January 2003. The first movement, ‘Memento mori’, opens with a sustained and brooding orchestral foundation with a repeating chime-like motif ringing out over the top; Saariaho’s individual and distinctive sound-world pervaded the hall. This chime set the pulse for the movement, although the music also retained a timeless and expansive feeling appropriate to the work’s inspiration. Despite the huge forces the piece deploys, Saariaho builds the tension and volume in an economic fashion towards an exciting moment of release as the organ enters the fray; the strings, then the rest of the orchestra outline and elaborate the movement’s thematic material. This development becomes more complex until an abrupt halt, a loud chord the slowly echoed into the hall.

Without much adieu, and therefore time for coughs to disrupt the atmosphere, Jukka-Pekka Saraste launched into the elegiac opening of the second movement, a slow and haunting melody first voiced on a piccolo before being passed around various other solo instruments, predominantly woodwind. As ever the principal players pulled out all the stops for their ‘star-turns, the rest of the BBCSO providing a whispered and tense accompaniment. A very beautiful and spiritual movement this, contrasting with the rather frenetic third section entitled ‘Hunter’ notable for repeated downward helter-skelter scale-work, although punctuated by moments of stillness and mellowing of the tempo. Gradually a chime motif breaks in, perhaps intended to mirror that of the first movement, as the large textures gradually clarify and the feeling of spaciousness returns and the music fades to silence. Orion is a very beautiful and moving work displaying Saariaho’s original orchestration and musical textures.

Then came an exciting, big-scale performance of Bartók’s one-act opera. Both the Hungarian artists scheduled for the two singing roles had unfortunately cancelled (Ildikó Komlósi and László Polgár) so we were lucky to have John Tomlinson and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet. Tomlinson’s big-voiced, rather fierce and worrying Bluebeard is a known quantity for British audiences, and as usual he delivered the text trenchantly and made much of his final paean to his four wives – indeed singing this final section with more legato than is now customary for him. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet is a singer I’d certainly like to hear again. Both dramatically and vocally her Judith found just the right mettlesome quality early in her journey through the doors, and the moment of doubt as the expanse of Bluebeard’s realm is revealed to her as ‘Door 5’ opens was superbly handled. Hers is a big voice it seems, as she was mostly able to ride over the orchestral tumult that Saraste and the orchestra unleashed periodically without it losing focus.

The performance started with a rather straightforward and prosaic rendition of the spoken prologue by Mátyás Sárkösi; preferable is something more whispered and mysterious to lull you into darkness before the brooding orchestral prelude starts. The orchestra was on great form, as it always seem to be with Saraste at the helm – relishing Bartók’s colourful and descriptive effects. The dynamic range was amazing – the orchestral blast at ‘Door 5’, supported by the organ going at full pelt, was the loudest I have heard in either concert hall or theatre and was truly exhilarating. The depiction of the lake of tears behind ‘Door 6’ was also finely articulated – a fine performance of an ever-intriguing work.

Chamber Music No.8

Janáček
Concertino
Dallapiccola
Piccola musica notturna
Holt
The Coroner’s Report [BBC commission: world premiere]
Martinů
La revue de cuisine

Rolf Hind (piano)

Britten Sinfonia
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 6 September, 2004
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The Concertino began well. Rolf Hind thumped out the blunt, bare opening declaration authoritatively. Martin Owen’s horn answered him sweetly, gravely and consistently. Hind, meanwhile, began to scamper pointlessly and automatically. In the second movement, Joy Farrall’s clarinet scurried about with every sign of strain – too many notes played faster than she found comfortable. (I have blissful memories of Mark van de Wiel of Endymion playing the same passage in hauntingly relaxed fashion last year.) The violins, Marianne Thorsen and Miranda Dale, were telling. In the last movement, the ensemble made its mark.

Dallapiccola put the Britten Sinfonia at its ease. The music was gentler, quieter, less difficult, idiosyncratic or dangerous. It evoked night-time and stars, giving the players a chance to lose themselves in grave beauty of tone. Joy Farrall and Anna Pyne (flute), were most effective and atmospheric.

The factual background to The Coroner’s Report was the gruesome discovery, several decades ago, of female remains found in a tree. The music’s five sections depict five important items of evidence, ranging from a scrap of paper to a portion of skin. Simon Holt’s music was suitably lugubrious, becoming ever more so as the work progressed. Gordon Laing’s contrabassoon darkened the atmosphere greatly; Martin Outram’s intermittent viola added an enigmatic mellow twang to the proceedings and Rolf Hind’s dexterity in playing the piano with his left hand and the celesta with his right was a tour de force.

La revue de cuisine was a joyful flourish – a celebration that ended both the concert and Proms Chamber Music for this season. The players delighted in projecting the antics of saucepan, lid, kettle and companions. A pompous march and a tango began the action. The pièce de resistance was the ‘Charleston’. Rolf Hind jazzed it up to the manner born – relaxed at the piano, at ease with himself; what a contrast to the tense figure, slightly hunched, during the Concertino. Paul Archibald (trumpet) matched Hind thoroughly in this colourful romp. The last movement, more the locals marching round the village-square, was just slightly self-conscious and sedate. Here, Sarah Burnett (bassoon) came into her own. I suspect she enjoyed the ‘Charleston’, too, but I couldn’t hear her above the piano and the trumpet.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 11 September at midday
  • BBC Proms 2004

Berliner Philharmoniker 2

Debussy
La mer – Three symphonic sketches
Messiaen
Éclairs sur l’Au-delà …

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 6 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For their second programme, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (as we’re not supposed to call it) presented a typically astute pairing, unimaginable in the Karajan era though by no means more ‘advanced’ than the sort of fare offered by his successor. Claudio Abbado has himself been conducting La Mer lately – he brought it to the Proms with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester – and the score received a further injection of Mediterranean luminosity from Sir Simon. He did not follow the example of Abbado and Karajan in restoring the finale’s fanfares as present in Debussy’s 1905 score from bar 237 – always a surprise if you’re expecting them. Nor was there quite the sense of abandon I was expecting.

Instead a seemingly effortless, sometimes breathtaking transparency prevailed, mightily impressive on its own terms. Need Debussy’s sea be choppier? Some less than enthused Promenaders clearly thought so. The Berliners rarely played with the full weight of sonority that remains uniquely theirs; the fine detailing and absolute security was achieved at the expense of cumulative corporate thrust.

In the Messiaen, a work Rattle has performed in Birmingham and Philadelphia as well as Berlin, his approach is rather more positive, fervent and chunky. It might even be reckoned un-Gallic in its lack of insouciance. Which is not to say that the results are less than superb. The final major orchestral utterance by a composer in his eighties, these “lightning flashes from the beyond…” was initially greeted as a low-key pendant to his oeuvre. And as with Sir Michael Tippett’s The Rose Lake, the frankly sectional, simplified construction will not be to all tastes.

Clocking in at just over an hour, Sylvain Cambreling for one takes 76 minutes (Hänssler), Sir Simon’s bold and visceral interpretation posits a new kind of ‘selective’ orchestral showpiece. Take the majestic opening panel for woodwind and brass, ‘Apparition du Christ glorieux’, a chorale plainly designed to ease the listener away from the hustle and bustle of modern living and into a hieratic, contemplative world. For Rattle this did not preclude a sense of onward progression from one phrase to the next, the intertwining voices of the brass still solemn but no longer static. Alas, as its music died away, one could hear the inescapably earthly noises-off that more than ever bedevil the Proms.

The rapturous fifth movement, ‘Demeurer dans l’amour’, was bigger, more expressive than I have heard it, with the main idea liberated from the generalised string texture. The Berliners’ string playing was quite simply gorgeous, even at stratospheric heights way above the stave. There was – I think – meant to be some humour too, as in the antic exuberance of the song of the lyrebird (of Canberra) in the bizarrely literal third section, ‘L’oiseau-lyre et la Ville-Fiancée’. From our privileged position in a stalls seat, it was possible for my companion to ‘see’ the curious, Disneyesque halo around the ecstatic finale, ‘Le Christ, lumière du Paradis’: three triangles insistently tinkling for the duration, only one being mentioned in the booklet notes. In this last return to the world of L’Ascension, Messiaen calls for intensity of expression and infinite calm. And with this conductor in this repertoire there was certainly more than enough of the former.

Despite its ultra-discriminating use of an orchestra of 128 players, Éclairs sur l’Au-delà … is a piece that came off very well in the Albert Hall, effectively penetrating the void even when just a few instruments were playing, a tribute also to the power of its executants. Even the mood-shattering applause at the close came after a decent interval. The maestro seemed gratified by that, less Andy Pandy than grizzled gibbon in the tropical heat. It may have been the orchestra members who were most anxious to leave what must have been an exceedingly hot stage. Though stuffed with luminaries, the hall was not quite as full as advertised and of course not everyone stayed the course. The lighting must have deterred a few aesthetes, palsied blue for the Debussy and scrofulous pink for the second half. I dread to think what Messiaen, given his synaesthesia, would have thought of it all!

Berliner Philharmoniker 1

Schoenberg
Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Beethoven
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Birgit Remmert (mezzo-soprano)
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

If concert programmes had sub-titles in the way now common to every public body – you know the sort of thing, the dust-cart with a sign saying “Working for a cleaner environment” – this concert could have been dubbed “See, the Conq’ring Hero comes”. After all, it is not every day one of our own returns as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for what is traditionally one of the high-points of the Proms season, Beethoven’s 9th.

The British have an unpleasant habit of knocking their own. Far be it from me to underestimate Sir Simon’s achievement in leapfrogging from Birmingham to Berlin, or his ability to turn people from all walks of life onto classical music. However, rather like an actor who becomes accustomed to giving his performance, Rattle really does run the risk of slipping into self-parody. Of course, it is generally preferable that a conductor not be totally ignored by an orchestra, but when the interpretation becomes so personalised as to become a vehicle for some form of psycho-drama acted out on stage, it can become wearing.

At this concert the music frequently came a poor second. Is it really necessary with an orchestra of this quality that the conductor underlines every single dynamic or tempo marking? If we sometimes thought Furtwängler and Karajan mannered, at least their music-making seldom lost that sweep which carries a piece constantly forward whatever the momentary deviations. In the opening movement of the 9th it was frequently hard to tell what Rattle’s base tempo actually was, so constant was the micro-managing of every nuance, so persistent the underlining of every point. Particularly irritating was the persistent anticipation of ritardandos, constantly dragging the tempo back and necessitating awkward gear changes thereafter. So febrile and over-heated was the atmosphere that even the movement’s seismic climax passed for very little – it was just one incident among many.

Rather better was the scherzo, although one could hardly call Rattle’s tempo Molto Vivace, and the coda’s stringendo was misjudged. At least the slow movement allowed us to hear quite glorious string playing, the violas and second violins combining in the contrasting Andante moderato to produce the sort of sound often dreamt of but seldom actually heard. Even here though Rattle could not resist tampering with dynamics.

Best of all was the finale where Rattle’s high energy and penchant for the theatrical was for the most part put to good use, aided by some splendidly robust singing from the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and a strong solo quartet (Timothy Robinson replacing Jonas Kaufmann) including a notably stentorian John Relyea and the imposing Birgit Remmert. Particularly impressive was the Chorus’s ability to conjure reserves of tone and precisely observed dynamics. Even in this most dramatic movement though Rattle could not resist over-cooking the Alla Marcia section, dragging it out unnecessarily, and exaggerating the acceleration into the work’s culmination. It’s as if he does not trust the music enough to play it straight.

More satisfactory was Schoenberg Variations, music placing extreme demands on the performers. Rattle had his hands full, yet gilded the lily, making the music positively Straussian in its opulence and occasionally clouding the clarity of the argument through an excess of emotion. But it would be a churlish soul who failed to acknowledge the orchestra’s absolute mastery of this most challenging score; to play it this well is a real achievement, even for the Berliners.

Staatskapelle Dresden 2

Haydn
Symphony No.86 in D
Bartók
Dance Suite
Dvořák
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Staatskapelle Dresden
Bernard Haitink


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It took until the Dvořák symphony for something truly memorable, not just of this concert but of Staatskapelle Dresden’s two Proms. The Haydn, altogether more attentive and purposeful than the Jupiter Symphony of the previous evening, while elegant was also streamlined in the way that Bernard Haitink now conducts this composer. He once led a mercurial account of this symphony, with the London Philharmonic (about 20 years ago), that bordered on the miraculous: today, Haydn’s innovation, deviancy and wit are things Haitink keeps under wraps. So too earthiness and exuberance: Bartók’s Dance Suite, well prepared and lucidly balanced, only came across in the reflective ritornelli.

The TV cameras were present – the one on the crane was especially distracting: it did seem perilously close to the audience in the stalls; and the ghastly pink colouring for the organ created a depressing atmosphere in the hall. It had been blue and green in the first half! Still, close the eyes and think of Prague – the Dvořák was excellent, Haitink’s classical conception, well judged tempos and beguiling detailing capturing the heart of the music, its varied moods and the composer’s individuality. The ‘golden’ sound of the orchestra, not always apparent over these two nights, was at last gloriously evident in this spontaneous, lyrical and organically triumphant performance, one in which the third movement waltz swirled with imperial grandeur and Haitink found no easy victory in the finale’s powerful closing bars.

Weber’s Oberon overture was a substantial encore, a magical and articulate rendition, one with a subdued, appropriately mellow tinting of the organ, which would have been ideal for the whole concert rather than garishness. It’s a shame that such ‘presentation’ gets in the way of what really matters – the music-making.

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