Nick Breckenfield’s Proms Round Up



Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 September, 2008
Venue: NULL

Well there it is. Another musical summer at an end! From that vantage of hindsight, I look back on a supremely successful BBC Proms season. In April, it certainly looked good on paper – although one of the most daunting since I first became a season-ticket holder two decades ago. Indeed, noting that – apart from the Last Night (starting later in the evening and scheduled to be shorter than in previous years) – there were more Royal Albert Hall concerts, many of which longer than the norm. I suggested to Roger Wright (Director of the Proms) that he was offering us at least 20 percent more music than last year.

Even if that was perhaps an exaggeration, it was almost true for me, as I attended 58 of the 76 concerts in the Royal Albert Hall – four more than my previous best (I foolishly boasted this Roger my new total, eliciting the skilful put-down, “so, 18 less than me”, to which I hoped my “ah – but you didn’t stand” riposte might restore some self-esteem!). And of those 58, I’d say that only two-and-a-half have disappointed.

Aside from Gianandrea Noseda’s wearing, sweaty semaphoring of Beethoven 9, the only real dud this year, was the one that could only be called Symphonie bombastique, Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting marked a mid-point nadir of the Proms, although – perversely – proving how good a conductor he could be in Hillborg’s Peacock Tales, eyes glued to the score (a hint there, perhaps) in accompanying Martin Fröst’s pirouetting.

Fröst was even more mesmerising in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, one of the well-programmed late-night recitals which also, notably, celebrated the 40th-birthday of The King’s Singers and introduced Kristjan Järvi to the Proms, white-hot in Americana with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Notably busier than recent seasons (for once the statistics can be believed), with the Arena definitely feeling fuller more often, highlights tumbled one after the another during every week. Vaughan Williams and Messiaen were the principal programme beneficiaries, but Wright’s featuring of specific artists were also a success, and notable belated Proms debuts were made – particularly Jordi Savall and Christophe Rousset at Cadogan Hall.

With a high standard throughout, it is notable how well the home-grown can stand against international competition. Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches held its own after the high-voltage Berliner Philharmoniker the night before; the BBC Symphony Orchestra in The Planets carried on the virtuosity from Haitink and the Chicago Symphony 24 hours earlier. Saraste’s Oslo Phil also stole a march on Lorin Maazel and his New Yorkers (who provided perfectly good performances, but not special ones).

Of course, one’s Classical Source colleagues may have a different opinion! And, for the sixth year running, this site has reviewed EVERY BBC Proms concert and chamber recital.

So, heartfelt thanks for a brilliant season. The three specified Days – Folk, Stockhausen and Bach – each worked a treat and, like the longer programmes, seemed to encourage audiences, rather than keep them away. There must be a Haydn Day next year (hopefully many). Which extended opera can Wright choose after Messiaen’s Saint François? And will we have a major choral work in the first half of the Last Night (surely a trick missed this year – we could have had Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony – especially with Bryn Terfel already on the bill!).

Finally some top of the bills – purely personal:

Best concerto performance – Julia Fischer in Brahms’s Violin Concerto (beating Nicholas Daniel’s Mozart and Elliott Carter concertos and Murray Perahia and Haitink’s perfect Mozart and a special mention to Finghin Collins for his spectacular Stanford)

Best symphony – Oslo’s Sibelius 1 or Chicago’s Shostakovich 4

Best debut – Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne – who also offered a Parsifal encore after a very long programme, including Mahler 5 and the Stockhausen’s Punkte

Best programme – the BBC Scottish SO’s electro-acoustic evening – Harvey, Messiaen and Varèse

Best Proms première and overall event – Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise

The Last Night

The Creatures of Prometheus – Overture
Tannhäuser – Wie Todesahnung Dämmrung … O du, mein holder Abendstern [Act Three]
Tosca – Tre sbirri, una carrozza [Act One, Te Deum]
Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra, Op.80
Falstaff – Ehi! Paggio! … L’onore! Ladri! [Act One]
Denza, arr. Rimsky-Korsakov
Funiculì, funiculà
Vaughan Williams
Silent Noon
Folk Song Medley – The Turtle Dove (England); Loch Lomond (Scotland); Cariad cyntaf (Wales); Molly Malone (Ireland) [BBC commission: world premiere]
Anna Meredith
froms [BBC commission: world premiere]
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs – Fanfares
Vaughan Williams
Sea Songs
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D
Arne, arr. Sargent
Rule, Britannia!
Parry, orch. Elgar

The National Anthem [arr. Henry Wood]

Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone)

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 13 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Roger NorringtonThe last night of a season of 164 events spanning an eight-week period, or the Last Night, a concert in celebration of the 2008 series of BBC Proms concerts that ended on Friday? That is the question, posed by Christopher Wood in the programme, that really needs an answer if we are to put the Last Night of the Proms in context. The latter has to be the case; particularly when we take into account the various outdoor events taking place throughout the United Kingdom that include groups such as the Abba tribute-band Björn Again. The Last Night of the Proms is a party … the real ‘last night’ was the evening before.

With this in mind, the party revellers (Promenaders) were in suitable party attire. Many were adorned with batons and bow ties, and each was ready to take to the podium should Sir Roger Norrington not turn up. He did appear of course, opening with a commanding performance of the Beethoven overture, perfectly balanced, strings never needing to over-play in order to be heard and in which woodwind articulation could be savoured. Such control became a by-word for the whole concert.

Bryn TerfelBryn Terfel, after announcing in the press recently that he was “slowing down” did anything but on this occasion. In the first half he revived, with some aplomb, familiar roles. Wolfram’s song to the evening star is a tiny gem in Act Three of “Tannhäuser”, here flowing more like a lullaby than a tribute. Terfel’s performance is probably too intelligent for a piece that requires passion first and foremost, a rounded tone in the lower registers and much more emotion. The Puccini and Verdi, by comparison, were close to perfect – a slightly crazed Scarpia and then the buffoon Falstaff, Terfel fully dressed as the latter including an enlarged tummy. Norrington’s control of the orchestra’s balance was second to none.

Hélène GrimaudThe first performance of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” fell apart in the middle; it was completed at the last minute and under-rehearsed. No such problem here with Norrington and the BBC Symphony Orchestra ever-sympathetic accompanists. Antiphonal violins were an advantage as Hélène Grimaud contrasted Beethoven’s thick, heavyset chords with lighter, more delicate finger-work. Vocal soloists were set immediately in front of the chorus, and thus behind the orchestra, which presented challenges in terms of balance that were not always satisfactorily overcome.

The concert’s second half was the gift of the Promenaders. Beach balls, balloons and klaxons certified that this was a party to celebrate one of the most successful seasons at the proms, in terms of audience-numbers, in recent years. Even the Promenaders’ regular announcement of how much had been raised for musical charities could not cut through the mêlée of sound (though Sir Roger offered an opportunity during his speech to remedy this).

Somewhat controversially Henry Wood’s “Fantasia on British Sea-Songs” was dropped (save the Fanfares) in favour of an arrangement of folk-melodies by Chris Hazell; he has enjoyed a long collaboration with Terfel, most notably on the Grammy Award-winning album “Simple Gifts”.

Predictably, being the 50th-Anniversary of the composer’s death, Ralph Vaughan Williams featured. “Silent Noon” was another gem for Terfel, accompanied by Hélène Grimaud, the stage carefully lit to make it appear smaller, though it was a real challenge to perform such intimate music in such a large hall; and the brilliant march Sea Songs was also included.

Anna MeredithContinuing a quasi-tradition (though not last year) of introducing a new work to the second half of the Last Night, 30-year-old Scottish Composer Anna Meredith stepped up to the mark with her BBC commission froms (note the ‘trendy’ use of the lower case). Only named a month before this first performance and meaning ‘from the Proms’. Meredith, no stranger to music technology, has made good use of four orchestras around the country who, together with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, each have their own score and perform together through the wonders of satellite. By the composer’s own admission, planning what would occur when and building allowances for delays dependent upon where the audience was located was “massively complicated”.

Sound from the other orchestras was played through speakers scattered around the hall producing a convincing soundscape in a piece that included members of the chorus clapping. At only five minutes in length, the piece was unlikely to offend too many people; in fact it was wholly enjoyable to the audience in the Royal Albert Hall, though, due to the spatial effects, it is likely that the piece would be more of a challenge to those listening at home.

With the evening, and season, drawing to a close, Terfel returned for the tradition final three: “Rule, Britannia!” “Land of Hope and Glory” (Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No.1) and “Jerusalem”. Sporting a dapper Welsh-flag-patterned dinner jacket, Terfel sung the third verse of “Rule, Britannia” in Welsh – cementing the true four-nation sense that has become so familiar in recent Last Nights.

As “Auld Lang Syne” took hold a rather diminutive figure stood in his white smock to the side of the stage. Three days have now passed since the sad passing of Vernon Handley, another who, like Norrington, learned from Sir Adrian Boult that “only the music matters”. Norrington is a rare breed in this day of fast travel and hurried rehearsals: a consummate, well-prepared and humble artist. The music is all the better for him being so.

Parsifal … For the Victims of Hiroshima … Choral Symphony

Parsifal – Prelude to Act One
Threnody ‘For the Victims of Hiroshima’
Elegischer Gesang, Op.118
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Emma Bell (soprano)
Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano)
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Iain Paterson (bass-baritone)

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 12 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gianandrea NosedaFinding music that complements and enhances our understanding of the ‘traditional’ Proms performance of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony is never easy. In choosing works that take us on a spiritual journey leading to the ultimate quest for joy that lies within the Beethoven symphony, Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic hit upon an original and stimulating programme that promised much, albeit with variable results.

It’s hard to find music that takes us further on that spiritual journey than “Parsifal”. The Prelude to Act One is the departure gate to that journey. Unfortunately Noseda and the Philharmonic sounded as if they had lost their tickets as the ‘Prelude’ failed to achieve any sort of lift off. The rippling figuration against which the opening theme is picked-up by strings and winds remained resolutely grounded when we should start to feel transported into a world outside of time, one with a spiritual dimension. It’s not a question of tempo: others have taken longer (and Boulez’s recording is an extraordinary three minutes swifter) but all meaningful performances of this ‘Prelude’ need to prepare us for the emotional and sacred journey ahead.

Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933)Far better was to follow. Penderecki’s Threnody ‘For the Victims of Hiroshima’ (1960) is a disturbing and frankly disquieting memorial to the victims of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the close of World War Two. 52 strings are plucked, tapped, scraped and worked in almost every way on order to produce a world of anger and fear. Some passages are so quiet it’s hard to hear at times what is being played. But this is not a quietness of tranquillity and serenity, there’s something much more disturbing going on: this is the outright horror of man’s inhumanity to man. And what a good idea to dive straight into the becalming sense of peace of Beethoven’s “Elegischer Gesang” (Elegiac song), written in memory of the young wife of a friend who had died at the age of 24. The short work was originally written for solo voices and string quartet: here we had orchestra and the splendid voices of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, its sense of peace and acceptance of death a fitting and spacious companion to the anger of the Penderecki.

Performances of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony have got quicker and quicker over the years with Norrington, Mackerras and Gardiner, for example, all clocking in around the hour mark. So if you didn’t like the swifter approach you weren’t going to like Noseda’s 61-minute account. Such interpreters have argued for years that this approach is much closer to Beethoven ‘s intentions than the ones that most of us have grown up with (Klemperer and Furtwängler at the other end of the speed scale, for example), a result, they argue, of revisions made by Wagner which dictated that the final two movements, especially, are played much slower than they should be.

How Noseda’s conducting of Beethoven 9 can be beheld really depends largely on your expectations of how this symphony should be played. This performance stood out for clarity of musical line and sense of architecture. From the outset there was a sense of momentum, purpose and direction, a drive and energy to the first movement that was hugely engaging. The downside of this is the loss of a feeling of universality, a grand sense of scale that transmits greatness unfolding. This wasn’t helped by the BBC Philharmonic, a fine orchestra, here sounding undernourished, the violins slightly thin and at times quite shrill.

Swifter tempos, especially in the ‘slow’ third movement, pay dividends for those preferring a ‘fresher’ approach, here bringing a more song-like quality if at the expense of poetic feeling; and there was also a loss of momentum midway through, the only time Noseda’s sense of direction faltered. The finale was the most successful, the opening explosive, the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme played expressively by the cellos and double basses and picked up beautifully by the violins. The four soloists were variable though, Iain Paterson the pick of the bunch, a voice of power and musicality and with fine German diction. Emma Bell was a little shrill and rather too loud, completely overwhelming Jane Irwin. Top marks must go to the CBSO Chorus, in resplendent voice and singing-out Schiller’s verses with a real sense of abandon and exultation.

Orchestre de Paris

Symphony No.1

Marisol Montalvo (soprano)

Orchestre de Paris
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 11 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Coming at the tail-end of one the most sensational Proms seasons in living memory, and following three consecutive sell-out nights, it was perhaps inevitable that Orchestre de Paris’s less eye-catching programme would not attract a packed crowd. But I was not expecting the Royal Albert Hall to be quite so sparsely populated (just over half full), and felt embarrassed at such a meagre reception for the French visitors. I won’t give away the ending yet, but suffice it to say that I needn’t have worried too much: they were eventually made to feel very welcome.

Matthias PintscherWithout an overture-type piece, the single work in the short first half was Matthias Pintscher’s 1999 ‘dramatic scene’, “Hérodiade-Fragmente” – receiving a belated Proms performance (two years ago a fire at the RAH cancelled the Philadelphia Orchestra concert, Christoph Eschenbach conducting then too, in which it was scheduled).

A setting for soprano and orchestra of Mallarmé’s late-19th-century monologue for Herodias, the decadent 1st-century Judean royal, the 22-minute work is gritty, intense and thrilling. Eschenbach and his Parisian players gave a committed, compelling performance that made the most of Pintscher’s highly imaginative (but never gimmicky) soundworld. Extremely economically scored, every note counted – a sadly all-too-rare observation about new music. Moments of terrific orchestral power carried all the more impact for contrasting stretches of great intimacy – including mesmerising use of long silences and near-silences that perfectly caught the languid self-obsession of the text.

Marisol MontalvoMarisol Montalvo, inhabiting the role of Herodias, coped well with the demanding rigours of Pintscher’s writing, giving a fully engaging, dramatic performance; but there was not enough subtlety or contemplation in her reading, which resorted too often to all-purpose hysterics that shed little insight on Herodias’s complex, contradictory state of mind. This was a shame, but Eschenbach’s conviction ensured that the performance had tension and genuinely captivated.

Despite some admirably quiet and controlled playing, there were too many orchestral blemishes in the opening to Mahler’s First Symphony to successfully evoke the required sense of hushed tranquillity (although the shameful barrage of insensitive coughing from the audience did not help). However, the first movement was well-characterised, with an effective lightness and engaging serenity – aided by solid, radiant playing. The brass climaxes blazed magnificently.

The infectious Ländler sweep of the second movement was earthy and uplifting; Eschenbach and company just wanted a little more abandon in the concluding moments. The folksy character was impressively maintained in Mahler’s funeral-march parody, with well-nuanced and poised playing that fully embodied the spirit of the music. The woodwind solos were especially beautiful – although the calm stillness immediately at the end was unfortunately wrecked by an errant oboe squeak.

A bit more fire at the outset of the finale was needed, and tension tended to sag in the quieter passages; but the final climax was satisfyingly electric, with exciting momentum and an especially glorious sound from the seven-strong standing-at-the-end horn section.

It’s impossible to say whether or not a fuller house would have inspired that fraction more intensity and compelling drive to make this a truly great performance. But what the audience lacked in numbers was more than made up for in enthusiasm. Eschenbach and his Parisians were given a genuinely ecstatic, heart-warming reception and responded with a joyfully ebullient account of ‘Dance of the Comedians’ from Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”.

Sinfonia antartica … Pléïdes … The Planets

Vaughan Williams
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No.7)
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)

4-Mality & O Duo (percussion)

Holst Singers (women’s voices)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

British music in general, and that by Vaughan Williams in particular, has been a prominent feature of this years Proms. Neither has the European avant-garde been absent and it was a provocative, if not wholly successful, move to make Xenakis’s Pléïdes (Pleiades, 1979) the centrepiece of this three-part concert.

Iannis XenakisPléïdes is a 45-minute percussion sextet that might almost be a riposte to Steve Reich’s Drumming in its systematic working-through of a formal process denoted by the specific percussive use; for all that the explosive rhythmic energy of Xenakis’s music is worlds away from the incremental change of his younger contemporary.

Three of the four sections focus exclusively on a percussive type: thus the hieratic ritual of ‘Métaux’ (Metals), with its gongs, tam-tams and the composer-invented sixxen whose microtonally tuned plates effect a harmonic diffusion that pointedly evokes the dust clouds around the star cluster giving this work its title; the more understated discourse of ‘Claviers’ (Keyboards), with its subtle overlay of mallet instruments; the drum-driven onslaught unleashed by ‘Peaux’ (Skins); and the close-knit synthesis of instrumental layers and musical processes of ‘Mélanges’ (Mixtures).

Although the order of these four movements is left to the performers, it makes sense for ‘Mélanges’ to be placed last. On this occasion, however, it was heard before ‘Peaux’ – which makes for a conclusion which is dynamic if one that is inevitably less than all- encompassing. Save for a slightly over-protracted ‘Métaux’, the performance was a wholly convincing one – the members of 4-Mality and O Duo arrayed in a circle at the front of the Arena so that their combined contribution could radiate out from the centre of the Albert Hall to its furthest expanses. With performers this accomplished, there are few more potent sound formations than the percussion ensemble – such as only those who hanker after a leavening of melody of the more obviously ‘chained’ variety would feel moved to disagree. Musically, of course, the connection with those works on either side was a conceptual rather than musical one.

Martyn Brabbins. Photograph: Sasha GusovAs to those surrounding works (in a concert dedicated to Vernon Handley, who had died in the morning), Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia antartica (1952) was given a distinctly uneven account – at its best in the capricious evocation of marine life in the ‘Scherzo’ (its questioning close unerringly conveyed) and the defiance-cum-fatalism informing the ‘Epilogue’ (wordless voices and wind machine evocatively to the fore). Conversely, the textural and expressive contrasts in the ‘Prelude’ were sectional rather than seamless, while the vast remoteness of the central ‘Landscape’ went for too little at a relatively swift tempo – the organ-capped climax less than overwhelming – and the ‘Intermezzo’, with its undertones of compassion and self-sacrifice, seemed pensive rather than plaintive. Maybe the BBC Symphony Orchestra felt just a touch jaded at the end of a long season, but the conviction brought to Andrew Davis’s often-revelatory reading of the Ninth Symphony was largely absent here.

The performance of The Planets (1917) was a good deal more convincing. Perhaps mindful of Holst’s two recordings, Martyn Brabbins powered through ‘Mars’ – articulation and impact not being affected – then made of ‘Venus’ a pastorale of great delicacy and easeful introspection. ‘Mercury’ had the right kind of subversive understatement, while ‘Jupiter’ lacked nothing in robust energy – for all that phrasing in its indelible trio was a little foursquare. ‘Saturn’ built to a powerful though not overbearing climax, though its beatific conclusion lacked a degree of repose, and there was nothing uniform or predictable about ‘Uranus’; at whose climax the organ glissando was unusually well highlighted from within the orchestral tutti. ‘Neptune’ then brought about a close shot-through with luminous mystery (Brabbins ensuring absolute clarity of texture throughout), not least when the wordless voices – here the excellent Holst Singers – enter as the music evanesces into nothingness.

One or two comments were afterwards to be heard as to whether Colin Matthews’s Pluto movement might or, indeed, should have been included, but – with all respect to a composer who is the nearest thing to a Holst ‘successor’ – his addition is not on the same level musically to be heard as more than an occasional appendix. No more appropriate ending to The Planets could be devised than ‘Neptune’, as this convincingly thought-through and finely rendered interpretation eloquently reaffirmed.

Chicago Symphony/Haitink – 2 … Mozart & Shostakovich

Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

Murray Perahia (piano)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 9 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This second Chicago Symphony Orchestra Prom felt like a long evening, which may have been due to Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony both being of unremitting intensity – and this degree of intensity can create the illusion of time extended (or even time suspended). However, there was a static feel to the music-making, as if both works were being closely observed rather than fully experienced. For all the magnificence of the various individual instrumental contributions – the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is almost non pareil amongst the world’s great orchestras in collective quality – ultimately this was an uninvolving concert. One admired but seldom was one moved.

Murray Perahia. ©Sony Music EntertainmentMozart’s C minor Piano Concerto began promisingly with an orchestral tutti that caught the music’s barely suppressed tensions. However, Murray Perahia who, who recorded an outstanding Mozart concerto cycle, now offers a distinctly mannered take on music which used to be second nature to him, dragging the tempo back at his first entry and later exaggerating the bass line. The cadenzas in the first movement and finale were Perahia’s own; at least they were relatively brief, avoiding the harmonic non sequiturs that disfigure many contemporary examples. However, although taken flowingly the Larghetto slow movement was sentimentalised, Perahia’s left-hand frequently placed before the right and positively festooned with decorations. The finale, stern and unbending, offered little by way of light and shade in the contrasting episodes.

On the face of it, in Shostakovich 4 the combination of Haitink – who has given outstanding performances and recorded the work twice – and the Chicago Symphony, with its all-powerful brass section, should have been a marriage made in heaven. In the event, the sum was less than the parts.

Bernard HaitinkAs soon as the juggernaut was launched it became apparent that this was going to be more dogged than desperate. However like rats caught in a cage, such unbridled desperation is absolutely integral to this music. “Into the Whirlwind”, the phrase used to describe the pure terror of Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s, would be an apt subtitle for the work. It may be the most overtly Mahlerian of Shostakovich’s symphonies but there is also an almost Asiatic streak of eruptive, dangerously unpredictable violence which is far removed from European symphonic norms and the work makes its fullest effect by its abrupt juxtaposition of menacing calm and abrasive extremes, not by shoe-horning it into the mainstream European symphonic tradition.

The symphony’s Russian interpreters, initially Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky (the latter giving the UK premiere with the Philharmonia Orchestra during the 1962 Edinburgh Festival) both understood this well, as does Gergiev. By contrast, Haitink who gives such excellent readings of more obviously ‘symphonic’ Shostakovich – notably the Fifth, Eighth and Tenth – gave us ‘care’ … and care is the last thing needed in Shostakovich 4.

That said, inevitably with an orchestra of the quality of the Chicago Symphony there were many wonderful moments. Dale Clevenger’s miraculously subtle horn solos as well as superb individual contributions from cor anglais in the first movement and the lead bassoon throughout. The Mahlerian central movement came off particularly well, as did the controlled decrescendo at the work’s close. However, when Shostakovich attended the 25-year delayed Russian premiere in 1961 no sooner had the first notes sounded than his friend Isaak Glikman noted that he was seized – even at that distance in time – by an “unconquerable anxiety which only subsided at the start of the superb coda”. What we heard on this occasion was unfortunately only half the story.

Chicago Symphony/Haitink – 1 … Chicago Remains & Mahler 6

Composer Portrait:
Mark-Anthony Turnage
An Invention on Solitude
Cortège for Chris
A Fast Stomp

Mark Simpson (clarinet), Luis Parés (piano) & Harpham Quartet [Anna Harpham & Ciaran McCabe (violins), Adam Newman (viola) & Lawrence Durkin (cello)]

Mark Anthony-Turnage in conversation with Andrew McGregor
Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 71:

Chicago Remains [European premiere]
Symphony No.6

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Alex Verney-Elliott

Reviewed: 8 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mark-Anthony TurnageIn his laid-back talk with Andrew McGregor, Mark-Anthony Turnage spoke of his influences being Stockhausen, Xenakis and Henze and the encouragement given him by Oliver Knussen. Turnage stated that the Second Viennese School also influenced him and this was evident in the chamber works played here; indeed Schoenberg (as well as Schubert) seemed to be the key influences.

The genius of Turnage’s An Invention on ‘Solitude’ – which was inspired by Billie Holiday’s rendition of the song – is the way he integrates the clarinet with cello and piano with such seamless blending and melting of sound as it the clarinet were a string instrument; conversely, the piano and cello complement the clarinet as if they were one instrument. Furthermore, Turnage makes the players sound as if they are sometimes in stasis as if sound itself is static: this an extraordinarily original and inventive work and it was performed with great sensitivity and care.

Cortège for Chris, written in memory of cellist Christopher van Kampen, is an extremely intimate and moving piece with the cello taking on a slurring and sulking sound, locked in silent space; the cello shy and withdrawn. Finally, A Fast Stomp was a tour de force giving the sensation of dizzy and drunk dancers; a highly explosive and anarchic composition sounding as if it is trying to outplay and get outside itself!

Bernard HaitinkFollowing the pre-concert talk and performances, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra returned to the Proms, this time under its Principal Conductor Bernard Haitink and began with more Turnage, Chicago Remains (2007). The highly evocative and concentrated 16-minute work was initiated by the cityscape of Chicago, evoking its seedy and underworld side rather than its sheen and glitz. Although composed for large forces the score is intimate and sparse rather than being a flashy and bombastic showcase.

Most striking is the writing for woodwind, which has an eerie raucous texture suggesting a subterranean species speaking in an alien tongue. Indeed: this is Chicago’s ‘Twilight Zone’, murmurs and mutterings continuing whilst the city sleeps. Turnage here has developed a unique palette, colours and tones akin to Impressionism rather than Expressionism. Chicago Remains shows Turnage to be a master orchestrator.

Today the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has more of a European sound than under Fritz Reiner and has now lost the brutish and brittle aspects developed during Solti’s tenure. I have heard Bernard Haitink conduct Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony many times over the last 30 years, which has had a regimented consistency of being analytical and clinical and lacking drama and emotion. What is new is Haitink’s slowing of tempos, which has a detrimental effect. The first movement march simply did not have the essential forward thrust required and lyrical passages tended to come to a standstill resulting in a loss of concentration and drive. The Chicago Symphony played superbly albeit with a few fluffs from the brass.

The scherzo (placed second) – allegedly depicting children at play – worked better with Haitink bringing out a sinister and darker mood than is usually heard and securing exquisitely pointed and expressive woodwind solos. The Andante moderato was embarrassingly slow and strangely devoid of emotion: on a few occasions the orchestra showed signs of stress in staying with the slowness concentration evaporated.

The colossal finale should sound like a struggle between life and death: an event in itself. Again, largely due to tempos, there was no thrusting momentum or a sense of struggle and urgency. Rather it was well mannered and manicured, polished and polite. The two (rather than three) hammer-blows were hard and loud but rather oddly lacked power and impact. The playing was immaculate but there was little tension or drama.

Capriccio … La bonne chanson … Sad Steps

Capriccio – Sextet
La bonne chanson
Huw Watkins
Sad Steps [BBC commission: world premiere]

Aronowitz Ensemble [Magnus Johnston & Nadia Wijzenbeek (violins), Jennifer Stumm & Tom Hankey (violas), Guy Johnston & Marie Macleod (cellos) and Tom Poster (piano)]

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Dominic Seldis (double bass)

Reviewed by: Alan Pickering

Reviewed: 8 September, 2008
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Once again, demonstrating the popularity of Proms Chamber Music, Cadogan Hall was well attended for a varied programme including the world premiere of Huw Watkins’s Sad Steps.

Aronowitz EnsembleThe ‘Prelude’, scored for string sextet, from Richard Strauss’s final opera, “Capriccio”, opened the recital. Written during a dark period in Europe’s history (and premiered in front of one of the leading Nazis, von Schirach, who was offering some protection to Strauss’s Jewish wife and child) this excerpt is nonetheless very pleasing on the senses and full of emotion. Delightfully and expertly played by the Aronowitz Ensemble, this was clear proof that music can transcend tragedy.

For “La bonne chanson”, Magnus Johnston, Nadia Wijzenbeek, Tom Hankey and Guy Johnston were joined by soprano Elizabeth Watts, double bassist Dominic Seldis and pianist Tom Poster. Fauré’s song-cycle, “The Good Song” is an arrangement of nine of Paul Verlaine’s collection of poems of the same (French) name. Written in 1869 and 1870 it is thought that these settings are addressed to his future wife Mathilde Mauté, but the marriage did not last. It is perhaps prophetic that at the time he was composing his “La bonne chanson” Fauré was embroiled in a love-affair with Emma Bardac, and dedicated the cycle to her – that relationship also failed and she later married Debussy. Whatever the outcome, Fauré’s music is exquisite, as was this performance. Elizabeth Watts’s voice is ideally suited, being rich and most melodic.

Huw Watkins was interviewed prior to the first performance of Sad Steps. He recounted its origin, the title “stolen”, as he put it, from a poem by Philip Larkin, “The Whitsun Weddings”. He acknowledged the music was sad, albeit interspersed with dance-like sequences (the steps in the title) and told us that the piece was written for the Aronowitz Ensemble as “I always like to write for players I know”; they did not let him down. Nostalgic and despairing it may be in parts, Sad Steps was played with such verve and commitment that the overall impression was uplifting rather than melancholic.

For an encore the musicians played their own arrangement of George and lra Gershwin’s “They can’t take that away from me”, a fitting climax to a most enjoyable concert enriched by musicians performing at the top of their game.

Saint François d’Assise

Saint François d’Assise

St Francis – Rodney Gilfry
Angel – Heidi Grant Murphy
Leper – Hubert Delamboye
Brother Leo – Henk Neven
Brother Masseo – Charles Workman
Brother Elias – Donald Kaasch
Brother Bernard – Armand Arapian
Brother Sylvester – Jan Willem Baljet
Brother Rufus – André Morsch

Chorus of The Netherlands Opera

Hague Philharmonic Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Since its Paris premiere 25 years ago, Messiaen’s “Saint François d’Assise” has gradually established a singular place in the operatic repertoire – its potency as a stage-work stemming almost entirely from those non-theatrical qualities that ought to have been its undoing. None of the UK opera houses has yet undertaken a staging, but a concert presentation of four scenes was given in London during 1986 and the complete work received a highly effective semi-staging at the Royal Festival Hall two years later.

That performance was conducted by Kent Nagano, who has championed the work with rare devotion. Ingo Metzmacher directed it towards the end of his three-season tenure at Netherlands Opera, and here took the podium for what was the opera’s first hearing – whole or in part – at the Proms.

This was very much a concert presentation – with the only props being wooden benches on which the singers variously sat or gathered around, and one or two ‘sundries’ such as the unwieldy crutch used by the Leper. The latter was clad wholly in black, whereas the Angel wore a brilliant white outfit and the Brothers a combination thereof – which attire might have seemed more appropriate to the Bedlam scene in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”, yet which rarely went against the spirit of the music. This was one occasion where the Royal Albert Hall lighting could be gainfully deployed, and the resulting colours and intensities were rarely less than apposite to the context at hand – for all that they might have seemed simplistic, even crude, to the twentieth-century’s most discerning musical synaesthesiast.

The cast itself was good if, not least compared to that which Nagano assembled for the 1998 revival at the Salzburg Festival, hardly earth-shaking. Eschewing the reserves of wisdom evinced by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or the more impulsive fervency of José Van Dam, Rodney Gilfry was yet a believable and sympathetic Francis – his demeanour astutely poised on the cusp of the worldly and the saintly, though the voice itself is not a commanding one and showed signs of strain towards the end of Act Two (the hour-long second interval being more than justified!). As the Angel, Heidi Grant Murphy was similarly persuasive if again not banishing memories of Dawn Upshaw in what remains the latter’s most significant stage undertaking – her sweetness of timbre and elegance of phrasing not always complemented by an awe at the terror and magnificence that he [sic] both embodies and evokes.

In this respect, Hubert Delamboye’s portrayal of the Leper was the most convincing assumption – his pain and anger audibly directed towards rediscovering that humanity which, with Francis’s help, he at length regains. The Brothers who comprise the remainder of the cast were a variable assortment: Henk Neven’s affectingly naïve Leo and Charles Workman’s understated eloquence as Masseo were arguably the best yet heard, while Armand Arapian’s Bernard was hardly less fine in its purveying of gentle wisdom. Donald Kaasch’s tremulous and often unsteady Elias (admittedly the one character of questionable motive) gave scant pleasure, while Jan Willem Baljet and André Morsch were secure if hardly distinctive in the lesser roles of Sylvester and Rufus. The Netherlands Opera Chorus made the most of its intermittent but often crucial contribution, singing with absolute unanimity and a clarity of projection which were both effortlessly sustained across Messiaen’s vast orchestral expanse.

It is in this latter respect that this performance really came into its own, thanks to the vivid immediacy of the Hague Philharmonic’s playing and Metzmacher’s insightful conducting. Those accustomed to the relative smoothness and easefulness of Nagano’s approach may initially have been disconcerted by the vigour and attack invested into this most monumental of all Messiaen’s scores, yet rhythmic definition and dynamic contrast are themselves vital parts of this composer’s armoury, and were tellingly in evidence here; as were the three ondes martenot – two of which were placed in those Second Tier boxes nearest to the platform, so ensuring that their curving parabolas crowned the instrumental texture with a thrilling exactitude. All in all, Metzmacher endowed the dramatic dimension of Messiaen’s music with a sense of theatre that makes one look forward to his taking on the vastly different demands of Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt” at The Royal Opera House early next year.

“Saint François d’Assise” remains the defining yet most divisive opus in Messiaen’s output: a work in which he fully realised his religious and ethical convictions by giving them the concrete form they might not otherwise possess. There are miscalculations and longeurs, but the sense of cumulative intensification in the latter stages is undeniable, and that a composer of this stature gave vent to his beliefs in this manner is something for which believers and non-believers alike should be grateful.

Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Bacchus et Ariane – Suite No.2
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Stephen Hough (piano)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Stéphane Denève. Photograph: J Henry FairThe Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Stéphane Denève’s annual excursion South of the Border produced an enterprising programme which, for the most part, played to this combination’s considerable strengths.

Given Denève’s penchant for contemporary music, it was wholly apt that the programme should have included Thea Musgrave’s Rainbow. Understandably, too, given that Denève and the RSNO have made something of a speciality of French music that the concert should have been topped and tailed respectively by the Second Suite from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane and by an outstanding performance of La mer.

Ironic therefore that the one weak link should have been the Rachmaninov, normally an indestructible sure-fire success. Stephen Hough has made something of a speciality of Rachmaninov – he has recorded all the concertos with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and gave a memorable reading of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival a few years ago.

Stephen HoughHowever, on this occasion despite some memorable touches, especially in the slow movement, this was a reading of the Second Concerto more remarkable for some fine individual touches in the orchestral playing – a glorious horn solo in the opening movement and a perfectly calibrated introduction from the strings to the second – than for anything we heard in the solo part. Hough simply does not command the weight of tone for this work in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, frequently struggling to be heard despite the sensitive orchestral accompaniment and afflicted by more than his share of technical problems. Best was the slow movement, poised, withdrawn and marked for once by a most welcome subtlety. Elsewhere there was an affectedly narcissistic slant to this reading, which too readily lost impetus at key moments, for instance in the backwash to the first movement’s climax.

By contrast, the Second Suite from Bacchus et Ariane was nothing if not virile, the closing ‘Bacchanale’ working up an electrifying head of steam. Denève, a native of Tourcoing, Roussel’s hometown, clearly feels this music in his bones, pacing it with total certainty and eliciting a very Gallic blend and finesse. Having now heard the RSNO under all its Music Directors since Walter Susskind, it is self-evident that the orchestra currently boasts an outstanding constellation of wind principals. There was also an exceptionally sensitive viola solo from John Harrington at the work’s gentle opening, ‘Le sommeil d’Ariane’ (Ariane asleep).

Unconsciously reflecting the more than usually atrocious weather which the UK has been suffering at this time, the concert’s second half had a distinctly ‘meteorological’ feel to it, Composed in 1990, Thea Musgrave’s Rainbow, is a 12-minute piece for large orchestra, thoroughly approachable music with occasional overtones of Nielsen; a latter-day counterpart to the Storm in Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony or to one of those great Turner seascapes. Seldom does one hear a contemporary piece delivered with such impact and panache.

Debussy’s La mer is a severe test for any orchestra. Frequently treated as an orchestral showpiece, Denève reminded us that its title also includes the words “three symphonic sketches”. For instance, with restrained dynamics and shimmering percussion touched in with the deftest of hands, the second movement ‘Jeux de vagues’ had a lightness of touch that was almost pointilliste.

In the outer movements what was remarkable was the almost daring certainty with which Denève paced and coloured a work which one thought one knew inside out, taking risks – sounds were frequently suspended almost motionless in the air (the sustained high violins in the finale were so restrained as to be almost inaudible) – but en même temps how wonderfully volatile and alive this reading was. This was the sea in all its moods experienced from the deck of a small boat, une barque sur l’océan, not observed from the safety of the coastline. The RSNO responded with playing of rare commitment and sophistication.

Skip to content