The Last Night

Overture – Portsmouth Point
Xerxes – Ombra mai fu
Rodelinda – Dove sei
Giustino – Se parla nel mio cor
Concierto de Aranjuez
The Rio Grande
The Sea Hawk – Suite
Down by the Salley Gardens
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs [with additional numbers arr. Chilcott]
Parry orch. Elgar
Arr. Wood
The National Anthem

Andreas Scholl (countertenor)

John Williams (guitar)

Paul Lewis (piano)

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Paul Daniel

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 10 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This farewell to the 111th season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts also bade farewell to two members of the BBCSO. It was also a welcome to Paul Daniel conducting his first Last Night. He did rather well. The programme followed the usual formula.

A scintillating sprint through Walton’s Portsmouth Point introduced the orchestra and its smiling conductor; Daniel and Co. really appeared to be enjoying themselves. Walton said that the opening of Portsmouth Point occurred to him on the upper deck of a London bus, a number 22. Nowadays this route passes a stone’s throw from the Albert Hall as it goes along Knightsbridge.

The first of two appearances brought German countertenor Andreas Scholl to sing three of Handel’s Italian arias. The triptych were unrelated and provided little more than a showcase for Scholl who successfully wowed an easily-pleased audience. Despite a reduced-sized BBCSO the strings were sluggish; a very much ‘on-the-string’ performance implying that, judging by this performance, very little has been learned from period-instrument practice.

Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto has become synonymous with John Williams. As has sadly become the norm for Proms audiences, injudicious applause at the end of the first movement ruined the quiet link. Williams did not allow this to happen twice with a swift attacca into the finale. Williams’s stylish strumming in the middle of the famous second movement brought complete concentration and well-judged vibrato in the cor anglais solos from Celia Craig; a performance to be savoured. The outer movements were let down through a lack of attention to detail by the orchestra, in particular the string players: Daniel was clear in his intentions but an intransigent orchestra ignored him.

Lambert’s 1927 masterpiece “The Rio Grande” was written when the composer was only 22; it’s an ideal Last Night piece with parts for solo piano and mezzo-soprano as well as chorus and an orchestra of strings, brass and percussion. Paul Lewis executed the brilliant piano cadenza with razor-sharp precision, and Karen Cargill, sporting a fantastic dress, gave life to the mezzo’s small part. The star of the piece, however, was the chorus – with all eyes fixed on the conductor and diction as clear as spring water, the singers tripped through Lambert’s Latin rhythms with the deftness of Amazonian natives.

After the interval, a not-too-inspiring performance of Korngold’s swashbuckling ‘Sea Hawk’ film score gave way to Simon Bainbridge’s Scherzi. Bainbridge’s orchestral miniature was written to celebrate the 70th-birthday of the BBCSO and was premiered under Leonard Slatkin five years ago. The piece has improved with age. Effective writing provides employment for six percussionists who play a vast array of instruments, some familiar and some less so. As a piece for the second half Scherzi may have taxed people watching at home more than they may have wished.

Andreas Scholl and John Williams reappeared for “Down by the Salley Gardens” – a piece of magical programming, the musicianship of the two performers filling the hall as fully as any symphony orchestra. Then came an arrangement by Paul Daniel and Julia Simpson of Purcell’s “Fairest Isle”; in the second verse the chorus and orchestra were neatly added to the ensemble.

After the obligatory performance plus encore of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (incorrectly subtitled “Land of Hope and Glory” in the programme) came Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. This work becomes longer and more complicated at each Last Night. Here the Bugle Calls were restored, only this time they were echoed, via satellite one presumes, by musicians from the other BBC orchestras located in Manchester, Glasgow, Swansea, Belfast and Hyde Park – over-the-top showmanship of “stage” rather than “musical” value. With the additional arrangements by Bob Chilcott of “All through the night”, “Skye Boat Song” and “Londonderry Air”, the number of movements now stands at 10 and one, at least, the clarinet cadenza, has been dropped. While the BBC’s wish to represent the other nations on the British Isles is understandable, does it have to be at the cost of Wood’s original composition? Chilcott’s arrangements are fine but are incongruous to Wood’s soundworld.

In his speech Paul Daniel joked with the promenaders and made fun of the Australians in the audience whose cricket team had stopped play due to bad light earlier. The usual chorus of “Jerusalem” and the “National Anthem” ended the ceremonies for another year leaving the audience to sing “Auld Lang Syne”.

From the Wreckage

La mer
From the Wreckage [BBC co-commission with Helsinki Philharmonic and Gothenburg Symphony orchestras: UK premiere]
Daphnis et Chloé – Suites I and II

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)

Crouch End Festival Chorus

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 9 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Flash floods in West London kept audience numbers down for this vaguely watery Prom, a welcome transfer from the Helsinki Festival. Esa-Pekka Salonen has re-emerged recently as a composer but his interpretative manner remains much as it always has been. Directing the competent but lightweight Helsinki Philharmonic without the use of a baton, he elicited sophisticated results without necessarily plumbing unsuspected depths.

La mer, plus relatively restrained grey-blue lighting effects courtesy of our friends at BBC 4, was fresh and brisk with a glorious blaze of sunlight at the end of the first movement and no lack of finesse or élan. This was a much more sheerly enjoyable account than that offered by Sir Simon Rattle’s recalcitrant Berliners last year. In ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’, Salonen favoured a radical drop in tempo for the central section, ushering in a beautifully articulated heat haze. Unlike say Abbado and Karajan he did not restore the fanfares present in Debussy’s 1905 score from bar 237. Fortunately the inevitable mobile phone incident occurred between the first two panels of the triptych rather than during the music itself.

Someone thought a deeper pink glow would be appropriate for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new piece, not, it turned out, a reference to a shipwreck in the literal sense for all that Anthony Burton’s detailed programme note looked at its structure in terms of waves of acceleration. Håkan Hardenberger arrived with three instruments: flugelhorn, trumpet and piccolo trumpet, each to be deployed in turn as the mood brightened. As Turnage sought to ‘dispel the fears’ again with his familiar shell-shocked lyricism and jazz-tainted scoring, you could argue that this 15-minute piece offered nothing new. What it did do was confirm the fact that we have at least one composer whose instantly recognisable voice is here to stay.

The oceanic creation myth of “Luonnotar” opened the second half (amid autumnal dappling from the lighting people) and one really felt for Turnage who stayed on to hear the rest of the concert. The sheer economy of Sibelius’s invention never ceases to amaze. More surprisingly perhaps, these performers actually had something new to say about it. Solveig Kringelborn, resplendent in turquoise blue though less vocally secure than some protagonists, contributed a childlike innocence and vulnerability that I found very touching, while Salonen showed real musicianship in never drowning out his soloist. The steely brilliance we usually expect in this score was exchanged for a gentler narrative style.

Ravel’s pagan passions (to a palsied pink glow), with wordless chorus, seemed thematically unrelated. Here was more material for the conductor to demonstrate his control of texture as well as the kind of boyish virtuoso brilliance that delights in extremes of tempo. The orchestra responded in kind notwithstanding a few flaws. The encores (denied to listeners on BBC Radio 3 – Ed) were a beautifully poised and translucent conversation between ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye and some hell-for-leather Sibelius, Lemminkäinen’s Return, obviously (too obviously?) designed to bring the house down. Both items were announced from the platform with the bullish conviction of an artiste who has learnt crowd control and found unlikely acclaim in Los Angeles. In every sense he remains a conductor-composer to watch.

Vienna Philharmonic – 2

Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version edited Nowak]

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 8 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

From Jascha Horenstein to Günter Wand, the Proms has witnessed some astonishing revivifications of Bruckner’s Eighth, “the biggest and grandest of 19th-century symphonies” as Andrew Huth’s programme note insisted.

Against a weird backdrop of piebald pink and clad in his trademark Mao suit, Christoph Eschenbach here performed something closer to an autopsy. At 85 minutes it was certainly “big” but its grave, stolid progress eschewed what is normally meant by grandeur. While the Vienna Philharmonic offered incidental pleasures too numerous to mention, the strings were rarely given their head – this was not an interpretation in which the argument is borne heavenwards on a homogeneous carpet of sound. Even so they produced some exquisite playing at low volumes. Like most modern interpreters, Eschenbach’s conception of the symphony avoided the visceral sense of struggle conveyed by the likes of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Instead the aim seemed to be to present the argument as lucidly as possible, letting each paragraph succeed its predecessor without undue fuss or rhetoric.

I expected a spacious reading but not the lack of direction (whether structural or emotional) that made certain passages come across as didactic or merely dull. The mind wandered in the very hot hall, distracted by the latest menace, the amateur cinematographer equipped with a mobile phone. I began to think that some of the criticisms Eschenbach has encountered in Philadelphia might be justified after all. The antiphonally placed violins came into their own in the later stages of the Adagio, though it was a bit cruel of the programme to give us the English translation of the marking, “Solemn and slow, but not dragging”.

Slowest of all was the second movement’s Trio, but there the conductor’s careful tailoring may have been designed to point up the extent to which it was composed to function as a harbinger of the Adagio. There were some beautifully voiced solos from individual players, yet, in the outer movements I could not hear the woodwind in tutti – and I was allocated a good place, a seat prestigious enough for me to witness one of our senior critics berating a colleague for jiggling about too much. This occurred in the space between the first two movements, although there had been nothing particularly stimulating about a reading of the opening Allegro moderato so eerily subdued and controlled, so intent on exploring the darkest sonorities.

When Pierre Boulez was invited to conduct this work with the Vienna Philharmonic at the International Bruckner Festival in September 1996, he paid tribute to the contribution of his musicians: “From the very outset, I accepted that I would undoubtedly get more from the orchestra than they would get from me”. Eschenbach gave the music room to breathe but perhaps he needed to relax more. One felt that the luminous effect he sought was always just out of reach. What we got was less persuasive.

Vienna Philharmonic – 1

Symphony No.103 in E flat (Drumroll)
Wozzeck – Three Fragments
The Rite of Spring

Katarina Dalayman (soprano)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Vienna Philharmonic is a wonderful ambassador for its musical heritage – and here Haydn and Berg were treated as absolute equals and played with total identification and commitment.

How natural were the rhythms of Haydn’s ‘Drum Roll’ symphony (although its eponymous feature was hardly arresting, a tepid crescendodiminuendo, the timpani throughout being too comfortable and soft-toned), but, overall, this was an agreeable, civilised performance with much attention paid to inner parts. Tempos were measured and equable across the whole, the finale being especially moderate and a distinct plus in musical shaping. The Minuet was robust and the Trio expressively turned. There were moments when Haydn seemed to be anticipating Schubert, although the café-style use of solo strings towards the end of the Andante found the leader (Werner Hink?) a little pressed and not always in tune; nor was he in the solo spot of the first encore, Johann Strauss II’s Wiener Blut waltz, given a full-scale if brisk account.

After Haydn, Berg, his ‘trailer’ for the opera “Wozzeck” for which Zubin Mehta’s ear for detail and clarity of balance worked a treat, albeit it was just a tad too ‘neat’ at times; the VPO, whether in the military-band music or in more impressionistic scenes, played with genuine appreciation. Katarina Dalayman was outstanding in conveying Marie’s different moods.

What was less edifying, though, was the audience and BBCTV’s intrusion – the latter insists on adorning the organ console in various colours; here we had three ghastly ones. Surely one such monstrosity is enough? Zubin Mehta doesn’t hang around, so he launched the symphony movements and the ‘Fragments’ to a barrage of hubbub and coughing. The latter suggested that many of the audience should be in hospital and that some think coughing is mandatory! And what to say about the person who couldn’t wait to applaud at the end of the Berg, despite Mehta’s arms being aloft to maintain silence…

The Rite fell between stools. The Vienna Philharmonic usually seems slightly wary of Stravinsky, and was so here in a performance well-drilled but susceptible, not savage enough, and uncertain as to whether the ballet score is now an orchestral showpiece or can still be played as a theatrical work. Mehta’s textbook conducting kept the show on the road without digging too deeply into the music’s potential, although his variance of dynamics was laudable, not least the ultra-pianissimo muted trumpets at the beginning of ‘Part 2’.

“Back to Vienna” said Mehta as the encore waltz-measures started up, the VPO returning to its glorious ways and then signing-off with the Thunder and Lightning Polka, although judging from the lack of activity in the Radio 3 booth this latter seemed denied to the airwaves. Surely listeners should get the whole concert, too?

Concentric Paths

Namensfeier – Overture, Op.115
Pulcinella – Suite
Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ [UK premiere]
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

Anthony Marwood (violin)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Thomas Adès

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Few musicians in the Proms century-plus history can have appeared as composer, conductor and pianist, something that Thomas Adès has achieved in little more than a decade. Here he featured in the former two categories – conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in a programme that included the UK premiere of his Violin Concerto, thoughtfully placed alongside music by Beethoven and Stravinsky.

Subtitled ‘Concentric Paths’, Adès’s new concerto consists of three movements – though the fact that the central movement is longer than the outer two combined puts paid to any consideration of this as a traditional concerto. ‘Rings’ seems to have very much a preludial function – focusing on harmonic and rhythmic asymmetries and with a Ligeti-cum-Adams synthesis that feels determinedly, maybe even designedly, provisional. One of the most distinctive features of Adès’s composing is his recourse to a diversely constituted chamber orchestra, such as informs ‘Paths’ to a far-reaching and engrossing degree. Musically, the movement unfolds over two large cycles of activity – the writing for the soloist intensifying though always lyrical and, at crucial points, offset by the orchestra’s stabbing interjections and unstable textures. It remains for ‘Rounds’ to conclude the work with a polyrhythmic interplay such as brings about the feeling of tonal and expressive closure almost in spite of itself.

Adès’s previous large-scale instrumental work, the Piano Quintet (2000), left one admiring its formal deftness and ingenuity but uninvolved as regards its intrinsic content. For all the richness and consistency of the writing, the Violin Concerto may prove likewise – though it would be churlish to deny the skill with which soloist and orchestra variously combine, nor that the solo part is unerringly geared to the strengths of Anthony Marwood (a fine chamber musician). Certainly this is a piece that could well reveal ‘hidden depths’ on future hearings.

Whether Adès’s account of the Pulcinella Suite would do so is more doubtful. Not that this capable and alert performance lacked anything in elegance or style; but the self-consciously applied dynamics and fussy point-making too often got in the way of Stravinsky’s discreet but invigorating reappraisal of these modest 17th-century songs and dances. The most extended sequence, from the ‘Serenata’ through to the ‘Andantino’, went inconsequentially on its course, though woodwind phrasing and articulation in the ‘Gavotte’ and ‘Variations’ was a delight. A curate’s egg of a reading, which rather suggested that Adès might not be entirely at ease with this coming-together of the old with the new.

Otherwise, it was left to Beethoven to frame proceedings. The most seldom heard orchestral work of his maturity, Namensfeier has come in for more than its share of brickbats regarding its awkward structure and needlessly abrasive harmonic cadences – both of which were shown to be virtues in this lithe and propulsive reading. There were good things in the Fourth Symphony, too – notably a latent unease in the slow introduction, and a wistful elegance in the Adagio, otherwise lacking the pathos which makes it one of Beethoven’s most searching symphonic slow movements. The scherzo, its trio sections taken at the same underlying pulse, had a curiously enervated energy – while the outer movements had vigour aplenty but little of the character evinced by their questing reappraisal of Classical precepts. Moreover, though the COE strings coped ably with the headlong tempos required of them, their articulation could not but suffer given the sheer resonance of the acoustic: something towhich Adès, now a seasoned performer at the Royal Albert Hall, might have given greater attention.

Tippett, Horne & Carter

Dance, Clarion Air
Splintered Instruments
Four Songs from the British Isles
Over the Sea to Skye [London premiere]
The Tempest – Suite (arr. Meirion Bowen)

Mark Padmore (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)

BBC Singers
Stephen Cleobury

Nash Ensemble
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Late-night Proms can vary as much in content as they do in attendance – the present occasion as musically diverse as it was sparsely peopled. Yet the alternation, then combination of unaccompanied chorus and chamber ensemble worked well in what proved to be a thoughtfully assembled programme.

Two recent commissions from the Nash Ensemble were included. Splintered Instruments (2004) is the latest in a sequence of more-or-less ‘fractured’ instrumental pieces from Scottish composer David Horne. Centered on the timbral properties of the harp, which acts as an expressive as well as formal conduit for the often-waspish interplay that emerges, this is music subtle and characterful by turns – an attractive addition to a notable instrumental series (and of which a recording would be welcome).

The concert also provided a further London outing for one of Elliott Carter’s most recent chamber pieces. Once again, the harp is very much ‘first among equals’ among the eight instruments of Mosaic (2004) – Carter having spoken of his desire to explore techniques developed by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo, who had a significant presence on the New York music-scene of the period. Not that these techniques are deployed merely for effect; indeed, the piece reveals an almost continuous ‘through line’, around which evolves a discourse both inventive and diverting. Robust initial exchanges coalesce into a scurrying section, its energy spills over into a passage of hushed inner intensity, tension being released in an explosive toccata-like episode and capped by brusque gestures across the ensemble. All deftly achieved over its ten-minute span and with a disciplined virtuosity such as the Nash musicians, harpist Lucy Wakeford in particular, seized upon with commendable assurance.

Otherwise, the evening provided a final Proms tribute to Michael Tippett in his centenary year. Long regarded as the highlight of the coronation anthology “A Garland for the Queen”, the part-song “Dance, Clarion Air” (1952) encapsulates the rhythmic élan and harmonic translucency of the composer’s music from thisperiod, its antiphonal exchanges tailor-made for the RAH acoustic. Nor should one be deceived by the title “Four Songs from the British Isles” (1956) into expecting routine folk-song transcriptions. The intricate counterpoint of “Early One Morning” and harmonic agility of “Lilliburlero”, and the melodic plangency of “Poortith cauld” and the fluid rhythmic lilt of “Gwenllian”: all are beautifully if demandingly re-imagined for the medium. This was also the occasion for the London premiere of “Over the Sea to Skye” – soon replaced as the Scottish component of the set, which proved an atmospheric number in its own right.

Tippett’s music for an Old Vic production of “The Tempest” has undergone much revamping since its unveiling in 1961. That by the composer’s partner and amanuensis Meirion Bowen seems to have become the preferred option – and rightly so, as it places the most significant elements of the score in a lively, coherent context. Chief among these are the three songs for Ariel – above all, the haunting simplicity of “Full fathom five” – that remain unsurpassed among modern settings of Shakespeare for their insight, and were enticingly sung by Mark Padmore. He was joined by David Wilson-Johnson in the dryly humorous “Masque” that is the score’s longest continuous number, with the latter doing justice to the setting of Caliban’s “Be not afeard” that, with refracted allusions to other of its composer’s late works, proved to be Tippett’s very last piece. The instrumental items, some ingeniously adapted from earlier pieces (notably the uproarious ‘Trumpet Tune with Boogie’, from “The Knot Garden”), were full of incident and responded well to such incisive treatment from the Nash players and Martyn Brabbins.

So, an intelligently planned and finely executed concert – enjoyed by an audience which, though few in number, responded with suitably rapt attention. Ample proof that silence can indeed be golden.

Alan Rawsthorne

Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
Piano Concerto No.2
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Howard Shelley (piano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 5 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There could not have been a bigger contrast between the two halves of this Prom. In the first we heard two near-contemporary Britains, Benjamin Britten and Alan Rawsthorne, both emotionally restrained in their musical styles, which contrasted with Tchaikovsky’s highly personal Fourth Symphony, virtually dripping in blood, sweat and tears.

What unified the positive effect of this concert were the outstanding performances of a motivated orchestra under an inspirational conductor, one of the most talented of his generation. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes exuded the salt-spray of the North Sea, which so inspired the composer in his opera, “Peter Grimes”. The sound of gulls singing their cries was caught with great fidelity by the woodwind section and the final ‘Storm’ was taken at a breakneck pace, well realised by this on-form ensemble from the Principality.

Centenary composer Alan Rawsthorne never wore his heart on his sleeve and his once-popular Piano Concerto No.2, written for Clifford Curzon, received a marvellous performance from Howard Shelley well supported by the attentive Gamba. The work’s problem, for the most part, is that although the orchestra introduces ear-catching melodies the piano is never allowed to add any further melodic interest. Rather its digressions are rather grey, albeit sympathetically written for the soloist. The finale, at least, has a tune that can be whistled, and the opening movement’s flute melody is haunting. But too many passages meander. Indeed it is the absence of any strong emotional pattern in Rawsthorne’s music that reduces its potential.

If Rawsthorne’s music, this concerto never fully engages with the audience, this cannot be said of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony – one of his most emotional statements. In performance this can spill over into sentimentality but Gamba kept tempos on the move throughout. The brass launched the first movement with splendid power and the music was projected with a fierce momentum. In an interpretation such as this it is easy to relate such music to life’s ups and downs – which are so accurately related by Tchaikovsky in this magnificent work.

Proms Chamber Music – 8 (Artemis Quartet)

String Quartet in F minor, Op.20/5
String Quartet No.2

Artemis Quartet [Natalia Prischepenko & Heime Müller (violins), Volker Jacobsen (viola) & Eckart Runge (cello)]

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 5 September, 2005
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

A perplexing recital. The last of the Proms Chamber Music concerts featured the Artemis Quartet, part of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme, a Berlin-based ensemble playing together, in this formation, since 1994. Having already established a series at the Berlin Philharmonie, it hardly seems that the Artemis is exactly ‘new generation’. Be that as it may, it is an exceptionally fine group with mentors including the Berg, Emerson and Juilliard. The programme was enticing. One of Haydn’s very finest quartets (F minor seems to bring out the best in Haydn as C minor did in Mozart) and Bartók’s Second.

The Haydn started promisingly and demonstrated the Artemis’s rich-tone and superb blend and intonation; even the first movement’s exposition repeat was subtly varied – deluxe playing and a real feel for classical style. After that, however, for all the beauty of the actual execution, this seemed like very metropolitan Haydn, the Minuet lacking an assertive one-in-a-bar quality and the Trio, though perfectly voiced, was hardly bucolic. Most crucially, the Adagio – a slow dignified Siciliano and one of Haydn’s more extraordinary creations – succumbed to blandness due to an over-swift tempo, whilst the muscular concluding fugue was simply too polite.

The Bartók – written in straitened circumstances at the height of the First World War – again demonstrated the group’s total security but despite a more assertive contribution from the cellist, Eckart Runge, one longed for the gloves to come off. The central Allegro molto is marked ‘Capriccioso’ and includes subtle use of rubato to give the music its headlong impetus and specifically Hungarian character; here it sounded more like Shostakovich. Best of all was the concentrated Lento third movement where the blend of first and second violins was exemplary. One suspects the Artemis would give magnificent Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and, even, Shostakovich. However, if viewed as all-Hungarian, this programme was like goulash without paprika.

The Mermaid & A German Requiem

Die Seejungfrau [The Mermaid]
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Marie Arnet (soprano)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sandwiched between a young American girl – who was restless enough during the fairy tale element of the concert, Zemlinsky’s orchestral triptych based on bicentenary birthday-boy Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, and who I had hoped would be taken away from her loggia box before Brahms’s Requiem, but unfortunately not – and a family elder who spent the second half checking English translations of the bible on hiselectronic encyclopaedia and noting the results in his programme, I was more than thankful that James Conlon pulled out a cracker of a concert which meant that such distractions (along with the coughs and mobile phones that seem, sadly, de rigueur, this season) could mostly be ignored.

James Conlon is perhaps the world’s most ardent Zemlinsky expert (although the composer’s editor and biographer Anthony Beaumont has also taken up the baton) and for those in the know Conlon’s EMI recordings from Cologne over the last decade have been an important addition to the Zemlinsky discography.

Conlon conducted Die Seejungfrau (losing Andersen’s ‘little’) without a score and the music soared as one of the benefits of such immediate contact between conductor and orchestra. For once bringing together both main themes of this year’s Proms – the sea and fairy tales – it is the former that seems to take precedence, much of the music full of the swell of the sea. The horror of the original Andersen tale seems muted, but the BBCSymphony Orchestra – with violin solos from guest leader Daniel Rowland – was full blooded and committed.

It wasn’t the first Proms performance (Dohnányi had conducted it in 1987 – maybe not complete? – before more Brahms, the First Symphony) of this remarkable work, which was premièred in 1911 in the same concert as the premiere of Zemlinsky’s brother-in-law, Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. But when Zemlinsky fled the Nazis in 1938, the first movement was left in Vienna. Theparts were only reassembled and performed again in 1984. It is said that the story appealed to Zemlinsky because his pupil and lover Alma Schindler left him for Mahler, and somehow it is autobiographical. Perhaps Zemlinsky saw Alma as the mermaid and himself as the evil sea-witch, from which she escapes. Just a thought!

Brahms was an early hero of Zemlinsky. The German Requiem – for both Brahms’s mother and for Schumann – is a heartfelt, almost secular work, with no reference to Jesus or Christ, although the carefully chosen Psalm texts do mention the Lord a lot. In this strong reading, A German Requiem came across as full of awe. Marie Arnet was the soprano solo in the fifth movement (the chorus seated to aid the hushed nature of its parts) and – what a fantastic replacement! – Simon Keenlyside replaced the ill Bo Skovhus.

Conlon had the measure of this work, too. Restrained – as much of the work’s sentiment demands – but also clear in his direction: he got the best out of orchestra and chorus. It’s good that he’s back with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the winter season (Britten, Debussy and Varèse: 5 May).

Juilliard & Royal Academy of Music Orchestras

Fanfare for the Common Man
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.6 in E minor
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Juilliard Orchestra
Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 3 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Juilliard School of Music in New York celebrates its centenary this coming season. Although there seemed to be no statement to that effect, this concert, which marked the debut of both conservatoire orchestras at the Proms, was as good a way to celebrate as any.

The joint orchestra had played this programme in Leicester’s De Montfort Hall two nights earlier and the appearance at the Proms was great music-making. Sir Colin Davis belied his 77 years (he’s 78 at the end of the month) and seemed to have been injected by the youthful enthusiasm of his players. Once again, young players, with no hard-bitten attitudes, brought out the best in Sir Colin (the same thing happens with Bernard Haitink) – and this was a concert to remember.

Perhaps it was the nature of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man – with timpani and percussion raised high at the back of the stage, just under Sir Henry Wood’s bust, and horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba on the tier in front – that sounded out the hall’s acoustic. From the press seats, on the back row of the stalls, I normally complain of a veiled sound from orchestras. But the Fanfare had well-rounded and focussed sound.

The remainder of the programme was equally vivid and clear – admittedly with a larger than usual body of strings (including 12 double basses) – and consisted of two contrasting symphonies. Vaughan Williams’s Sixth, while suffering from a barrage of uncovered coughing, especially through the desolate final movement, was powerful in its effect. The four movements are played without a break (which has the advantage of keeping the audience’s applause at bay until the end; sadly, the Berlioz didn’t escape so easily) – and is music of distinctive punch, although the saxophone solo in the scherzo wasn’t “sinister” in the way the programme-note outlined. The player, in a red dress, stood up and, amidst the black and white of the suitably dress-suited orchestra, there was a bit of theatricality, rather like Spielberg’s little red-coated girl amidst the overall monochrome in “Schindler’s List”.

War-inspired or not, this symphony may have been new to many of the Juilliard players – indeed, it’s not a everyday work in Vaughan Williams’s homeland (Sir Colin conducted the last performance of it at the Proms, in 1997, with the National Youth Orchestra) and, indeed, may have been unfamiliar to many of the Royal Academy musicians, too – but you wouldn’t have realised that from this full-blooded reading.

The Symphonie fantastique – here complete with all repeats, including in ‘March to the Scaffold’, and the use of the ad lib cornet in ‘A Ball’ – is, of course, something of a party-piece for Sir Colin, but it is amazing how much more you seem to hear whenever he conducts the work. A slight imbalance and unsteady intonation from the off-stage oboe in `Scene in the country’ aside, this was every bit as thrilling as past Davis-led performances – Berlioz’s helter-skelter drug-related demise with his hero, in the face of spurned love, thinking first that he being dragged off to the scaffold and then amidst a witches’ Sabbath. As a warning against drugs it is surely better than most of the public service advertisements on television, although there is a serious danger you might get addicted to the music, certainly when as played with as much as commitment as here!

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