The Last Night

Festive Overture, Op.96
Prince Igor – No sleep, no rest
Ernani – Gran Dio … Oh, de’ verd’anni miei
Anton Rubinstein
Nero – Epithalamium: I sing to you, Hymen divine
Colin Matthews
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Tannhäuser – Entry of the Guests
Calling All Workers
Carmen – Toreador’s Song
Moscow Nights
Sonia Possetti arr. Barley
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

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)

Viktoria Mullova (violin)

Bibs Ekkel & David Nissan (domras), Stanislav Peteltchits (bayan) & Alexei Ekkel (contrabass balalaika)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

And so to the 112th Last Night of the Proms – a record-breaking season with 34 of the 72 concerts sold out (it would have been 35 out of 73, had not the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first concert not been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances: fire!).

There was only one nod to the anniversary pair celebrated roundly this year, with the opener being Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, leading to a an oddly Russian tinged programme, perhaps influenced by the two Russian soloists, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and émigré violinist Viktoria Mullova, both of whom shone in both halves.

Hvorostovsky took the role of anguished heroes Igor and Don Carlo (Charles V) in “Ernani” from operas by Borodin and Verdi, the latter featuring a bass clarinet solo from Ruth McDowall, while also singing rarer Russian fare from Anton Rubinstein’s “Nero”, the harp-introduced (Sioned Williams) aria by Vindex in celebration of the marriage of Nero and Chrysa, who Vindex also loves, so the thanks to Hymen are tinged with regret. In the second half – after a rousing ‘Toreador’s Song’ from “Carmen”, aided and abetted by the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, and the popular revealing of a Union Jack from inside his shirt – Hvorostovsky was joined by an authentic Russian folk-group of dorma, a bayan and the massive contrabass balalaika for Vassily Pavlovich Solovyov-Sedoy’s ‘cold war’ Russian hit, “Moscow Nights” (for which Hvorostovsky was amplified).

There was a popular music strand to the concert, with Eric Coates’s wonderful march, Calling All Workers making its first official appearance at the Proms, although Mark Elder had played it as an encore at his Hallé Orchestra concert in 2003. (With Gergiev’s encore last year with the World Orchestra for Peace of ‘Knightsbridge’, perhaps we can have a proper selection of Coates’s delightful music in future seasons?) Viktoria Mullova returned in the second half, now in a gold number with matching beret, for an infectious arrangement by her husband Matthew Barley of a new tango by young Argentinean composer Sonia Possetti, “Bullanguera”, which afforded the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s percussion section a spotlight. Indeed, that toe-tapping piece was the most recent piece in the programme, having been composed just last year, beating to the post Colin Matthews’s fizzing and exuberant Vivo (which Mark Elder had previously led in 2003), the Proms’ final 60th-birthday nod to this British composer.

However, perhaps best of all was Viktoria Mullova’s contribution to the first half: a wonderful performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, the occasion bringing out a more relaxed and genial soloist than I have experienced before (wearing what looked like a Spiderman costume with red tassels) and affecting not one jot her always-assured intonation and command of the music.

It was left to the last item in the first half to welcome the two choirs, playing to Elder’s operatic strengths in a rousing chorus from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” – the Entry of the Guests, heard at the opening of the second-ever Prom back in 1895, but never heard at a Prom in the Royal Albert Hall, as its last performance had been in The Queen’s Hall in 1938.

The traditional Last Night items were supremely well marshalled by Mark Elder, and the relays to the various “Proms in the Parks” nicely handled, although the audience in the Royal Albert Hall was impatient waiting to hear the vocal responses from afar. From my seat I was unable to see the visual links to the bugle calls that heralded the now de rigueur expanded version of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs embracing Wales (“All through the night”), Scotland (“Skye Boat Song”) and Northern Ireland (“Londonderry Air”), nor could I see the black-and-white newsreel of workers during the Coates nor the visual celebration of the Queen’s 80th-birthday year.

Elder is a confident speaker, too, whether in ad lib responses to shouts from the Arena (suggesting those with bad-sounding klaxons should look in Yellow Pages to find repairers), thanking those Prommers who collect for charity (the £61,000 collection will have grown after the exit collection after the concert), remembering his some-time combative relations with the late Sir John Drummond (with whom Elder fell out in 1991 about conducting that season’s Last Night in the face of the Gulf War) and speaking out about both the current security restrictions making a musician’s life difficult getting in and out of the country and the importance of musical education – particularly singing – in our schools. Given his speech was broadcast around the world to 100-million people, one can only hope that his eloquent and necessary messages hit home.

All in all the Last Night is a curious beast. I go because I want to say farewell to the season that has provided so many great concerts. Many who go probably haven’t been to any of the other concerts, and I wonder (as I do every year) if the first half should not emulate more the 72 other concerts, in programming a single major work – probably choral and, perhaps best, British, but not necessarily so.

If I embarrassingly announce that I find it all a bit of an anti-climax, then the crowds streaming from the Hall – not buzzing (as they were, say, after Haitink’s Mahler 2 a few evenings earlier, full of the power of music), but either stunned into submission or simply regarding it as something of a chore, which never is quite as celebratory as it ought to be – seemed to be acknowledging the same thing.

Who knows what themes or composer-anniversaries will be celebrated next year? Sibelius, of course (50 years dead), but Elgar’s 150th-anniversary could suggest that one of the shorter oratorios be a fitting Last Night first half. Even though “The Music Makers” opened the Proms recently (under Leonard Slatkin), the work’s heartfelt acknowledgement of the very power of music would fit the bill perfectly. Eric Coates died fifty years ago next year, so we could have some more of him! In 2008 the 50th-anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death could be represented by a performance in the first half “A Sea Symphony”. I’d even like more obscure works to fit the bill. Holst’s Shakespearean opera “At the Boar’s Head”, hopefully still with Sir John Tomlinson as Falstaff (as on EMI’s recording), would be an ear-opener for many.

Just a thought to keep you guessing for the next seven months until the announcement of the 2007 season is made and preceded by a British Library three-day conference called “The Proms and British Musical Life” with an associated exhibition about the history of the Proms.

As to who conducts the Last Night, if Jiří Bělohlávek (Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra) is uncertain about taking it on, we have had in the last two years conductors who have shown themselves perfect for the role – Paul Daniel and Mark Elder. Whatever the mix, the Last Night seems in great health and with “Proms in the Parks” gets to more people than ever before. For that – of course – we should be extremely grateful and it is worth seconding Elder’s thanks to the organisation that makes it happen. Thank you, BBC.

Mozart & Mackerras

Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
Mass in C minor, K427 [completed by Robert D. Levin; UK premiere of this version]

Rosemary Joshua & Sarah Fox (sopranos)
Eric Cutler (tenor)
Nathan Berg (bass-baritone)

Choir of the Enlightenment

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Charles Mackerras

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A Proms season in which Mozart features so prominently would not be complete without the presence of Sir Charles Mackerras, whose insights into this most ubiquitous of classical composers are as far-reaching as they are enduring.

If the ‘Haffner’ that opened this concert offered no actual revelations, the unbridled energy of the outer movements (the first without an exposition repeat, which seems to be the stance of the latest Critical Edition), the elegance of the Andante and the amiability of the Minuet demonstrated an ease with this most imposing symphony from Mozart’s early maturity – as well as an unforced deployment of period practice – that few other conductors could hope to rival.

The rest of the concert was devoted to the Mass in C minor – the work Mozart planned in celebration of his marriage to Constanze Weber, but then broke off in 1783 with the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ only drafted, and the second half of the ‘Credo’ and the whole of the ‘Agnus Dei’ not even begun. Theories asto why he abandoned it have been even more numerous than completions of the torso, and Robert D. Levin’s recent attempt (premiered in New York early last year and now recorded by Helmut Rilling) is among the first (and certainly the most systematic) realisations to be made in accordance with Mozart’s musical idiom of the period.

In this, Levin has been aided by the existence of the sacred cantata “Davidde penitente” (1785) – in which Mozart reworked much of the Mass, and whose original music has provided the basis for two of the missing sections: the eloquent tenor aria ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ (near the end of the ‘Credo’) and the sombrefirst half of the ‘Agnus Dei’, both being among the most successful portions of this completion. Those composed anew are perhaps less so – with the fugal intricacy of ‘Crucifixus’ too close to an academic exercise to succeed in context, and the ensuing ‘Et resurrexit’ a little too contrived in its recourse to contrapuntal techniques that Mozart himself had utilised rather more intuitively. Nor does ‘Et unam sanctum’ have quite the gravitas needed at this point – though ‘Et vitam venturi’, in its looking back, motif-wise, to the ‘Kyrie’, provides a conclusive end to the ‘Credo’ and also a formal ‘marker’ satisfying in its coherence. Even more convincing in this respect is Levin’s realisation of ‘Dona nobis pacem’, so achieving a thoughtful elation whose suitability (at least) Mozart would surely have acknowledged.

At 75 minutes, Mackerras’s reading was measured enough to evoke that sense of the monumental inherent in the work’s conception, yet also sufficiently incisive to ensure that its overall momentum never wavered. Rosemary Joshua was effortlessly in control of some of Mozart’s technically most exacting vocal writing (though without quite achieving the sublime assurance of Laura Aitkin in David Robertson’s superb account at the Barbican last January) – and if Sarah Fox (replacing Lisa Milne at short notice) was less commanding in the admittedly not so demonstrative second-soprano part, she was never less than attuned in her response; she and Joshua dovetailing their phrases to exquisite effect in ‘Dominus Deus, Rex caelestis’.

At times a little too operatic in expression, Eric Cutler still contributed a finely sustained ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’, and Nathan Berg made his sonorous presence felt in the ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Dona nobis pacem’ – enriching the ensemble accordingly.

The Choir of the Enlightenment was on fine form throughout: no more so than in an exhilarating ‘Credo in unum Deum’, where Levin’s filling-out of texture proved only marginally less impressive than his re-scoring of the ‘Hosanna’ for eight parts – thus bringing out an expressive breadth surely inherent in Mozart’s music.

Even as a torso, the C minor Mass is an impressive synthesis of Baroque intricacy and Classical poise. Heard in Levin’s completion, it more clearly anticipates the ‘solemn masses’ of Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner – and, as such, fully deserved the advocacy conveyed by Mackerras.

Bruch No.1 & Shostakovich 10

Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

Joshua Bell (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 7 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto is the work by which the composer is remembered, in spite of a corpus that includes two other violin concertos, several concertante works for violin (including the Scottish Fantasy), three symphonies, three operas and much else besides.

It is, of course, a ‘staple’ in the repertoire of virtuoso violinists. Joshua Bell gave a performance of enviable polish and poise and yet, allied with Daniele Gatti, failed to project the expressive potential of this piece. Some sour intonation and fallible ensemble from the orchestra at the start did not faze Bell from delivering the opening phrases in an engaging way and, indeed, when the first movement got underway, there was a good sense of interaction between soloist and accompaniment.

But there was very little feeling of engagement with the substance of the music itself. One sensed a soloist providing a well-honed and, it must be said, technically irreproachable performance, with a compliant orchestra and conductor in attendance. To be sure, Gatti encouraged the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to deliver tempestuous climaxes, but it all sounded strangely perfunctory and with little purpose. Conductor and orchestra dutifully accommodated some wayward rubato from the soloist.

As for the slow movement with its memorable main melody, the performers again failed to ignite the emotions inherent in the score. There was some beautiful playing to be heard, but as for a considered and effective realisation of the music, this listener, at least, was disappointed. Come the finale, violin pyrotechnics were evident, though the orchestral response was decidedly perfunctory. I hesitate to suggest that the performers were on ‘auto-pilot’, but I didn’t sense that Bruch’s score was being performed in anything other than a merely dutiful manner.

By turns sugary, soupy and flashy, Bell offered an extract from John Corigliano’s music for the film “The Red Violin” as an unaccompanied encore.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, written in the wake of Stalin’s death, is a piece which contains within its taut symphonic structure a whole gamut of emotions; indeed it must be one of the most overtly ‘programmatic’ of symphonies which does not have a subtitle.

However, during this performance I wondered whether I was hearing a posthumously discovered (or long suppressed) composition by Shostakovich entitled ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, since very little of the raw nerves or poignant expression of this symphony was exposed. Perfectly manicured string phrasing at the start was played at well below the ‘Moderato’ marking, and several bars’ rest were longer than the notated duration.

It all felt alarmingly ‘comfortable’, a clarinet solo was elegantly shaped but contained no hint of the disquiet which is to come, and whilst not underplayed, the climaxes did not convey the air of menace they should – though Gatti’s grunts were audible from the back row of the Stalls. However, the two piccolos in the first movement’s coda sent a chill through the air.

As for the second movement scherzo, which has been described as ‘a musical portrait of Stalin’, this was dispatched at a very high speed – more Presto’ than the designated Allegro. As a consequence, the ‘off-beat’ chords could not be articulated properly; furthermore, one sensed a depiction (if it is one) of Stalin in high spirits rather than being, to quote David Fanning in his programme note, a “four-minute outpouring of venom”. Geniality pervaded the third movement, as opposed to a feeling of unease and disquiet, though one could admire some expressive woodwinds and the solo horn.

Oddly enough, the start of the last movement was most effectively realised. This is elusive music, with meandering solo woodwinds pitted against ambiguous string harmonies, and both playing and conducting were apposite. Once the ‘allegro’ started, however, we were back to mere display, and when the second movement music was recalled, similar problems of cohesion with the ‘off-beat’ chords were encountered. The mammoth statement of ‘DSCH’ (the composer’s musical motto) was not the heart-stopping happening it should be, and was answered by sentimental string phrases – as opposed to the ‘semplice’ (simply) direction given in the score. The final moments became an opportunity for mere virtuosity and, again, ensemble was compromised – at one point threatening security.

Apart from these occasional instances of precarious ensemble, the Royal Philharmonic played with commendable cohesion, yet this was a threat-free and terror-free Tenth. As such, it was miles away from the real spirit of Shostakovich’s symphony.

Resurrection Symphony

Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 6 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mahler completed his monumental Second Symphony in 1894, and revised it two years later, and continued to make changes. (These are now published in Gilbert Kaplan’s Critical Edition of the work.) The music depicts the journey from the graveside – the first movement was originally the stand-alone ‘Totenfeier’ (Funeral Rites) – through to the day of judgement as the last trumpet sounds and all creatures rise up from their graves to the final resurrection (Rise again, yes rise again…).

A distinguished Mahlerian, Bernard Haitink conducted only the second Proms performance of this work, in 1967, which was also with the BBC Symphony, an orchestra that has changed a great deal over that time – and sometimes not for the better.

On the whole the performance, like the symphony itself, moved from death to rebirth. The mammoth first movement found Haitink making a valiant attempt to move on a dogged orchestra, even though his tempos, in particular in the first movement, were (characteristically in this music) on the slow side – but with a wayward violin and cello section any attempt to improve ensemble was doomed from the beginning.

The second and third movements, ‘intermezzi’ as Mahler called them, did fare a little better though there were still some problems with the overall ensemble. Salvation, however, came in the fourth movement “Urlicht” (Primal Light) with Christianne Stotijn’s bell-like tone cutting clearly through Mahler’s sometimes-murky orchestration. The BBCSO was on good form here, too, accompanying well and paying attention to the conductor, apparently for the first time in the evening.

The massive fifth movement is intended to match the first, a choral setting of part of Klopstock’s “Resurrection Ode” (with additional words by Mahler), which Mahler had heard at the funeral of Hans von Bülow who died in February 1894. Up to that time, Mahler had written three movements of the symphony but was stuck for an ending and, moreover, he was unsure how to integrate the movements.

In the finale the chorus members raised the ante with a powerful and moving performance that was sung from memory and which created a palpable atmosphere. Interjections by the off-stage brass, placed high in the gallery, were enough to send shivers down the spine, though the position of the two groups (one sheltered behind the canopy) meant audience members would have experienced a different perspective depending on where they were seated.

Towards the end Haitink, baton lying on his music stand, conducted the chorus as if it were a chamber group. The slightest hand gestures were transformed in an instant into music of such intensity and magic that the problems of the opening movement were quickly forgotten.

Shostakovich & Rachmaninov

Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Han-Na Chang (cello)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Tadaaki Otaka

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 5 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A consensus performance often materialises for often-played works. The audience comes to know how the piece ‘should’ sound. Playing and interpretation, even if energetic, become automatic. A ‘new’ interpretation is likely to wake the players up, enabling the audience (including critics) to listen actively again. Sometimes what we hear is a wilful distortion of the score – acclaimed nevertheless, for its novelty. More rarely – but so much more rewardingly – a fresh interpretation gets under the skin of the music, producing a performance that is both true and vivid – more exactly perceived than the drab, spiritually listless affair to which we have become habituated.

This concerto performance was such an experience. In the first place, there was a rare, true partnership between Han-Na Chang, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Tadaaki Otaka. Throughout, they were conscious of the need for balance and co-operation – on several occasions Han-Na Chang looked to Lesley Hatfield, the orchestra’s leader, for her cue. Likewise, at the end of the formidable cadenza, Otaka unobtrusively began beating time before the orchestra re-entered. Throughout, Otaka danced the music – Shostakovich’s masterpiece was quite evidently passing through his body as well as his soul (and his intellect).

Clearly, every bar of the score had been scrutinised. This applies, in spades, to Han-Na Chang’s astonishing solo performance – one of the most exacting for any concerto. She is of slight build and of decidedly non-muscular appearance. Yet she produces a large, rich, warm sound, filling the vast rotunda. With bracing and committed attack, her playing was expressively sensitive and intellectually vigorous. Like the composer himself, she flicked from brittle self-protection to agonised vulnerability in the space of a couple of bars. These volatile changes are often swept by in misguided romantic or impassioned performances.

Otaka matched Chang’s responsive acuity. The pairing was a nonpareil. In the first movement, they found a brittle lightness of touch. It instantly reminded me of the same composer, the man who wrote his exhilarating, quirky First Symphony some thirty years earlier, at the age of 19. The piercing, exuberant precision of that movement’s ending was exemplary. The second movement was more deeply moving than run-of-the-mill performances dream of attempting to convey. Its sorrow flowed into the heart exactly because the performers made no attempt to tug the heartstrings – judiciously, for Shostakovich (while sometimes offering self-pity) never pleaded for sympathy. A further feature of this second movement was that from time to time Otaka found the steady pulse of a grave timelessness, such as Kondrashin did in his Moscow Philharmonic version Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony. This was totally unexpected – I’ve not heard it elsewhere – yet characteristic and symptomatic of Otaka’s probing, his insight and his meditation on its spirit. The last movement was vividly playful, dance-like and serious, gathering together themes from earlier in the work.

Throughout the concert, I noticed particularly the fine plucking of the strings – double basses and cellos especially – lending the proceedings a weighty but lightly sprung persistence. A dialogue between weighty, avuncular strings and puffing, teenage winds was exemplary. There was, too, the resplendent horn playing of Tim Thorpe and the rasping, piping family of bassoons – not to mention the timpanist, Steve Barnard. This is a fine orchestra.

At the interval, my inclination was to leave, so great an impact had Chang and Otaka had upon me. The Rachmaninov was vigorously played, with great commitment. It was not, however, in the same league. The music’s elusive spirit remained undiscovered.

Philadelphia Orchestra/Eschenbach (2)

Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Proms back into full stride after the previous night’s cancellation meant that the Philadelphia Orchestra (booked for two concerts) was able to contribute to this season – with two fifth symphonies of triumphant trajectory.

There was no doubting the finish and virtuosity of the orchestra (including a superb woodwind section) or that Christoph Eschenbach brought directness to both works. The Beethoven though, for all the concentration that satisfied structure (the integration of the opening famous four-note motif, for example), didn’t quite expand enough at times – although the lack of pomp in the finale was refreshing – or was sounded with enough rough-hewn power. Across the four movements there was little differentiation of timbre to really establish the dark-to-light journey, and for all the clarity of detail and the dynamic variety, there was a pristine quality that restricted the music’s elemental processes. Dividends came in the Andante con moto second movement, which was enticingly shaped without falling into sentimentality, and in the transition from scherzo to finale, which hung in the air atmospherically and with ethereal pianissimo.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was altogether glorious and responded well to such refined music-making, Eschenbach finding no need (unlike some colleagues) to pull tempo about or sectionalise subjects. The soul of the music was revealed through respect for Tchaikovsky’s own musical craft, and if the trombones were sometimes hectoring and snarling (probably deliberate given the ‘threatening’ points during the horn-led Andante cantabile that such demonstration occurred), there was an unity, as well as a shape and a sway – intensified by unwritten but effective attaccas between movements – that sounded fresh-minted and was certainly revealing of Tchaikovsky’s genius.

As an encore, the ‘Dance of the Comedians’ from Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” was given with precision, scintillation and easeful relish.

Camerata Salzburg/Leonidas Kavakos

Symphony No.1 in E flat, K16
Violin Concerto in G, K216
Symphony No.82 in C (The Bear)

Camerata Salzburg
Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 4 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was ‘eine kleine nachtmusik’, not literally but metaphorically; Haydn and Mozart played with complete understanding and naturalness, always poised but never showy and with a complete rightness of rhythmical pulse and melodic shape. From the opening of Mozart’s early symphony (written when was eight years old), the crisp neatness of the string playing and the expressive winds and brass was immediately apparent.

Leonidas Kavakos was a self-deprecating soloist in the concerto at the centre of this concert, playing and directing with a conscious repudiation of being a ‘star’, but possessing of that quality – and with impeccable intonation and musicality. His own cadenzas emerged from the body of the movements completely organically; conversely the exemplary solos from oboe and horn allowed the ideal conversation of chamber music. Kavakos showed a few moments of uncertainty at the end of the finale; otherwise the movement was again a model of integration, its episodes – even the hurdy-gurdy passage – not so much contrasts as consequences, the onward flow never in doubt. (Kavakos and Camerata Salzburg have recorded Mozart’s violin concertos on Sony Classical.)

This sense of effortless coherence persisted in the Haydn (one of the ‘Paris’ symphonies) – between the different musical influences of “Sturm und Drang”, folk-music and wind-band divertimento, and between the unity of the different sections of the orchestra. Kavakos gave a controlled but energetic interpretation, with a strong, muscular first movement. There was some lessening of tension and dramatic line in the middle movements, but the final ‘bear’ movement restored vitality and élan.

Of course, this is an orchestra from Salzburg; so it is no surprise the musicians are steeped in the idiom. Nevertheless, even by the high standards of London orchestral life, with many visiting luminary ensembles, this was magnificently enjoyable. At the end, the orchestra, with elaborate courtesy, bowed to an enthusiastic reception – but it was us who had been privileged to hear so fitting a Prom in ‘Mozart year’.

Stephen Kovacevich

Piano Sonata, Op.1
Piano Sonata in A, D959

Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 4 September, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Stephen Kovacevich’s EMI recording of Schubert’s A major sonata is for me the greatest ever committed to disc, so to hear him play it live with the single-movement Berg was an enticing prospect. But, I really have to take exception to two aspects of the BBC Proms presentation. First, while I could cope with Stephanie Hughes introducing each work from the stage, it was very distracting for her to remain seated there throughout the performance and, second, why on earth she had to encourage applause, when Kovacevich first appeared, by clapping with her hands in the air and nodding to the audience. And it was disappointing to see that Cadogan Hall was less than half-full for one of the world’s great pianists.

When attending a Kovacevich concert, there is an element of risk, in that his technique is not as secure as it was; but on this occasion there were very few fluffs and none that were distracting. The Berg was played for what it is, a young guy’s piece of late-romanticism, with chromatic and cyclic pointers towards his atonal and twelve-note periods. Its three themes are all derived from the first subject and the score does mark them with different tempos. Kovacevich didn’t drastically alter the speeds, but rather chose to seamlessly integrate them, thus emphasising the romantic elements. His use of the sustaining pedal and singing tone also ensured that the work remained rooted in the 19th-century and yet, paradoxically, time and again I was reminded of Scriabin and, just occasionally, Rachmaninov.

Berg belonged to the Second Viennese School, but Schubert was the greatest of all Austrian composers and the A major Sonata is one of the supreme challenges for a pianist. Here the first subject was forceful with slight pauses in the second half of the theme, and throughout the movement there was superb dynamic and rhythmic shading. The second subject brought marginal slowing with an open sound that completely eschewed sentimentality and the delicate decorative scales were almost Mozartean – but a sense of drama and latent power were always present. In the development every line was clearly delineated, rhythms and inner parts were highlighted and at the climax there was a sense of fury, as Kovacevich pounded the rhythm out; the coda brought some miraculous shading combined with a sense of rhythmic and dynamic fragmentation.

As in all of Schubert’s late works the shadow of death hangs in the air and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the spectral Gondoliers song that is the slow movement of this work. Here Kovacevich adopted a genuine ‘andantino’ tempo and again the tonal and rhythmic shading were exceptional. In the central section’s assault on tonality there was no change in tempo and the rhythm was strictly maintained, thus making it even more frighteningly immediate. When the first subject returned the sense of threatening implacable rocking was truly disturbing and the second subject brought no relief.

The scherzo brought no lightening of the mood; rarely can it have sounded so ominously otherworldly, with an insistent left hand, no clear sense of up- and down-beats and disconcerting pauses in the trio. Schubert’s finale is a sublime rondo which moves inexorably forward and here Kovacevich was Beethovenian, the tempo was fast and the tension was palpable, never once did he relax. At each appearance of the first subject another aspect of the theme was revealed and emphasised and each rolling extended climax brought true power used as an interpretative tool. Before the discursive last appearance of the theme the chords were jarring in their impact and the coda was a true summation of the whole work.

Kovacevich offered Chopin’s Mazurka in E minor (Opus 41/1) as an encore and, as in the Schubert, there was a whole range of rhythmic and tonal shading that made one hear the piece afresh.

This was magnificent playing. In a world where technical facility and blandness rule supreme, this was a salutary reminder of what a great artist can do – this was profoundly affecting.

Philadelphia Orchestra/Eschenbach (1) [Cancelled]

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Marisol Montaivo (soprano)
Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano)
Nikolai Schukoff (tenor)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: N/A

Reviewed: 3 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“Due to the loss of electrical power following a minor fire at the Royal Albert Hall, it is with great regret that the Royal Albert Hall has been forced to cancel this evening’s performance: Prom 66 by the Philadelphia Orchestra.”

As part of Classical Source’s comprehensive survey of the Proms, the programme details are recorded ‘for the record’ and are as published in the Proms Prospectus and therefore take no account of any last-minute changes there may have been on the night.

Escape Velocity

Die Zauberflöte – Overture
Benjamin Wallfisch
Escape Velocity [World premiere]
Serenade in G, K525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik)
Thamos, King of Egypt, K345 – choruses and incidental music

Fflûr Wyn (soprano)
Christine Cairns (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Lemmings (tenor)
Stephan Loges (bass)

OSJ Voices

Orchestra of St John’s
John Lubbock
Benjamin Wallfisch

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 September, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The final Proms Saturday Matinee of this season was a ‘Mostly Mozart’ affair, a couple of evergreens buttressing a rarely-played score, the concert spiced by a premiere for which OSJ’s founder John Lubbock gave way to Benjamin Wallfisch (born 1979) the orchestra’s Associate Composer and an experienced conductor in his own right.

Wallfisch’s 8-minute Escape Velocity (a minute longer than suggested) – for strings, piano, celesta, harp and percussion – which the composer conducted with flair and attracted a virtuoso response from OSJ, made a big impression, has as its starting-point the premise of being able “to propel an object upwards with such extreme initial velocity that as it rises gravity cannot slow it enough to reverse its ascent…”. (A photo of the space shuttle “Endeavour” accompanied the composer’s written introduction.)

As music, Escape Velocity is both atmospheric and suspenseful, and the numerous effects and colours remind of three Polish composers, Lutoslawski and Penderecki and, further back, Szymanowski, the latter summoned in the ecstatic violin solos that were beautifully played by Jan Schmolck. The music’s suggestive power is considerable, not least the allusion of travelling ever-higher (escaping) and the speeding into the unknown. Wallfisch’s notation is explicit, not least with the extensive (two-player) percussion section, which includes nine different and specific cymbals, waterphone, watergong (medium!), and two scaffolding poles (the playing instructions for which are quite detailed). Escape Velocity makes one keen to hear more of Benjamin Wallfisch’s music … just as well, then, that a CD of his music is due in October!

John Lubbock conducted the Mozart items with incision and expression, although both the overture to “The Magic Flute” and ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ had their mundane passages, the former also lacking solemnity, partly due to the clear-cut Cadogan Hall acoustic (although listeners to BBC Radio 3 would have got a different and misleading indication of the hall’s excellence, the orchestra rendered distant and mushy in K525, for example, which it wasn’t in situ). Despite the workmanlike approach, the Romance of the serenade took wing and the Trio was generously shaped, some passing roughness of ensemble notwithstanding.

OSJ’s commitment was never doubted though and the nearly forty-year association of this zestful orchestra and Lubbock found an extra gear for Mozart’s music for Tobias von Gebler’s “Thamos, König in Aegypten”, an ‘heroic drama’ centred on good over evil.

Mozart’s score went through several revisions. That it is not heard more often is surprising, for there is much that is inspired. One practical problem is that there isn’t a huge amount for the chorus and even less for the vocal soloists – five of the eight movements are for orchestra alone – and the bill for ‘not much in return’ isn’t an accountant’s dream. Nevertheless, this gripping performance brought the music alive in the most positive way.

The score includes two splendid choral sections, here outstandingly brought off by OSJ Voices, and the four soloists were also excellent, with the instrumental items containing some striking invention, not least when anticipating the Commendatore’s arrival (in “Don Giovanni”) and in the imposing scoring (including trombones) and with it “The Magic Flute”. There was much to keep the ears busy. Allowing that by the end of the 40 or so minutes there was a feeling of some ‘padding’ creeping in, the close itself was suitably joyous (of pastoral yet vivacious contentment – light has vanquished darkness). Elsewhere, Lubbock duly realised the drama of the music, and its invention was relished by all concerned, and proved a notable inclusion to ‘Mozart 250’.

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