Year: 2007

The Last Night of the Proms 2007

Dvořák
Othello – Overture, Op.93
Rachmaninov
Vocalise, Op.34/14 [arr. Joshua Bell for violin and orchestra]
Ravel
Tzigane
AdèsThe Tempest – Opening Scene, The Storm
Elgar
The Spirit of England, Op.80 – The Fourth of August
Bellini
La sonnambula – Closing Scene
Fučík
Entrance of the Gladiators, Op.68
Léhar
Giuditta – Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss
Ponce
Estrellita [arr. Heifetz]
Strauss
Morgen!, Op.27/4
Elgar
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs [with additional numbers arr. Chilcott]
Parry, orch. Elgar
Jerusalem
Arr. Henry Wood
The National Anthem

Joshua Bell (violin)

Andrew Kennedy (tenor)

Anna Netrebko (soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek. Photograph: Clive BardaA first ‘Last Night’ and a last ‘Last Night’, for Jiří Bělohlávek and Nicholas Kenyon respectively: the former paying tribute to the latter in his brief but affecting speech. Not surprisingly, the press release included with the programme announced record sales for this year – see this site’s News service – a 5 percent increase in audiences overall and this for one concert less than in 2006, when the ‘Last Night’ was Prom 73 (this year it was 72). With fair weather in all the parks (Middlesborough, Swansea, Carrickfergus, Glasgow and Hyde Park), there was an estimated 90,000 also joining in with Britain’s biggest annual televised sing-along.

While I still pray for the day when the first half of the ‘Last Night’ is given over to a major choral work (please, Vaughan Williams’s “A Sea Symphony” next year, in honour of the 50th-anniversary of the composer’s death), at least we had a portion of one this year. Amazingly Elgar’s “The Spirit of England” has never been heard at the Proms, so partial amends were made with the inclusion of the Binyon setting ‘The Fourth of August’ (some 35 days late, as it happened), in which Bělohlávek seemed quite at home, aided and abetted by both the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers as well as tenor Andrew Kennedy, making his second Proms appearance in a week.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)It was with the Elgar that this ‘Last Night’ really got going. Two of the preceding items had nodded to one of the Proms themes, ‘Shakespeare in Music’, with Dvořák’s Othello Overture and the opening of Thomas Adès’s opera “The Tempest”, which continued the recent tradition of including in the ‘Last Night’ a piece by a living British composer (Adès taking his applause from his seat). However, even then, even with Joshua Bell’s sweet tones in both Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and Ravel’s Tzigane, the temperature remained pretty cool.

Following the Elgar (another Proms theme), though, with the irrepressible presence of Russian soprano-of-the-moment Anna Netrebko, the thaw continued apace, with the closing scene of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”, depicting first Armina’s sleepwalking and then her joy at being discovered innocent of two-timing her betrothed Elviro with the Count, allowing the opera to end happily in some impressive vocal pyrotechnics, which even some distant conversation (which sounded like an announcement in the foyers) could not derail.

During the interval the front-row Prommers decorated the conductor’s podium with the usual plethora of paper trails, the rather appropriate learner’s “L” and a bizarre new road sign, a red-bordered circle with a drawing of a conductor in it. While there are some who stood on the podium in the last week that might warrant a ‘no conductor’ sign, Jiří Bělohlávek is definitely not one of them. He (pardon the pun) conducted himself in exemplary fashion and opened the second half Julius Fučík’s Entrance of the Gladiators, only preceded by the traditional two Prommers dusting-down Sir Henry Wood’s bust and placing a laurel wreath over his shoulders.

Czech composer Julius Fučík (1872-1916)The Fučík immediately got the audience in hand-clapping mode, with its extraordinary swagger, taken up with surprising verve with the return of Netrebko, running onto the stage for Lehár’s hit from “Giuditta”, dancing and swirling, in her full, layered skirt like a demented fandango dancer. She then scooped up roses and – not content in beguiling front row Prommers by casting roses at them – rushed back and forth to either side of the stage to similarly enchant those gentlemen lucky enough to be close enough in the Stalls.

With hearts racing as fast as Netrebko darted about, we were in need of calming down, and Bell came back to oblige with the effortlessly sweet Estrellita by Mexican Manuel Ponce, arranged by Heifetz, followed by both Bell and Netrebko in Richard Strauss’s “Morgen”, offering some calm and quiet repose before the time-honoured shenanigans.

It was a shame that in this eclectic mix there was no room for a nod in the direction of perhaps the most worthwhile of the Proms themes this year, the celebration of the BBC’s 80-year aegis of the Proms, in ‘Proms Firsts’. Surely there must have been something premièred at the Proms over the last 80 years that would have been eminently suitable for a Last Night? In a period where confidence in the BBC has (seemingly) tumbled, what better way to remind people of the pivotal position the Corporation has in the cultural life of this country?

But, no, we were straight into the traditional items. Extraordinarily, Bělohlávek was so successful in ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ that after singing heartily, the audience en masse waited for the fast coda to applaud. Having said that, second time around, old habits were fallen back to and applause and cheering started as soon as the singing finished.

The fanfares ricocheting between the Royal Albert Hall and the various Proms in the Parks (first to newcomer Middlesborough, then Swansea, Carrickfergus, Glasgow Green and, finally, just over Kensington Gore, to Hyde Park where there were some 40,000 revellers) were not introduced and worked a treat, followed by the first three parts of Sir Henry Wood’s “Fantasia on British Sea Songs”. The sonorous tones of Michael Levis’s tuba in ‘The Saucy Arethusa’ made way for Susan Monks’s exquisite cello solo in ‘Tom Bowling’, appreciated by both her fellow orchestra members immediately in the distinctive soft sole-on-platform shuffling and Bělohlávek’s first choice for the solo bows.

There were new additions to the ‘Hornpipe’ from both leader Stephen Bryant and the flute section, who drunkenly appropriated the tune before the clapping overwhelmed ‘Jack’s the Lad’ in the usual noisy and here not-so-badly derailing race to the finish – audience versus orchestra and conductor. The three national interpolations – Wales’s ‘Ar hyd y nôs’, Scotland’s ‘Skye Boat Song’ and Northern Ireland’s ‘Londonderry Air’, sung live in the various parks, and in the Royal Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers – have, to my mind, been heard enough (I’m not convinced Bob Chilcott’s arrangements meld that well with Wood). Yes, there should be some inclusivity about the various nationalities that make up the United Kingdom, but, please, let’s do it outside of Henry Wood’s ‘Fantasia’.

Donald Gilbert's 1936 bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood (1869-1945)Here it was Wood’s own arrangement that brought the item to a close, with oboe-led ‘Home Sweet Home’ and the massed whistling of ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ leading to Wood’s version of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ (choral parts provided by the BBC Symphony Chorus’s director Stephen Jackson). It might have been more appropriate this year to use Sir Malcolm Sargent’s version in commemoration of his death 40 years ago, a fact that didn’t escape the Prommers who, at the end of the interval, had got us to give three cheers in Sir Malcolm’s memory.

Bělohlávek got us to give three cheers, too, the time-honoured acclamation to the memory of Sir Henry Wood (idiosyncratically he made a very deliberate pause between each “Hip”), before conducting both “Jerusalem” and “The National Anthem” to the manor born. Without doubt a barnstorming success, I wonder if Bělohlávek is musing how a man from a land-locked country is now in charge of a celebration of a nation that is so proud of its island and naval traditions!

I started this review with a comment about it being Bělohlávek’s first ‘Last Night’. I think there is something even more significant here. It is the first time that a ‘natural’ English speaker has taken charge. Even when Kempe, Boulez and Rozhdestvensky were in charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, there was never an expectation they should be there on the ‘Last Night’. Indeed, even Boult never conducted a Last Night [please see footnote – Ed.], so it has never been a stipulation that the orchestra’s Chief Conductor should do so.

That Bělohlávek can do it is an indication of change, I’m sure spearheaded by the Proms in the Park success. In the Hall there are so many nationalities now (lots of German flags this year, even a Brazilian one, though no Venezuelan one apart from one of the jackets donated by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra not so many weeks ago) that it has lost any jingoistic connotations, for which much thanks.

While to me, it remains, something of a bizarre, atypical event to end what Bělohlávek described as “the world’s biggest – and most democratic – music festival”, I usually come away cheered and uplifted, knowing that next year we can all convene to do it all again. Hurrah!

  • Since the above was written, Mike Langhorne has provided information which reveals, according to the Prospectus for the 1946 Proms season, that Sir Adrian Boult was due to conduct the ‘last night’ that year. However, the ‘last night’ then was rather different to the one we are familiar with now, which really begun with Sir Malcolm Sargent, who conducted the Last NIght from 1947 and whose tenure of the BBC Symphony Orchestra started in 1950. On Saturday 21 September, the final Prom of 1946 included Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Walton’s Sinfonia concertante (with Phyllis Sellick as the pianist) and Sibelius’s Symphony No.7. The one concession to the Last Night festivities, as we now appreciate it, was Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. The evening before, Boult had conducted a Prom that included Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony in the first half of the concert – alongside other works – and then Bax’s large-scale Violin Concerto (with Marie Wilson as soloist) in the second, with Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary to finish. Proms were different then! Also the programme-books included requests for patrons to not applaud between movements. That’s a rider worth re-printing today!
  • BBC Proms

Proms in the Park

John Williams
Star Wars – Main Theme
Gounod
Roméo et Juliette – Ah! lève-toi, soleil
Grainer
Dr Who – Theme
Verdi
Rigoletto – Ella mi fu rapita; Parmi veder le lagrime
Weber
Clarinet Concerto No.2 in E flat – finale
Delibes
Les filles de Cadiz
Wright & Forrest
Kismet – And this is my Beloved
Baerwalk & Gilbert
Moulin Rouge – Come What May
Puccini
La bohème – Donde Lieta uscì
Rogers & Hammerstein
The Sound of Music – Climb Every Mountain
Artie Shaw
Concerto for Clarinet
Bernstein
West Side Story – Tonight
Rogers & Hammerstein
Carousel – You’ll Never Walk Alone

Juan Diego Flórez (tenor)
Mark Simpson (clarinet)
Lesley Garrett (soprano)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Carl Davis

Hosted by Sir Terry Wogan

With sets by Chico, T-Rextasy, Ryandan, Tony Hadley and Will Young


Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 8 September, 2007
Venue: Hyde Park, London

Juan Diego Flórez. Photograph: Decca/Johannes IfkovitsHailed as “the world’s greatest classical music festival” on the BBC Proms website it is difficult to see how this “Proms in the Park” concert fits this description. At £23 a ticket and many thousands of attendees I can see the commercial reasons but not as a part of a music festival that espouses to be essentially classical.

“The gates open at 4pm and the fun starts at 5.30pm” was the boast, though I would question Dick and Dom’s patter direct from Children’s BBC (including theme tune) being described as fun to anyone over the age of ten. The duo’s attempt to rouse a generally nonplussed audience with games such as ‘which part of the audience can shout the loudest’ and ‘pass a beach ball to lighting gantry and back’ failed and was embarrassing to say the least. The final insult was to simply encourage the audience to drink a lot – a theme that was prolonged into the evening’s classical events with even Lesley Garrett asking if the audience had had enough to drink!

Throughout the evening five artists from the pop-music world graced the occasion. Chico was first up for his second appearance at Proms in the Park in as many years. Born in South Wales, he moved to Morocco until the age of thirteen when he returned to the UK to complete his schooling. He reached the final of “The X Factor” in 2005 and has the body to have ladies drooling (judging from my ‘Prom in the Park’ colleague). His voice is pretty good, too, with his set of original material and cover versions. His rendition of James Brown’s classic “I Feel Good” was excellent and I can imagine that in front of an audience that was less eclectic than this he would have made a much greater impression.

T-Rextasy, a tribute band to the immortal Marc Bolan of T-Rex, was next up and you can see why it was voted the ‘Best Live Tribute Band in the UK’ by BBC One’s Battle of the Fantasy Bands. Lead singer and guitarist Danielz has an uncanny resemblance to the 1970s’ Glam Rocker both in voice, actions and even his hair. Once again, the mix of audience didn’t respond as well as they could have with a large proportion of them (probably here to see Will Young) not being born when T-Rex was playing.

Canadian identical twins RyanDan (Ryan and Dan Kowarsky) are expected have the Christmas Number One record but surprisingly they made a very small splash here. Their music is similar in style to that of crossover group ‘Il Divo’ but with less of an operatic emphasis. The pair’s website lists a string of up and coming appearances on daytime UK television, including “The Alan Titchmarsh Show” and “Loose Women”. From this small list of upcoming appearances it is clear who the target audience is and doubtless we will hear more of them in months to come whether we like it or not.

As a closet fan of 80s’ group Spandau Ballet it was a pleasure to see Tony Hadley (former front man) as the final act before the ‘classical’ section kicked off. Although Hadley has been working as a solo artist since the ‘Spandau days’ (he sang the part of Billy Flynn in “Chicago” at the beginning of the year) it is the songs that he had hits with in the 1980s that have stuck with him. True to his fans (or those of us that were there) his first song was just that: “True”, the ‘Number One’ hit released in 1983. Then came two of the group’s other hits “Through the Barricades” and “Gold” before an interesting and exceptionally well-suited cover of the Kaiser Chiefs 2004 hit “I Predict a Riot” which itself has clear influences in late 1970s and early 1980s punk/new romantic music.

Keeping with the 1970s theme the ‘classical’ part of the concert opened with John Williams’s Theme from the 1977 film “Star Wars”. Though derivative it is hard not to appreciate how much this music has been an influencing factor in film music since. Totally amplified the BBC Concert Orchestra boomed over and through the assembled crowd that had gradually increased. The sound was clear and well balanced, a complete contrast to Michael Ball’s Albert Hall Prom, though there was little opportunity for subtlety of tone and nuance.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, the doyen of the early-morning slot Sir Terry Wogan ably read from the autocue to introduce the pieces and artists. Wogan is a past master at this kind of thing and his mixture of witty asides and evident love of performing was attractive, if largely ignored by members of the audience not in the immediate vicinity.

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez’s first of two sessions included Gounod and Verdi. The former’s ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil’ is doubtless the most well-known aria from the opera and is none the less for being so. Flórez dedicated the Verdi to Pavarotti. Flórez’s performances were well thought through accompanied sympathetically by the Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra.

After another pandering to the pop-gods with the theme from “Dr Who” (light-show included), a surprise was in store for those who had ears to listen. Bespectacled 18-year-old Mark Simpson gave a spectacular performance of the ‘Alla polacca’ third movement from Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto. Despite having a microphone strapped to the bell of his instrument he managed to raise the standard of what had so far been a pandering to the masses.

In his second set, Simpson performed the little known Concerto for Clarinet by Artie Shaw. Known largely for his big band, and hits such as “Begin the Beguine” and “Stardust” it is often forgotten that Shaw had a great understanding of symphonic music with his arrangements using strings as well as ‘big band’ instrumentation. Simpson’s performance of this piece showed the clearest understanding of the idiom not taking into account the complexity of the piece. Simpson is a star in the making and having won the BBC Young Musician of the Year and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer all before going to music-college he is likely to be someone that you will hear plenty more from in coming years. Despite the clear talent of this young man, sadly many of the audience talked and ate through the performance reducing these gems to mere background music.

Lesley Garrett. © Simon FowlerThe first of two obvious ‘draws’ to this concert, Lesley Garrett boasted three outfits: one for each of her sets. The first, a splendid red number seemed fitting as she sung of the ‘Girls of Cadiz’, perhaps one of Léo Delibes’s most famous vocal pieces apart from his opera “Lakmé”. Again the BBC Concert Orchestra accompanied well and was attuned to the rubato that Garrett used to good effect.

Garrett has a natural rapport with audience. She has recorded twelve solo CDs, many of which have gone gold or silver or have received other awards; she has taken the crossover market and made it her own. On the other hand she is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 1979 and was principal soprano at English National Opera so her classical credentials are also without doubt. As a singer she now falls between two styles – no longer considered a serious opera singer perhaps due to her ‘selling out’; strangely she is too good to sing musicals where a trained operatic voice is seldom called for. Garrett’s performance of Puccini’s ‘Donde Lieta uscì’ was emotionally dedicated to Pavarotti and was sung with equal passion and feeling. For the remainder of her set a selection of standards from the musicals that impressed the masses but was truer to the soprano’s style than to the composers’ intentions.

Relays of recordings were then played from the other “Proms in the Park” venues before the main attraction of the evening for many. Will Young’s achievement over the past five years has been staggering. He has won two Brit awards, had four Number One singles and three Top Two albums. Over all he has had sales of over seven-million records. His energetic performance was clearly enjoyed by many of the audience – once his slot was over many people started to leave.

At £23 a head, “Proms in the Park” was, on the face of it, good value; factor-in £5 for a programme and a hefty charge for food and drink and other ‘merchandising’ it was perhaps not so cheap. Clearly the BBC has a ready audience here – the Arena is usually sold out (about 40,000 people in Hyde Park alone) but I do question its connection to the Proms. People that I spoke to seemed disinterested in the music that was played revelling more in the atmosphere of the occasion. After the linking up with the Royal Albert Hall and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” the sky overhead was lit by fireworks followed by the mad rush to transport home.

Boston Symphony Orchestra – 2

Carter
Three Illusions [UK premiere of complete work]
Bartók
Concerto for Orchestra
Brahms
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Elliott Carter. ©MereSeuerThe penultimate night of the 2007 Proms season brought a second appearance from the Boston Symphony, evidently enjoying a period of renewal under James Levine. His first three years as Music Director have seen the orchestra perform a range of contemporary music; not least that by Elliott Carter, whose Three Illusions were assembled between 2004 and 2006 at the request of Levine – one of a few American conductors still actively championing the music of America’s greatest living composer.

As with Carter’s orchestral triptychs of the 1980s (Three Occasions) and 1990s (Symphonia), the present set can be performed individually while making a proportionally greater impact when heard as a whole: essential in the case of Three Illusions, whose components last barely three minutes apiece. Expressive contrasts are nonetheless considerable – from the questing anticipation of ‘Micomicón’ (Cervantes’s realm of the imagination), through the evocation of a mythical youth in ‘Fons juventutis’ (a deft reminder that Carter’s music is never earnest in its profundity), to the sharply ironic and deprecatory gestures of ‘More’s Utopia’ (the More being Thomas). Scintillatingly dispatched in this performance, these Illusions amply confirm that the vitality and poise to be found in Carter’s recent output are far from being illusory.

The rest of the programme featured staples of the twentieth- and nineteenth-century repertoires that complemented each well. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was, of course, a Boston commission and its unabashed orchestral prowess was nothing if not evident here. Less so was the intuitive sense with which the composer handles his material such that formal precision is never at the cost of expressive spontaneity. Thus the contrasts in musical motion of the ‘Introduzione’ were rather inflexibly underlined, the playful ‘two by two’ of the ‘Giuoco delle coppie’ a little too regimented (the central chorale too clinical to exude real pathos), and the ‘Elegia’ inhibited in its emotional force. The stark contrasts of the ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ were too schematic, and though Levine rightly refrained from making ‘Finale’ a sprint to the finish, his underlining of detail at the expense of a broader momentum rather sold the music short. The Boston Symphony Orchestra can rarely, if ever, have played this music better, but the attractions of the performance remained largely on the surface.

Conductor James LevineIt was a not dissimilar story in Brahms’s First Symphony. Weighty but never merely ponderous, the first movement’s introduction palpably ‘hit the ground running’, then the main Allegro was energetically propelled – at its best in a superbly controlled crescendo of intensity going into the recapitulation, though a certain rhythmic foursquareness was often evident elsewhere. The Andante exuded warm contentment, though for Levine ‘sostenuto’ clearly also admits of ‘sentimento’, while the blithe spirits of the ‘Intermezzo’ were offset by a certain hectoring quality in its central trio section. Come the finale, and the ominous feel brought to the first half of the introduction was somewhat undone by the blowsy horn solo that followed. Not too reverently handled, the ‘big tune’ amply (and rightly) determined the course of what comes after – which yet lacked for variety in expressive emphasis, without which the movement as a whole can seem to be ‘going through the motions’ on its way to the expected affirmation. The coda, if comfortably avoiding bombast, felt nothing if not pre-determined.

It is only fair to add that the reception accorded this performance suggested that the majority of those present saw and heard matters differently; certainly the ‘strength in depth’ of ensemble and Levine’s marshalling of it were nothing if not impressive. Two encores – an effervescent account of the C major Slavonic Dance (Number 7) from Dvořák’s less familiar but superior Opus 72 set, followed by a suave rendering of Brahms’s First Hungarian Dance (one of three that he orchestrated) – brought the evening to a lively and uninhibited close.

Boston Symphony Orchestra – 1

Berlioz
La Damnation de Faust – Dramatic Legend, Op.24

Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano)
Marcello Giordani (tenor)
José Van Dam (bass-baritone)
Patrick Carfizzi (bass)

Finchley Children’s Music Group
Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

James Levine. Photograph: Steven SenneBerlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” – from ‘The Plains of Hungary’ to the Jaws of Hell (which Faust descends to thanks to Méphistophélès’s deception) and the Gates of Heaven (through which the pardoned Marguerite passes having been abandoned by Faust) – is not an obvious work to tour (given it requires four soloists, chorus and a girls’ choir). But that’s what the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus have been doing – performances in Lucerne, Essen and Paris before this one in London (and, presumably, collecting a different children’s chorus at each venue) – the orchestra also including Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Concerto for Orchestra as well as pieces by Brahms, Carter, Ives and Ravel in its two-week European Tour that ends in London with a second Proms appearance.

James Levine, Music Director of the Boston Symphony since 2004 while continuing his already-long tenure at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, was seated for this performance, his lucid conducting style not compromised and entirely focussed on the music. The BSO has had a distinguished relationship with French music since the days of Charles Munch and, then, Seiji Ozawa and this tradition was proudly celebrated at this Prom with playing of immense distinction, character and refinement. Sometimes the brass was too loud, covering solo singers and strings, yet this was less a miscalculation than done for dramatic impetus, and it was a pleasure to hear cornets that were distinguishable from trumpets. The Orchestra’s lucent string sound, with no lack of fervour, illuminated the expressive potential of Berlioz’s music, and the woodwinds danced and lured impeccably and with a wonderful clarity of detail. Percussion colour and dynamics were of similar attention, the whole orchestra displaying an ‘internal perfection’ and an outgoing communication that overshadowed the other visiting orchestras to this year’s Proms.

Levine’s pacing of Berlioz’s score was ideally forward-moving, avoiding portentousness and indulgence – the three familiar orchestral sections were each new-minted: the ‘Rákóczy March’ light and deft, ‘Dance of the Sylphs, with a handful of strings, enchanted in its swiftness, and ‘Minuet of the Will-O’-the-Wisps’ was integrated into the whole (tempo-relationships throughout made the work seem seamless) and not turned into a ‘showpiece moment’.

Bass-baritone José van Dam, who sang Méphistophélès. Photograph: Tanja NiemannThe Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang from memory (as the did the soloists and the girls from the Finchley Music Group) and displayed impressive unanimity and a range of characterisations – Peasants, Christians, Drinkers (a wonderfully slurred “Amen”), Spirits, Soldiers, Students (Berlioz seemingly without limit in finding different ways to set “Gaudeamus”) and Damned souls and demons. The young singers from Finchley added angelic timbres in the final arrival (for Marguerite) in paradise.

Patrick Carfizzi’s brief appearance, as Brander, was but a few paragraphs, but the other three soloists have much to do. Marcello Giordani’s Faust took a while to settle vocally (although he could be strained later, very noticeably at one point) but he found Faust’s forlorn state from the off and also his awe of nature and his rapture when love-duetting with Marguerite, the generous tones of Yvonne Naef who, though, never quite suggested her character’s fullness (and was attended to eloquently by Steven Ansell’s viola and Robert Sheena’s cor anglais). José Van Dam, however, left no doubt as to the duplicitous motivations of Méphistophélès – from an unctuously ironic first entry to his ‘driving’ of Faust to ‘Pandemonium’, Levine, in the latter, setting a hot pace and bringing out all the ghoulish choral and orchestral effects.

The interval (between Parts 2 and 3) was a regret, so too the atmosphere at the very end being applauded into too quickly (a constant problem), but this performance – dedicated to Luciano Pavarotti – was one of this season’s high-points, not least for van Dam and the sheer quality of the Boston Symphony.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Beethoven
Overture to Coriolan, Op.62
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Brahms
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Viviane Hagner (violin)

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 5 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Riccardo ChaillyRiccardo Chailly strode vigorously up to the podium, purposive and thickly bearded. Facing the bust of Sir Henry Wood, the founder-conductor of the Proms, he looked every inch his re-incarnation.

The Overture for “Coriolan” did not live up to this expectation. The renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded distant, both in sound and emotional engagement. The beginning was quite interesting – the clearly delineated sequence of vigorous, terse interjections following the sombre introduction: Beethoven seemed to be talking to himself, in grunts. The overture’s urgent, romantic theme whisked past briskly once or twice, tuneful but decidedly uninvolved – a far cry this being “one of Beethoven’s most intense expressions of raw emotion.”

Viviane Hagner (originally it was Sergei Khachatryan advertised for this Prom) has a small, cool style. She produces a refined and controlled sound from the Stradivarius that the Nippon Foundation has lent her. She has yet to find – or to display – the rich, warm tone that I am sure is available to her touch. Instead, she plays with a steely sensitivity suited to Mozart.

Viviane HagnerThis was, in effect, a chamber performance of Beethoven’s mighty concerto. One could sense Chailly restraining the orchestra so as to complement Hagner’s withdrawn approach. Nevertheless, there was cumulatively something monumental to the first movement – the music had been robust if unimpassioned. The slow movement suited Hagner best: serene, unhurried and limpid – crystalline. She tripped lightly into the finale with sparkle and grace, close to evidencing a sense of fun – including a delicious conversation with the bassoon.

With Beethoven played in this humour, how would Brahms sound? Would we move from the largish modern orchestra’s restrained accommodation to a more-lush response?

At first, there was little sign of change. The opening theme, cool and briskly unattached, led into a remarkably clear delineation of Brahms’s themes and development. Chailly also clarified the orchestration commendably, giving effect to a number of small phrases often passed over – Romantic adjuncts or lightly-scored underlining. Overall, though, the movement lacked consequence. Chailly seems to see the first three movements as a sequence of varied preludes to the final passacaglia.

Brahms’s instruction for the second movement – Andante moderato – asks for a flowing of melody. The current of this stream was quite sturdy, with no Romantic dallying. The beauty never dragged. The playing, limpid again, was very fine, with notable contributions from the horns – smooth yet unostentatious. The scherzo was fast, light and exciting. It evoked the Viennese spirit of the operetta. There was no sense of laboured jollity from gods playing with thunderbolts.

The passacaglia finale was brisk: too speedy to achieve the culminating effect that Brahms was surely seeking. There was nothing monumental about the (slightly modified) Bach chorale heard at the outset, nor in the more sober of the variants that followed. The instrumentation missed being striking. The performance lacked grandeur. That said, many byways gave pleasure – especially the extended flute solo and the youthful vigour of the timpanist.

For an encore came Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, which Chailly impishly introduced: “you think we’re going to play a Hungarian Dance!” This, resplendently, was the highlight of the evening. At last, having sat through tame and uniform performances of major creations here was the ringing, dynamic, colourful, exuberant and vibrant tones of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in its stride.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – 2

Bartók
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Kodály
Dances of Galánta
Ligeti
Atmosphères
Enescu
Romanian Rhapsody No.1

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Daniel Barenboim, Berlin, 1997. Photograph: Cordula GrothIt says something for the perception we may have of the Vienna Philharmonic that if it plays Bartók, let alone Ligeti, that part of an eyebrow is raised in surprise. And the folksy confections of Enescu and Kodály also seem foreign to the orchestra’s nature (despite the geographical connections) – yet a previous-generation VPO made a spectacular recording of the Enescu under Constantin Silvestri (around 50 years ago!) and Ferenc Fricsay led a 1961 Salzburg Festival version of the Kodály that takes some emulating (matched though by a Tokyo account from Celibidache and the London Symphony Orchestra). Such recorded examples, while unhelpful to comments on a one-off concert, cannot help but throw a long shadow.

There was an inviting end-of-term feel to this mouth-watering choice of music – although the fuller audience played safe the night before with the VPO’s trademark Schubert and Bruckner – certainly in the ‘dance suites’ of Kodály and Enescu. The Bartók and Ligeti, both exploring the possibilities of orchestral sound, raised the stakes, though.

Bartók’s masterpiece was given a lacklustre account, only the non-vibrato timbres at the very opening (creating some atmosphere) and the decorative arpeggios leading to the climax of the third movement held in the air with any meaning. Otherwise, a lack of incision in the playing, some ‘pushed through’ phrasing and disjointed tempo-relationships undermined the edge and ‘roots’ of the music. Bartók should never seem functional or loosely connected.

The second half of the concert was advertised as Ligeti, Enescu and Kodály whereas the better arrangement was surely Galánta, Atmosphères, Romanian Rhapsody … which turned out to be the order!

Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). Photograph: J. Warren Perry CollectionKodály’s piece, truly distinguished by Peter Schmidl’s clarinet-playing, was teasing and florid, even Impressionistic, exuberant, detailed and unanimous, if just a little efficient rather than bubbly in the fastest music and which was also rather hard-pressed.

Atmosphères, György Ligeti’s 1961 ‘study’ (brought to a wider public through its unauthorised use in Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey”) held the attention of all those in the Hall through its sci-fi suggestions (present with or without Kubrick) and sonic explorations (whether blowing through brass instruments or the imaginative use of the ‘inside’ of the piano). Daniel Barenboim, his left hand doing a good impression of Boulez’s conducting style, sustained the whole and the VPO responded with interest.

Hands up all who got to know Enescu’s (First) Romanian Rhapsody through “André Previn’s Music Night”? Phew, that was 30 years ago and more! From the VPO the opening contrasts of thoughtfulness and gaiety were well brought out, and Barenboim found his way into the personal core of the piece; yet, again, in the quickest passages the rhythms didn’t quite have the lift they need, similarly in the two Johann Strauss encores, Annen-Polka and Eljen a Magyar, the latter lacking that last degree of fire (the Carlos Kleiber ‘sizzle’, if you will, another recording, from the New Year’s Day Concert of 1989), and the former notable for a VPO cock-up of ensemble that, in this of all music, must be regarded as calamitous and worthy of a court of enquiry.

Angela Hewitt

Bach
Partita in B flat, BWV825
Scarlatti
Sonatas – in D minor [Kk9] & D [Kk29]
Bach
Partita in D, BWV828

Angela Hewitt (piano)


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 September, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

J. S. Bach’s Partitas are often referred to as a collection of dance movements – and are Bach’s first published works, apparently. Should we expect them to be danced to?

Angela Hewitt played these movements – gavottes, airs, gigues, sarabandes – lightly. Her dancers were evidently fast on their feet – with nimble steps, a little too speedily to be quite elegant. Hewitt’s style is lightweight and animated. Her playing is a model of dispassionate articulation. Nothing is taken heavily. Nothing is taken seriously – except the responsibility of playing according to current understanding of the salient features of 18th-century style. She plays with speed but not hurry, forward movement without urgency and refinement without sensitivity. She incorporates ornaments – lively, accomplished and dextrous – seamlessly into the general texture of the music. The music passes by, pleasingly enough – professionally. In Hewitt’s hands, these Partitas were undemanding to listen to, exacting to perform.

The Domenico Scarlatti sonatas had a slightly different character. Hewitt gave them a little more weight and silkier tonal blend – she was slightly more sombre, too, in the D minor piece. Emotions were held well at bay though; she continued to impel forward – brisk, limpid and undifferentiated. This playing style was a world away from the rugged declamations of Demidenko – who is gripping however ‘inauthentic’.

Hewitt’s encore was Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits in Wilhelm Kempff’s transcription. I was entranced. Her playing was delicate, sensitive, rapt and ethereal. It made my afternoon.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra – 1

Schubert
Symphony No.5 in B flat
Bruckner
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1878/80 Version, edited Nowak]

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 3 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Anton Bruckner (portrait by Josef Büche)Despite the best efforts of one union to bring London Underground to a complete halt by staging a three-day strike, an enthusiastic capacity audience greeted the Vienna Philharmonic. There is a special frisson to this orchestra’s Bruckner and it is a curious fact that although it has made superb recordings of the symphonies with many great conductors, there has never been a VPO Bruckner cycle with any one of them.

Notwithstanding the programme listing the “original version, 1874”, the edition played here of the ‘Romantic’ Symphony was the 1878/80 revision as edited by Nowak. (There’s a further revision from 1886, which Nowak also edited.)

But in the case of Bruckner 4 what is really important is less the version – even if it’s the ‘corrupt’ one by Schalk and Löwe – than the conviction with which it is performed. Because Bruckner symphonies tend to start with a string tremolo it is sometimes said that he wrote the same symphony many times but nothing could be further from the truth, each having a quite distinct atmosphere. In the case of the Fourth its magical opening could be likened to the distantly-heard humming of a thousand insects in an alpine meadow.

Under Barenboim even before the opening horn call (gloriously played here by Wolfgang Tömbock) one immediately sensed the instinctive rightness of the Vienna Philharmonic’s string sound, warm, balanced and gemütlich as the symphony was breathed effortlessly into life. Like Furtwängler, Barenboim’s Bruckner style encompasses a certain fluidity – there is nothing marmoreal about it – and like Furtwängler he never loses the music’s thread. Whatever the tempo, one has the illusion of moving constantly forward, of the sound continuing through the silences, the joins treated as an integral part of the structure rather than as a problem to be overcome.

With an orchestra such as the Vienna Philharmonic there has to be a basic musical empathy between orchestra and conductor. Of course, this is true of any orchestra/conductor relationship but in the case of the Philharmonic it has its own very distinctive sound and style which any conductor tampers with at his peril. The Philharmonic on auto-pilot under a conductor with whom it is out of sympathy can be gruesome. The upside of this though is that where there is that basic musical concord – one thinks of Jochum or Böhm – the musicians give their all and the results can be enthralling.

They were on this occasion. Memorable moments abounded – the extraordinary hush at the beginning of the first movement’s coda, the supremely eloquent viola threnody in the slow movement, the absolute physicality unleashed by the wide-bore horns in the ‘hunting’ scherzo, here treated very flexibly, and above all the completely seamless ascent to the finale’s culmination.

Franz Schubert aged 16, drawn by Leopold KupelweiserUndoubtedly there were a few slips along the way – some occasional slightly imperfect wind-tuning and the odd slip from the trumpets – but how much there was that was right, especially Barenboim’s intuitive ability to find the right pulse in all four movements, in the wealth of inner detail revealed and in the precisely observed dynamics.

The Schubert symphony made for an agreeable opener, nimble in the first movement despite the larger than normal forces, delicate in the slow movement but rather soft-grained in the Allegro molto ‘Menuet’ and slightly too laid-back in the finale where a greater degree of precision would have been welcome. Schubert’s Second Symphony would have made for a far more exhilarating opener whereas by the end the Fifth had rather lost the audience, agreeable though it undoubtedly was.

However, the Bruckner was very much the evening’s main business and one doubts that anyone who was fortunate enough to be there will forget it in a very long time. Well worth the walk home, if only to come down off cloud nine.

BBC Singers & John Scott

Britten
Hymn to St Cecilia
Buxtehude
Organ works [selection]
Domenico Scarlatti
Stabat mater

BBC Singers
David Hill

John Scott (organ)


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Britten’s distinguished setting of W. H. Auden’s highly moving words – an extraordinary mix of private confession and public declaration – was, here, a gentle, rather subdued affair. This intimate music sounded distant. It did not reach one’s heart close – sounding, too reverential to engage one’s mind and too smooth for its harmonies to sound awkwardly distinctive. The resolute ending briefly brought the piece to life. Elizabeth Poole’s pleasing soprano soared with ease over the main body of sound.

2007 is the 300th-anniversary of Buxtehude’s death. He was organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck for 39 years and was distinguished for his improvisations once a service had ended. The ‘free’ works played by John Scott were found in manuscripts originally held by pupils and friends of J. S. Bach, who held Buxtehude in high esteem. These seven organ pieces showed remarkable freshness and inventiveness. An enquiring musical sensibility was manifestly experimenting with new sounds, shapes and patterns with an acute musical intelligence. The style of each was differentiated and arresting. Unexpected moments derived from eclectic combinations of improvisation (sometimes left hanging in the air), chorale references, contrapuntal ingenuity and magisterial fugal passages.

By 1707, Buxtehude’s famed Marienkirche organ encompassed 52 stops on three manuals and pedals. John Scott – a specialist in this music – played the magnificent Royal Albert Hall organ with distinction and aplomb, alert to the vicarious spirit of Buxtehude’s genius, creating sounds ranging from soft, delicate woodwind to a grand, impressive swell. This year, John Scott played the complete organ works of Buxtehude over 10 concerts in the St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York where he is now Organist and Musical Director.

In Domenico Scarlatti’s “Stabat Mater”, the BBC Singers, under new conductor David Hill, took on a more robust, impressive sonority. Its volume made the harp, the theorbo and the chamber organ virtually inaudible. At the time of writing, the style was considered to reproduce the polyphony of Palestrina’s era. Today, the style is decidedly Baroque. Scarlatti directs ingenuity of means towards a uniform end. He varies the vocal parts – through co-ordinating, separating and re-deploying them in varying combinations – in the service of grave, soulful contemplation of the weeping mother of God at the foot of the Cross (and seeking to share in her agony).

The intensifying gravity, notified through significant key changes, recalls Haydn’s (later) “Seven Last Words on the Cross”. The manner of writing is conventional – none of Buxtehude’s explorations here! – but the general tone commands respect. The very repetitions are satisfying and appropriate. Towards the end, Olivia Robinson and Christopher Bowen gave the music further soul when, rising above the choral mass, their voices asserted an individual humanity. The performance was a soberly stirring experience.

San Francisco Symphony – 2

Mahler
Symphony No.7

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 2 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Michael Tilson ThomasWhilst I was in New York for the Kirov ‘Ring’ cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, I met a Jewish lady who stated that she did not care much for Mahler as his music was too ‘self-pitying’ and full of excessive ‘angst’. She ought to have heard this Prom performance since, technically, this was a largely immaculately executed rendition, but any suggestion of ‘angst’ or more troubled emotions was noticeable for its absence.

Firstly, to report on some fallibility, the tenor tuba’s first note was’fluffed’, as were horn notes at the start of the second movement. There was also a curious moment towards the end of the first when Tilson Thomas had to give a cue to the first trumpet several times before any sound emerged. Otherwise, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was unimpeachable in terms of the execution of the notes.

The opening of the symphony felt uneasy, possibly as a result of the conductor being obliged to wait for late-comers, coughers and, curiously, an early departure before launching the work on what should be a choppy journey, since Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is a strange creation, full of disparate elements, though it features some of his most imaginative and inventive orchestration.

Thereafter, Tilson Thomas presented a well-groomed reading, whilst eschewing the unease which underlies much of the music.

Certainly the tempo changes were well-marked in the first movement, yet the whole felt somehow opulent and, indeed, ‘Straussian’, as if the symphony were a well-honed tone poem or a ‘concerto for orchestra’, since there was no doubting the security of the orchestral playing.

The second movement (the first of two designated ‘Nachtmusik’) did not suggest any of the anxiety which lurks not far beneath thesurface, though curiosities of scoring – such as the strings’ col legno – registered strongly.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)In some ways, the third movement scherzo was the most convincing, with apposite tempos and virtuoso playing being impressive enough on their own terms. I’m not sure, however, that the term ‘grell’ – shrill – as applied to the oboes at one point, necessarily means ‘out of tune’.

The gentle strains of the penultimate movement were balmy, and aptly coloured by fine contributions from guitar and mandolin, though any hint of irony was kept firmly in check, as it was elsewhere. There was, however, some excellent solo playing, not least from the expressive viola towards the close.

In the finale, one missed, once again, the element of parody and the sense of a kind of defiant jubilance. String phrases, which should surely suggest sentiment, were purely sugary, and Mahler’s characteristic glissando effects did not make their mark. Also, the sudden tempo changes were heralded by unmarked slowing, so what should be jarring contrasts were made inappropriately homogenous.

So, in spite of the finesse of both playing and conducting – which verged on the ‘dainty’ at times – a good deal of the more ‘earthy’aspects of Mahler’s rugged, if not rough-hewn, invention was missing from this undeniably well-manicured and carefully considered interpretation.

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