The Last Night

Flourish with Fireworks, Op.22
Purcell, arr. Henry Wood
New Suite
Dido and Aeneas – Thy hand, Belinda … When I am laid in earth (Dido’s Lament); With drooping wings ye cupids come
Trumpet Concerto in E flat
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Chôros No.10, ‘Rasga o coração’
A Grand, Grand Overture
In a Monastery Garden
Gershwin, arr. Barry Forgie
Shall We Dance – They can’t take that away from me [BBC commission: world premiere]
Libertango [arr. Julian Milone]
Music for the Royal Fireworks [selections]
Rule, Britannia!
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

Alison Balsom (trumpet)

Jiři Bělohlávek, Goldie & Jennifer Pike (vacuum cleaners); Sir David Attenborough (floor polisher); Rory Bremner, Stephen Hough, Martha Kearney & Chi-chi Nwanoku (rifles)

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 12 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroAs a finale to one of the best BBC Proms seasons in recent years, this Last Night was probably one of the best, too. Dispelling with Henry Wood’s Sea-Songs and commissioning Fanfares might have ripped the soul out of tradition but it made the second half seem much slicker.

The first half was of interesting if undemanding works that included a rarity from the Proms founder Henry Wood, the wonderfully understated New Suite. Written to celebrate Purcell’s 250th-anniversary 100 years ago, Wood re-scores some of Purcell’s music for a more-colourful orchestra would now be considered sacrilegious nowadays. The dominant Royal Albert Hall organ cocked an irreverent snoot at Purcell’s in a way that has fallen out of fashion; a shame as there are moments of charm as well as real respect for the composer in Wood’s re-working – the fourth movement ‘Song of the Birds’ for instance.

To open the evening, Flourish with Fireworks, Oliver Knussen’s homage to Michael Tilson Thomas, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Stravinsky, written in 1988 for MTT’s first season as Principal Conductor of the LSO, Fireworks being Stravinsky’s piece. This was a commanding performance and an excellent opener; lightly delicate strings danced deliciously about the complex patterns.

From faux Purcell to the real thing, the closing scene from “Dido and Aeneas”, with Sarah Connolly, the BBC Singers and a slimmed-down orchestra in a performance intimate and fresh and diction-conscious. Musical diversity included Connolly’s compassionate performance of Mahler’s song-cycle, sympathetically accompanied most of the time, the BBC Symphony Orchestra sometimes overpowering.

Heitor Villa-LobosHeitor Villa-Lobos’s showpiece begins with a long orchestral prelude leading to a choral outburst shrouded in percussion and rhythmic, a rousing and effective ending to the first half.

Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture opened the second half. Written for the inaugural Hoffnung Music Festival concert in 1956 – Gerard Hoffnung died 50 years ago – the piece utilises three vacuum cleaners, a floor polisher and four rifles alongside a cornucopia of percussion. This was comedy all the way, as the reluctant cleaning devices dutifully tuned up at the start and studiously followed David Robertson’s cues. ‘Authentic’-performance practice was clearly being observed with a 1956 floor polisher, while adoption of different sizes of “Henry Hoover” (domestic and commercial) provided the variety of pitches required; and Malcolm Hicks’s wonderfully vulgar performance on organ was just too loud. Such fun!

More fun followed in Albert W. Ketèlbey’s In a Monastery Garden, his first big hit, the composer discovering a repeatable formula, such as In a Persian Market and In a Chinese Temple. While his music may have fallen into neglect, Katèlbey was in his time a leading composer of light music. Here, In a Monastery Garden, the BBCSO strings gamely stepped up to the mark.

Sarah ConnollyAn arrangement of Gershwin by Barry Forgie, of BBC Big Band fame, returned Sarah Connolly, now joined by Alison Balsom, who had played Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in the concert’s first half. Forgie hives off a small band of piano, bass and drums to accompany the soloists, a slow introduction launching into a whirlwind of a rumba for trumpet solo. ‘They can’t take that away from me’, brought Sarah Connolly to the fore with a Cool-School trumpet cadenza. While Connolly clearly enjoyed the opportunity, her beautiful voice proved too light in the lower passages.

Six commissioned Calls and Responses signalled the beginning of the end for the 2009 BBC Proms season. Each of the composers (Julia Barbour, Joseph Davies, Lawrence Dunn, Aaron Parker, Eoin Roe and Saiki Tanaka, all below the age of 20), produced a call (from the Royal Albert Hall) and a response (from the five Proms in the Park events), though the composer of the Call was never the same as the composer of the Response. Selections from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks followed, accompanied by fireworks in the parks and sparklers in the Arena, and replaced the traditional sea-shanties. Hard timpani sticks and cleanly articulated double-dotted rhythms kept this performance light despite the size of the orchestra, leading into “Rule, Britannia!” in Thomas Arne’s original orchestration, Sarah Connolly dressed as an admiral with a sword that sprouted a Union Jack.

“Jerusalem” (Parry’s orchestration rather than Elgar’s), ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (aka Pomp and Circumstance March No.1) and the “National Anthem” rounded off a night of music that felt balanced and in control. Where John Drummond’s attempt in the early 1990s to remove the traditional Last Night fare in one swoop failed, the gradual introduction of new music to the Last Night has edged out long-established favourites to produce a concert that, though populist, has lost the overt jingoism that has besmirched past years. There remained a hearty rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”; some traditions go on forever!

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Silk Road Ensemble & Yo-Yo Ma

Silk Road Suite [various composers]

Giovanni Sollima
The Taranta Project
Angel Lam
Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain

Ambush from Ten Sides [Trad., arr. Li Cang Sang & Wu Tong]

Silk Road Ensemble & Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 11 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Yo-Yo MaSilk Road Ensemble’s second visit to the Proms with musical director Yo-Yo Ma marked its tenth anniversary, a decade that has seen the Ensemble grow in musical stature, with core values of musical and cultural exploration as a community fully intact. Yo-Yo Ma may be an international soloist, but he retains a touching sense of humility when performing with the Silk Road Ensemble, and this, coupled to an almost boundless sense of discovery, is an invigorating mix.

The group began with a five-part collaborative work, exploring styles of both East and West, with each movement of the Silk Road Suite attributed to a different composer. The first, ‘Wandering Winds’, was a striking visual and aural improvisation, flautists Wu Tong, playing a Chinese bawu, and Kojiro Umezaki on a shackuhachi, descending the steps at each side of the stage. As the suite unfolded, the match of classical parameters with unfamiliar textures and melodies was enchanting, and Kayhan Kalhor’s ‘Mountains are far away’ gave a rich baritone melody to Ma’s expressive cello, the melodic inflections judged to perfection and bringing in a persuasive, swaying rhythm.

That the twelve-member Ensemble held the attention so vividly for the half-hour duration of the Suite says much for the melodic interest of each movement, which included the traditional piece ‘Phoenix Rising’, in which Wu Tong moved to the sheng (a Chinese mouth organ), and then came the Arabic rhythms of ‘Saidi Swing’, an authentic piece based on Arabic rhythms. The energetic ‘Arabian Waltz’ provided a suitably upbeat, raucous finish, the Ensemble thoroughly enjoying its colours and cross-rhythms.

Music by Giovanni Sollima (born 1962) followed, the composer skilfully combining the musical languages of several countries while highlighting his Sicilian roots. To achieve this, Sollima, also a cellist, writes for string quartet and percussion initially using a style heavily influenced by Baroque forms and practices, manifested in the performance by a complete lack of vibrato. The Taranta Project is a suite of dances, some written in skilful pastiche in a manner possibly influenced by Respighi, while others make explicit use of percussion including Shane Shanahan using his own body as an instrument, slapping his ribcage and jaw to draw audible gasps of astonishment from the audience.

There was a feel-good atmosphere throughout the concert, with each item introduced by a member of the ensemble. The story behind Angel Lam’s Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain put its instrumentation and musical language into context, the shackuhachi the focal point of much of the music in an energetic performance by Kojiro Umezaki, the composer painting a vision of sunshine and rain together, in memory of his grandmother.

Finally there was Ambush from Ten Sides, played out visually with the pipa of Wu Man, and sweeping along in a cumulative burst of energy. Percussionists Joseph Gramley and Oliver Lowe came into their own, their propulsive beats carrying the music on a wave, the music vividly descriptive, telling the story of a battle between ancient dynasties, culminating in a furious finale.

It would be easy to underestimate the sheer virtuosity brought to this music by Silk Road Ensemble, its members playing with total commitment, energy and, above all, a sense of fun. By introducing largely classical audiences to music outside of Western confines, these musicians are providing something invaluable and with a complete lack of pretence – and on this evidence, few people leave Silk Road’s concerts without a smile on their faces.

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Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (2)

Passacaglia, Op.1
Don Quixote – fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character, Op.35
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Tamás Varga (cello) & Christian Frohn (viola)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Zubin Mehta. Photograph: Oded AntmanThe second of the Vienna Philharmonic’s two BBC Proms this season proved to be an absolute highlight. Zubin Mehta (born 1936), now associated with the Vienna Philharmonic for nearly fifty years (and almost as long with the Israel Philharmonic of which he is Music Director for Life), and one of most-complete of conductors, began this particularly attractive programme with an addition to it, Webern’s Passacaglia, which served as an ‘overture’ (always welcome) and also a pertinent link to the similar-form finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. Furthermore, although scheduled for other VPO/Mehta appearances this summer, that the Webern wasn’t originally included in the Proms Prospectus seemed curious.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) considered Passacaglia, which he completed in 1908, as his official Opus One and an indication of his desire to continue with musical tradition; yet his posthumous reputation is that he left a blank sheet of (manuscript) paper for succeeding boundary-breaking composers (Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen…) to begin again, and given the severity of his later musical thinking, the Passacaglia, all ten minutes of it, and for a large orchestra, seems with hindsight an extravagance.

Yet it is also tightly organised and concise (23 variations) and as early as the fifth pizzicato of the eight that introduce the work (here rather lost in audience hubbub, just as the closing bars competed with electronic interference) there is a harmonic disturbance that signals the anguished, shadowy and music-at-breaking-point entanglements that emerge during Passacaglia’s short if defining course, the listener aware of the perfectionist tailoring of Webern’s writing in terms of structure that is overlaid by music that is deeply emotional, whether in sweet radiance or emotional rages, a balancing act that Mehta and the VPO managed with expertise and perception.

It was Richard Strauss’s intention that his orchestral setting of Cervantes’s Don Quixote feature principals of an orchestra; thus from the Vienna Philharmonic the main soloists were cellist Tamás Varga as the Don (playing from the concerto position) and violist Christian Frohn (as Sancho Panza) from his usual desk. Mention should also be made of Albena Danailova (leading for this work only, otherwise Volkhard Steude was the Concertmaster); she may not as yet “belong to the association of the Vienna Philharmonic”, but she surely will soon.

Mehta, conducting from memory (as throughout the concert), was in easeful control of this intricate score, the VPO a large chamber ensemble, balance and detailing well-nigh-perfect, antiphonal violins opening up dialogue, the opening reflective and ‘once upon a time’ and always at-one with the various extraordinary episodes without underlining them or losing contact with Strauss’s web of sounds. As Don Quixote, Tamás Varga was more a Fournier than a Tortelier or a Rostropovich; if he was occasionally overshadowed by Christian Frohn, who offered a more-vivid narrative, Varga’s playing was innate.

This was a collaboration of musicians who know this music so intimately, nicely visualised when Mehta dropped his baton and Varga deftly retrieved and returned it to the conductor in (as it were) a single breath, Mehta’s left-hand equally adept as to where the point of collection was!

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony received a gloriously old-fashioned expansive performance, quite nostalgic in a first movement that would have welcomed a little more impetus and, in the coda, overt tragedy; yet, from first to last, this was a compelling performance guided by intrinsic, mannerism-free musicianship for a rich-sounding, powerful and closely-observed account leavened by pastel shading and a dynamic variety that avoided seeming micro-managed. If the woodwinds tended to lose out the strings (at full strength) and horns (occasionally too prominent), there was a warmth and unification to this performance that required nothing new-fangled to justify it, Mehta reserving the greatest passion for the finale.

Two quintessential Viennese encores followed, both polkas, incomparably played, Joseph Hellmesberger senior’s Light-Footed and Johann Strauss II’s Tritsch-Tratsch – during the latter, Mehta shouted “accelerando”, the VPO finding a keen joie de vivre to complete a superb concert.

Mehta and the VPO will be off to Japan, China and South Korea, and he and the Israel Philharmonic plan to visit Spain; Mehta’s future plans also include conducting “Die Fledermaus” at Berlin State Opera and “Tannhäuser” at La Scala, but London, aside from tours, seems not on his radar … a pity!

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Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1)

Symphony No.98 in B flat
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 10 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The last time I heard Franz Welser-Möst conducting was with the Cleveland Orchestra, at the BBC Proms in 2005, in a disappointingly polite and disengaged Mahler 3. His appearance this year (replacing Nikolaus Harnoncourt), with the Vienna Philharmonic, emphasised the much-lamented absence of any of the recession-gripped American orchestras from the 2009 Proms at the same time as revealing this scrupulous but sometimes rather remote conductor’s inherent warmth and lyricism.

The programme of two Viennese symphonies, Haydn 98 (instead of Harnoncourt’s 97) and Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major, is core repertory, or at least you would have thought so. The printed programme’s invaluable “Previously at the Proms” section listed only three outings for the Haydn, the most reticent and personal of the ‘London’ series (93-104). Welser-Möst made his presence felt most strongly in the Adagio, one of the stranger balancing acts of phrasing and fantasy so typical of Haydn, and which Welser-Möst’s sensitivity to detail and dynamics had the audience hanging on every note and nuance. We are now accustomed to a wirier, period sound for Haydn, but the veiled timbre that the VPO achieved gave the music an otherworldly quality that might not have been what Haydn intended but was still hugely attractive. The other movements spoke rather more of the VPO’s unshakeably confident sense of the classical style. The inescapably Viennese coda to the finale with the fortepiano flourish gave great pleasure.

I wonder how many Schubert Ninths I’ve heard where the pace sounds exactly the same for the first two movements, only for the same thing to happen in the last two. It was a measure of the success and stature of Welser-Möst’s performance that he found such a fine distinction between the speeds and characters of each movement (starting with a surprisingly quick horn introduction) and drew out the transparency and originality of the score, which is so different from that of the ‘Unfinished’.

This performance was big on detail (all repeats taken in the scherzo, but not in the outer movements), it projected the full weight of the work right through to the finale, and was distinguished by a rhythmic, propulsive energy. Welser-Möst clearly relished the juxtaposition of the intimate, Lieder-like passages with some of the most barnstorming, public music Schubert ever wrote. We’ve probably all heard one or two performances of this benign, sublime work that anticipate the later marvel of Bruckner and Mahler. This one wasn’t in that legendary, mystical league, but the playing had an opulence and spaciousness that was truly exceptional.

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Juggler in Paradise

Composer Portrait:

Augusta Read Thomas
A Circle around the Sun
Sun Threads – Invocations
Passion Prayers
[all European premieres]

Augusta Read Thomas in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Musicians from the Royal College of Music:

Animus Piano Trio [Artem Kotov (violin), Yulia Vorontsova (piano) & Mikhail Shumov (cello)]
Kallisto String Quartet [Joshua Burke & Zhanna Tonaganyan (violins), Natalia Czerska (viola) & Benjamin Havas (cello)]
Christopher Graves (cello) with Agata Darashkaite (violin), Cecilia Sultana De Maria (harp), Nicola Crowe (flute), Chris Goodman (clarinet), Maria Marchant (piano) & Jason Chowdury (percussion), conducted by Rui Pinheiro

Prom 72:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture, Op.21; Scherzo, Nocturne & Wedding March, Op.61
Augusta Read Thomas
Violin Concerto No.3, ‘Juggler in Paradise’ [BBC co-commission with Radio France, Mr and Mrs Bill Brown and the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington DC: UK premiere]
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Jennifer Koh (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Violin concertos with eye-catching and imagination-stimulating nicknames seem all the rage at the moment. Only the night before BBC Proms had presented Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Fiddler on the Shore’ (his Violin Concerto No.2), and now here was ‘Juggler in Paradise’, Augusta Read Thomas’s Violin Concerto No.3, first performed in January this year by Frank Peter Zimmermann. He should have been the soloist for this UK premiere, but his withdrawal passed that honour to Jennifer Koh.

As Augusta Read Thomas (born 1964) explained in the pre-concert Composer Portrait, poetic titles can prove a way-in for the listener, but nothing is more important than the music itself. ‘Juggler in Paradise’, using a pared-down orchestra but including celesta, harp and piano as well as ‘bright’ but not noisy percussion deftly cuts between a Firebird-like atmosphere and ‘third-stream’ jazz, sometimes reminding of Szymanowski (if without the exoticism) and with a soundworld and precision that recalls Boulez and Carter, yet the expression is less challenging. The spectral interchanges between soloist and orchestra engaged the most, but the more-secretive slower music outstayed its initial welcome; indeed, even at 17 minutes, the work seemed a couple of minutes too long, and the close is ambiguous without asking any questions.

The chamber music played during the Composer Portrait emphasised August Read Thomas’s European lineage rather than her American one; A Circle around the Sun (for piano trio) recalled Bartók, a composer also present in the sinewy melodic lines of ‘Invocations’, a movement from Sun Threads (for string quartet). Making the biggest impression was Passion Prayers (for cello and ensemble), the scoring reminding of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, and once past the incantatory opening developing an American openness. The performances, from students at the Royal College of Music (I believe that Andrew McGregor advised that Artem Kotov is from Trinity College), seemed excellent and certainly delighted the composer.

Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive BardaThe standard fare of the main concert found the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek giving inconsistent accounts (and not helped by a gaggle of people around me so obsessed by their mobile phones that whenever there was a break out came their toys, and those elsewhere in the Hall who can’t resist applauding between movements – no matter how vacuous, irritating and intrusive it is), but such distractions couldn’t disguise a lack of rehearsal in the Mendelssohn (Augusta Read Thomas’s Violin Concerto was meticulously prepared), which was enjoyably ethereal and translucent and warmly lyrical at its best, and closed with a particularly noble account of the ‘Wedding March’ that wiped the slate clean, cymbals adding colour rather than noise (Augusta Read Thomas would have approved).

The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony was in many ways a joy, perfectly paced in its moderation, transparently balanced (save the coarse and too-loud horns in the finale) and wholly beguiling, yet while the performance matched the movements’ titles, there is a deeper seam of emotion and searching in this music that this lightly turned and elegant account skipped a little too easily over.

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Max at 75 (2)

Peter Maxwell Davies
Solstice of Light

Ed Lyon (tenor)

David Goode (organ)

BBC Singers
David Hill

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 8 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Peter Maxwell DaviesOn the day itself, this second, more personal, celebration of Peter Maxwell Davies’s 75th-birthday examined the composer’s close affinity with Orkney, his home for nigh on forty years. It also celebrated his output for chorus, a medium that has been a mainstay of his compositional life since early works for children’s choirs in the 1950s. The composer was in attendance, speaking briefly and humbly about the two works performed, both settings of the poet George Mackay Brown.

“Westerlings”, in the composer’s own words, is a “potted history of Orkney”, a series of pictures evoking the Vikings’ crossing of the North Sea in the 8th-century. Few if any passages in this late-night concert portrayed the coastal crags and sea-spray than the opening of ‘Seascape’, the first of four brief vocalises bisecting five poems of George Mackay Brown. Through this vivid scene-setting it was possible to relate to the composer’s vision of the sight and sound of the sea near his home, described as “a crucible of ever-changing miraculous light”. Under the careful directorship of David Hill the BBC Singers were like a soft breath of wind. The evocative settings ended with the Lord’s Prayer sung in the now-extinct language of Norn, an Orcadian dialect, and set with sensitivity and understated beauty by Maxwell Davies.

“Solstice of Light” is a substantial utterance, the cantata that Maxwell Davies completed for the third year of his St Magnus Festival, seven years into his Orkney. It is a nationalistic work, Orkney’s Kullervo, perhaps, though it deals with present-day issues in its wish for a fertile land, as well as the islanders’ interactions with nature and reflections on their many visitors.

As it progresses, the ‘Solstice’ glorifies the union of man and nature, and the centrally placed choral dance is uninhibited, syncopated rhythms running through the chorus as some of the cares of the previous movements are cast off, these sections being separated by demanding organ interludes, themselves responding to the text with a fiery intensity that was strongly communicated by David Goode. At times the complex musical language of these interludes threatened to blow the music off course, with rhythmic and contrapuntal devices stretching the ear’s ability to follow each line, but when the music rested there was a genuine strength of feeling. Goode’s use of the registers and stops available to him on the massive Royal Albert Hall organ produced vividly colourful and expressive music, whether in the humid, oppressive opening to the first interlude (‘The Mild Circle of the Sun’), the fiercely passionate voluntary of ‘Earthbreakers, Hewers of Mighty Stone’ or the extreme emotional ranges of ‘Invocation of the Dove’, introducing the final lap of text.

Tenor Ed Lyon also sang with uninhibited passion, pitching some of the more awkward melodic contours with apparent ease, his piercing tone reaching the corners of the Hall during ‘Norsemen’. Here tenor and organ were together yet alone, facing away from each other both visually and musically. The BBC Singers were excellent throughout, capturing the Brucknerian grandeur of ‘Hawkship’, while responding to the composer’s vivid word-painting (fish described as “Little silver brothers”). They also felt the uncertain times of the final ‘Prayer For These Islands: New Troves’, in which Lyon became the spokesman in a final intonation to St Magnus, a powerful impact, Peter Maxwell Davies finding in Orkney a similar affinity to that between Benjamin Britten and the East Anglian coast.

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Max at 75 (1)

Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Peter Maxwell Davies
Violin Concerto No.2, ‘Fiddler on the Shore’ [UK premiere]
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Daniel Hope (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Peter Maxwell DaviesGarry Walker [Sibelius]

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 8 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Peter Maxwell DaviesSir Peter Maxwell Davies turned 75 on this day and was joined by Mendelssohn, whose 200th-anniversary is celebrated this year.

Maxwell Davies’s latest concerto, like Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, has three linked movements to form an integrated whole, melodic and rhythmic ideas being developed throughout. Indeed, the connection to Mendelssohn doesn’t end there given that Max draws upon figurative ideas from The Hebrides overture in acknowledgement of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the commissioners of the 25-minute ‘Fiddler on the Shore’, and composed for Daniel Hope.

The concerto opens in classical style with an orchestral tutti, the soloist then entering, though that is where the similarity ends. The triple-wind orchestra is not exceptionally large by modern standards and utilises a comparatively lean percussion section. Ever the master in terms of balance, Max moulds his musicians around the solo violin. Though indebted to Mendelssohn formally, harmonically the concerto owes more to Alban Berg’s example, written a year after Max was born, with a similar pan-tonal writing for the strings. Truly sumptuous! ‘Fiddler on the Shore’ strays into a diatonic idiom at various points, most noticeably in the long, slow melody the soloist plays as a substantial part of the second movement. At times, the use of Orcadian folk-music can become banal; such is the case in the trite closing dance. On the whole, however, this is a fine work.

In Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Max revealed much detail, an interpretation more Classical than Romantic, the playing rhythmic and sprightly with some deftly pointed strings, equally matched winds, and well-balanced brass.

By contrast, a wooden and lifeless performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony found the brass unchecked on many occasions, the opening of the finale being horns and little else. Garry Walker, Permanent Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, did not seem to inspire the musicians as Max had done.

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Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
Symphony No.10 [Performing Version of Mahler’s draft, prepared by Deryck Cooke in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews]

Saleem Abboud Ashkar (piano)

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: 7 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mendelssohn wrote his First Piano Concerto in 1831 during a visit to Munich, part of an extended tour of Europe and the British Isles that also saw the composition of the ‘Italian’ Symphony. The concerto is dedicated to the pianist Delphine von Schauroth, who had caught the composer’s eye the previous year and was no doubt the inspiration for the beguilingly tender central Andante.

If the interpretation of this movement by Palestinian-Israeli pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar tended more towards adagio, it was nonetheless a spellbinding performance, the feeling of dreamy romanticism engendered by an imaginative use of rubato and a marvellously sensitive accompaniment from horn, woodwinds and strings. At the start of the concerto, Ashkar had seemed a little reticent, almost overshadowed by the large string section (six double basses here) fielded by the orchestra, but soon upped the involvement factor to deliver the outer movements with pace, accuracy and flair. The articulation of the strings section was especially impressive in the finale.

During the performance of Mahler 10, I wondered if I was still listening to the same conductor and orchestra, so great was the contrast in musical involvement and, all too often, quality of execution. The Leipzig violas’ delivery of the symphony’s opening Andante bars was suitably arresting, but the Adagio which followed lacked intensity and impetus, the orchestra’s impressive violins undermined by some unhelpfully imprecise playing from the horns. The movement’s dissonant climax was delivered with weight and power, topped by a superb sustained high A from the first trumpet, and yet somehow remained uninvolving, and the long breathed coda was cool rather than wistful.

The symphony as a whole seemed to cause ongoing problems for the horns, one player even delivering several bars of wrong material in the second movement, and the trumpets had intonation problems as well as often being too loud. More serious, however, was a general lack of tension, significant passages such as the searing crescendos at the heart of the ‘Purgatorio’ or the huge climaxes of the second scherzo passing without any sense of excitement or drama.

The finale offered compensation in terms of a beautifully rendered account of the flute solo near the beginning and a noble rendition of the trumpet solo later, as well as some marvellously rapt string-playing towards the end. An oddity, however, was that the single drum beats normally heard at the start of the movement were replaced by triple beats. In her biography “Memories and Letters”, Alma Mahler describes how this segment of the symphony was inspired by the muffled drumbeat that Mahler heard in 1908 at the funeral of a New York fireman. Whatever the reason for this variation to the text of Cooke’s performing edition, it did nothing to illuminate a disappointing performance.

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Henry Purcell

Suite in G
Hail, Bright Cecilia – Tis nature’s voice
Oedipus – A New Ground
Music for a while
Suite in D
Pausanius – Sweeter than roses
Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell
An Evening Hymn

Iestyn Davies (countertenor) & Simon Wall (tenor)

Members of Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Egarr (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 7 September, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Iestyn DaviesThe best had been saved for last, a Proms Chamber Music hour of sublime music-making to celebrate Purcell in his 350th-anniversary year. If there is a cavil, it is that Richard Egarr’s harpsichord and Reiko Ichise’s viola da gamba were a little too soft in tone to achieve the ideal balance with Iestyn Davies’s quite beefy countertenor, but otherwise their playing, and that of William Carter on theorbo, was ideally supportive.

Purcell’s Suite in G and other delicate keyboard pieces were interspersed with vocal music familiar and obscure, beginning with “Tis Nature’s Voice”, commandingly sung by Davies, with a full array of elaborate decorations, always in the service of the words and music. Davies’s tone is not as sweet as that of Scholl, nor is his technique as yet so prodigious, but he has an astringency in the timbre which is most affecting in this music, and ideal for the interpretation of such phrases as “To court the ear or strike the Heart”, and the sensuous quality of his enunciation at the word “charms” is most engaging.

“Sweeter than roses” is very familiar but I’m sure most of us have only rarely heard it sung as it was here, with the ideal blend of sensuality at “the dear kiss” and youthful exuberance at “What magic has victorious love!” Davies was joined by the tenor Simon Wall for a powerfully moving performance of John Blow’s “Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell” and the concert ended with “An Evening Hymn”, mellifluously sung by the countertenor to complete an hour of bliss for lovers of Purcell’s music.

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Messiah – oratorio to a text by Charles Jennens, after biblical texts

Dominique Labelle (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Matthew Rose (bass)

Members of:
CBSO Youth Chorus
Hallé Youth Choir
National Youth Choir of Great Britain
National Youth Choir of Wales
Quay Voices (The Sage Gateshead)
RSCM Millennium Youth Choir
Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior Choir

Northern Sinfonia
Nicholas McGegan

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 6 September, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“Tis the Season…”, well, not really, but the nation’s favourite oratorio needs no excuse to be trotted out, and what an odd hybrid this one was! Performances of “Messiah” tend to fall into two groups – they’re either sung by beefy massed choirs and equally beefy soloists and played on modern instruments by musicians who might have been playing Mahler the previous day, or they’re sung by eighteen ethereal-looking Oxbridge types and equally weedy soloists, and played on wonky ‘authentic’ instruments by musicians who’d really much rather go back to Gesualdo. I jest, of course, but you get the idea – it’s either fish or fowl, but this Prom sought to demonstrate that you can mix ‘n’ match, if not entirely successfully.

To be honest, you can’t turn the Northern Sinfonia into the Academy of Ancient Music simply by sticking Nicholas McGegan in front of it, valiant though his effort was to elicit springy rhythms, fast tempos and vibrato-light phrasing, and you can’t really hope for a coherent effect when you pair about 300 choristers all bellowing away with four specialist baroque vocal soloists. Not that there’s anything wrong with bringing all these youngsters to the Proms stage – their sound was no less vivid and dramatic than that of any other massed choir, but it just does not have the same impact as a small choir in an intimate space.

It was a pity that the solo singing was uneven, with both of the ladies recalling the bad old days of indistinct phrasing and gooey sentimentality. I suppose we all have our silly ‘Messiah’ misunderstandings (“We like sheep”, and so on) and mine used to be to wonder, at a very early age, who exactly this ‘Oviss Cumming’ guy was, and why we should all be concerned about standing when he appeareth? In these days of crystalline diction and countertenors, I have not met with Mr Cumming in thirty or so previous performances of “Messiah”, but lo, here he was being introduced by Patricia Bardon, surprisingly given that she is an excellent Handel singer. She did improve in Part Two, although ‘He was despised’ seemed to go on for too long. Dominique Labelle was similarly ‘old school’ with some indulgent mannerisms and choppy phrasing.

The men were much better: Matthew Rose has gone from strength to strength over the past two years, and his confident articulation, sonorous tone and vivid projection were heard to great advantage in ‘Why do the nations’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound.’ John Mark Ainsley presents ‘Comfort Ye’ and ‘Ev’ry valley’ differently each time he sings it, but always immaculately enunciated and with wonderfully ornate decoration and stylish projection. He had the lion’s share of the arias and recitatives, and deserved them – ‘Thy rebuke hath broken his heart’ was especially moving, although he did not quite leave the violins in the dust with ‘Thou shalt break them’ as he usually does.

The ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus found the whole auditorium on its feet, appropriately given that this concert was not only the culmination of the BBC Proms’ Handel celebrations, but also the introductory inspiration to the “Sing Hallelujah” project, which brings together English National Opera and BBC Radio 3 to encourage people to find their voice and discover the joy of singing through Handel’s most famous piece. ENO premieres Deborah Warner’s staging of “Messiah” on 27 November, and there will be a special “Sing Hallelujah” weekend on 5/6 December, when beginners and enthusiastic amateurs can join together.

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