The Last Night 2010

A Song of Joys [BBC commission: world premiere]
Capriccio italien, Op.45
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op.33 [arr. Rysanov]
Blest Pair of Sirens
Verführung, Op.33/1; Freundliche Vision, Op.48/1; Ständchen, Op.17/2 [orch. Felix Mottl]; Winterweihe, Op.48/4; Zueignung, Op.10/1 [orch. Robert Heger]
Joyeuse marche
Dalibor – Dobrá! Já mu je dám! … Jak je mi?
Rusalka – Song to the Moon
Vaughan Williams
Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra – Prelude; Galop
Lohengrin – Bridal Chorus [arr. Rutter]
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Carousel – You’ll never walk alone

Fisher’s Hornpipe [Trad., orch. Nic Raine]

Alfred – Rule, Britannia! [arr. Sargent]
Jerusalem [orch. Elgar]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D

The National Anthem [arr. Britten]

Maxim Rysanov (viola)

Renée Fleming (soprano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 11 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the First Night of the BBC Proms, 16 July 2010. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCOver the years that The Classical Source has been reviewing the BBC Proms the Last Night has undergone a transformation. It used to be said that the real last-night of the season was the penultimate one, with, historically, Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony; now that has all changed as the famous and frivolous tunes have been ousted by music borne of better thought-out programming.

Jonathan Dove’s “A Song of Joys” is an exercise in word-painting and none the worse for it as the “jubilant song” of the opening led to animal imitations and a crash of lightning, all vividly portrayed. This showpiece for chorus and orchestra colourfully sets the opening nine lines of Walt Whitman’s poem and although in places the rhythms in the orchestra could have been tighter, this premiere set the Last Night’s proceedings off to an agreeable start.

Two works by Tchaikovsky settled the BBC Symphony Orchestra into more familiar territory. Capriccio italien used to be heard far more often in Prom concerts but its popularity has waned (it was last performed in 1997). Despite a noisy audience, this was a sterling performance, Jiří Bělohlávek skilfully handling the many tempo changes to bring out the dance elements. The arrangement by Maxim Rysanov of Rococo Variations (using the revision by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, the work’s original cellist) worked well. The higher pitch of the viola slotted it nicely into the middle of the orchestral soundscape, itself thinned by reduced numbers in the string section. The faster-moving passages convince on the viola, even better in the hands of nimble-fingered Rysanov. Save the cadenza in the sixth variation, which lacked the gravitas that a cello can provide, this arrangement is a fine addition to the viola’s repertoire.

Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens has a surfeit of ‘s’ sounds in the first two lines – a real headache for any choir. The combined choruses’ detailed training under the watchful Stephen Jackson paid dividends, as it did in the careful observation of the score’s many dynamic markings. ‘Victorian schmaltz’ easily lends itself to this work and is a sentiment that choir and orchestra alike managed to avoid.

Renée Fleming. © 1999-2005, Prashant SehgalThis selection of Richard Strauss songs were composed between 1885 and 1900. Strauss’s love of the soprano voice largely stemmed from his marriage to his temperamental wife Pauline (née de Ahna), for whom many settings were written. All but the first (Verführung) of this Last Night selection originated with piano accompaniment and were later orchestrated either by the composer or conductors of the time. Renée Fleming made everyone sit up and listen. Her lyric soprano voice is ideally suited to the full-bodied sound that is demanded by Strauss’s female roles and despite a slight disagreement in tempo at the start, Bělohlávek and the BBCSO demonstrated themselves as expert accompanists. “Ständchen”, possibly the best-known of these five songs, showed off the wind section at its best – tripping lithely about the soloist who clearly enjoyed the experience.

After the interval another excellent piece of programming – Chabrier’s brilliant Joyeuse marche – set the standard for the remainder of the concert. Like Capriccio italien, this piece has fallen into sad neglect in recent years, last heard at a prom as an encore in 1997. The BBCSO performed with swagger and a little tongue-in-cheek in readiness for the fun soon to be had. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 was remembered as Fleming returned for music by Smetana and Dvořák. She reflected upon how, last year, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution, she and Bělohlávek had performed these two pieces. Clearly both conductor and soloist have an affinity with this music which was performed with a full spectrum of Puccini-like emotion.

Vaughan Williams’s viola Suite was a peculiar choice for a second half, even more so as only the first and last movements were played. While these were a welcome curio, Rysanov’s performance was introverted and lacked the rhythmic certainty needed in the stilted changes between duple and compound time in the ‘Galop’. John Rutter’s adaptation of the ‘Bridal Chorus’ from “Lohengrin” made a welcome, lighter change to Wagner’s version (!), though clearly there were members of the audience who were surprised to discover where this most famous of wedding-marches originated.

‘You’ll never walk’ alone from “Carousel”, and sung by the massed choirs and audiences all around the country, made, Bělohlávek hoped, the largest choir ever. I didn’t see anyone from the Guinness Book of Records, but that didn’t matter as this was the beginning of the end of the 2010 Prom season, which continued with a new orchestration of ‘Fisher’s Hornpipe’ by Nic Raine (the expectation that the audience would clap along didn’t quite work), which led to Malcolm Sargent’s arrangement of Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!”, Fleming making hard work of the coloratura embellishments.

The usual suspects of “Jerusalem” and the First of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches (aka “Land of Hope and Glory”) followed a brief speech by Bělohlávek who clearly enjoys the experience but has some trouble with the language. Saving the best to last, a touching performance of Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the UK National Anthem left everyone speechless. The Queen, on first hearing Britten’s handiwork at a Snape Maltings concert in 1967 said that she had never been so affected by the Anthem, adding “and I have heard it once or twice before”. Leonard Slatkin performed this arrangement at the last night in 2002 in what was his first proper Last Night (after the ‘9/11’ atrocities in 2001; this 2010 Last Night was nine years to the date) and the effect that it has on this listener has not diminished.

Bělohlávek’s thoughtful conducting combined with excellent programming and first-class performers made this Last Night one of the best for many years. Last year we saw changes to the format with the removal of Henry Wood’s Sea-Songs (together with uproar from the masses!); this year we returned to 1910 to hear the sequence. The 2011 season of BBC Promenade Concerts starts on 15 July.

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Monteverdi Vespers/Gardiner

Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610)

Emanuela Galli & Lenneke Ruiten (sopranos); Stephanie Guidera & Raffaele Pe (altos); Peter Davoren, Benjamin Thapa & Andrew Tortise (tenors); Tom Appleton, Alex Ashworth, Sam Evans & Jonathan Sells (basses)

Monteverdi Choir
London Oratory Junior Choir
Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School

English Baroque Soloists
His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 10 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Phoptograph: Sheila Rock. ©DeccaThere was the Last Night still to come, but the Proms could not have bowed out in finer style than with this majestic performance of the “Vespro della Beata Vergine”. Monteverdi’s fusion of ceremonial, drama and intensely expressive spirituality fits John Eliot Gardiner’s extrovertly patrician conducting like a glove. And, while this may not be a view strictly palatable to early-music fundamentalists, he does present this long, renaissance/early baroque sequence of motets, psalms and hymns as a work of great cohesiveness, a progression via anticipatory hints of Marian virtues and attributes in the psalms and some acutely subjective apostrophising of Mary in the motets and hymns to the fullest realisation of her, in her own words, in the concluding ‘Magnificat’ – it really isn’t over until the Mother of God sings.

The Royal Albert Hall may not be up to much in terms of incense and glowing mosaics, but it does have wide-open spaces, which Gardiner explored to amazing effect in ’Duo Seraphim’ and, especially, in the ‘Gloria’ of the “Magnificat”, the two tenors’ ecstatic melismas echoing round the Gallery and the London Oratory and Cardinal Vaughan choirs singing with otherworldly spaciousness in the ‘Sancta Maria’. With choirs and soloists at strategic points around the hall, the antiphonal singing had a monolithic grandeur that was intensely thrilling and which emphasised the sense of ritual that is inseparable from the music. These huge theatrical gestures were complemented by singing and playing of great flexibility and freedom – the soloists were often singing from memory – with a range and style of emotion that would have given Wagner or Mahler pause for thought.

The soloists, all from the Monteverdi Choir, were at their expressive best – a broad and commanding ’Deus in adiutorium’ from Alex Ashworth, a stunning ‘Duo Seraphim’ from Andrew Tortise and Peter Davoren, the latter delivering a slyly erotic ’Nigra sum’ that strained the seams of the sacred; Tortise and Davorem again in an intensely devotional ‘Audi coelum‘, with Davorem’s echoes from the Gallery like music from another planet.

The Monteverdi Choir, hardwired to this music, sang from the text up, with incisively responsive word-painting and vivid vocal colours. This was as far as it’s possible to get from our cathedral choral sound.

For all Gardiner’s command of the music’s complexities, of the way in which the Gregorian chant element flowers into polyphonic splendour and of the early-music sound, its emotional and spiritual impact was completely modern, the capacity audience held spellbound by a performance sometimes so intense it physically hurt. It is 400 years since it was composed, and Monteverdi’s “Vespers” can still make time stand still.

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Unfinished Symphony … Songs of Mary Stuart

Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op.92
RELIQUARY: Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Robert Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’ [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550

Finghin Collins (piano)

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gianandrea Noseda. Photograph: Jon SuperNeither performance of the popular symphonies quite hit the mark, their span undermined by vacuous applause between movements (although the delayed burst after Mozart’s Minuet was almost shamefacedly apologetic). Under Gianandrea Noseda, the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony flowed too easily and was agitated and edgy in the wrong way, too febrile, not willing to deal with dark undercurrents and ethereal asides, the second (last) movement as determined as its predecessor to get somewhere fast and to not get too emotionally involved with the possibilities of Schubert’s troubled testimony to ‘being alive’. Similarly the tragedy of Mozart’s (second) G minor Symphony tended to lose out to swift speeds, smoothness, and choppy accents. There were though lovely woodwind descants in the slow movement, played with feeling, and Noseda’s way with the Minuet and Trio was an object-lesson in unbroken tempo-relationship.

Finghin Collins had but fifteen minutes to make an impression, and did so appreciably, at first gently and with potency, aided by fine contributions from clarinet and horn, and then confidence and without force (but still reaching the outer reaches of the Royal Albert Hall), a rippling and expressive display tactfully accompanied at a moderate tempo.

Dorothea Röschmann. Photgoraph: Jim RaketeIn his orchestration of the five settings that constitute Robert Schumann’s “Songs of Mary Stuart”, Robin Holloway suggests the soundworlds of Korngold or early Berg, a prudent use of a classical orchestra, with harp, celesta, bass clarinet and a little percussion (essentially two different types of military drum and a gong). Maybe these are not Schumann’s greatest Lieder, but Holloway has brought them to new life and added a Prologue, an Epilogue, and Entr’actes that belong stylistically (which may account for the work’s success and, to a certain extent, some doubts) and extend the reach of Schumann’s originals, a tactful update that retains the gloom and hopelessness that was mutual to Schumann and the royal’s final days; the execution-signalling drums said it all. Dorothea Röschmann was a dignified and compassionate interpreter, Noseda and the BBC Phil sensitive partners with Steven Burnard an eloquent violist in the final song, ‘Gebet’ (Prayer).

At 20 minutes, “RELIQUARY” was only a few minutes longer than anticipated (one recalls Holloway’s Domination of Black, 1974, lasting 50 to the stated 20, and his hour-long Symphony, 2000, which was a good one-third extended beyond initial intentions). But that’s creativity for you, and Holloway’s reclaiming of an ‘outsider’ in Schumann’s canon is a neighbourly act. Even so some in the audience were restless and became inattentive with music that is stylistically familiar even in its new clothes (their comfort zone was restored with the first movement of the Mozart, memories of Waldo de los Ríos, perhaps!) and one can only wish a curse on whoever applauded too early when the music disintegrated at its close, Holloway leaving us in fading light and an opportunity (here ruined) to reflect on the shared “isolation and despair” of Mary and Schumann at the ends of the respective lives.

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Penguin Cafe with Kathryn Tickell


Penguin Cafe [Darren Barry (violin), Cass Browne & Pete Radcliffe (percussion), Tom Chichester-Clarke (piano / harmonium / cuatro / guitar / melodica), Neil Codling (piano / guitar / ukulele / harmonium / cuatro), Vincent Greene (viola), Oli Langford (violin), Des Murphy (ukulele), Andrew Waterworth (double bass), Rebecca Waterworth (cello), Arthur Jeffes (piano / harmonium / cuatro / whistles)]

Kathryn Tickell (fiddle / Northumbrian smallpipes)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

When Simon Jeffes initiated what was then the Penguin Cafe Orchestra in 1972, he might not have foreseen that, almost four decades on, its latest incarnation would attract one of the best attended and most diverse late-night Proms of the season. But then, the PCO was always likely to attract appeal across the musical spectrum – negotiating supposed boundaries between classical, folk, jazz and pop with an effortlessness few such later outfits – ‘fusion’ or otherwise – have matched. Jeffes’s untimely death in 1997 left behind a legacy too substantial and, above all, enjoyable to be consigned to studio recordings and revivals of the ballet “Still Life at the Penguin Cafe”: the present line-up took shape three years ago under the aegis of his son Arthur, whose dedication to this music was evident at every stage of this 75-minute Proms set.

Kathryn Tickell. Photograph: www.kathryntickell.comPenguin Cafe was never going to fill the Royal Albert Hall in the way that such as Cream and King Crimson have done with a vengeance. The set-list focussed on more upbeat numbers and what one wit was heard to describe as “Penguin pleasers”, though the new and varied were by no means neglected. After “Scherzo and Trio” had set things in motion with its jazzy take on a distinctly British Minimalism, “From the Colonies” upped the ante with its lively combination of counterpoint and calypso, before the spiralling jig of “Swing the Cat” brought along Kathryn Tickell – a sometime collaborator with the original PCO and herself an artist of broad sympathies – in her guise as fiddle-player; remaining for the off-the-wall Bachian syncopation of “Music for a Found Harmonium”, one of Jeffes’s most enduring numbers. The eddying wistfulness of “Steady State” was a reminder that PCO can ‘do’ chamber music of real poise, and as readily as the shifting repetitions of “Perpetuum Mobile” brought out a collective virtuosity. The aching lyricism of “Oscar Tango” still seemed to be at odds with its title, while the genial foursome of “Paul’s Dance” still provided a test of unanimity from which the players emerged unfazed.

After this, the catchy immediacy of “In the Back of a Taxi” was the more appropriate (as was its title), while the teasing interplay of “Pale Peach Jukebox” offered delights of a hardly less evocative kind. The tripping modality of “Organum” brought some bracing Northumbrian piping from Tickell, who stayed on for the first outings of two new pieces: “Landau” made the most of its vividly pulsating groove, while “Bramble May” offered an equally attractive take on folk idioms with its modal rumination. By contrast, the playful vamp of “Telephone and Rubber Band” – surely the most intrinsically musical inspiration to come out of a receiver – remains the nearest thing to a Penguin ‘hit’, though the Baroque folksiness of “Giles Farnaby’s Dream” might yet run it close – not least with Tickell’s fiddle playing to the fore, as it was during the effervescent stomp of “Salty Bean Fumble” that brought about an uninhibited finale.

The response was as enthusiastic as music and musicians warranted, yet Jeffes Junior rounded off the evening in understated fashion with his piano piece “Harry Piers” – a touching yet unaffected tribute to his father (whose own album of piano pieces was one of his last projects) which brought the evening to a gentle and contented close. A reminder, too, that Jeffes Senior first envisaged Penguin Cafe music as a means of transcending the soullessness of modern existence. Thirty-eight years later and that vision might not be about to change the world, but it can help to make it a more pleasurable place.

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Lohengrin … Wild Card … Bruckner 7

Composer Portrait
Tansy Davies
Salt Box
Grindshow (electric)
Musicians from the Royal College of Music
Ben Gernon
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 72
Lohengrin – Prelude to Act III
Tansy Davies
Wild Card [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.7 in E [Edition used not specified]

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 8 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the First Night of the BBC Proms, 16 July 2010. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCThe integration of popular and classical music is nothing new, especially if you include adaptations of folk-music, but Tansy Davies (born in Bristol in 1973) is one of the first composers to regularly incorporate stylistic features of the music she grew up with in the 1970s into what could broadly be termed as a ‘classical’ perspective. That is not necessarily a defining feature of her work, but it leaves a legacy best explored through her chamber music, as it was in the Composer Portrait preceding the main concert.

As an introduction to the premiere of Wild Card we were presented with three smaller-scale pieces, each rather similar in instrumentation but giving a valuable indication of Davies’s musical thinking. With each instrument amplified and competing with a sampler, balance could have been tricky but had clearly been well-established in rehearsal. The only fault of the programme was its juxtaposition of works incorporating similar soundworlds and techniques, but it did however succeed in conveying the composer’s rhythmic drive, brought brilliantly to life by students of the Royal College of Music.

In a rather haphazard introduction BBC Radio 3 presenter Tom Service gave four sound-bites to introduce Davies’s music: “energetic, funky, grimy and uplifting”. Davies also spoke candidly of each piece and its genesis, Neon being a musical interpretation of David Batchelor’s “Chromophobia” exhibition, and Salt Box referred to as a blend of Tom Waits and Tarkovsky. Recently revised to include electronics, Salt Box was not obviously uplifting in nature, and nor were its rhythms overtly funky, but it painted a vivid picture of the Kent salt marshes Davies had in mind when she wrote it. The addition of sampled sounds has lent the piece an extra sonic dimension, panning across the stereo picture before immersing the music in a thick cloud of atmospherics in a manner recalling the work of composers of ambient music such as Brian Eno. Its countenance is largely grey, but the figurations suggested the movement of winged creatures, the earthy sound of a low-register Hammond organ lending extra depth. Grind Show (electric) might have proved more effective in this context if its acoustic version had been presented, but was vividly played to portray the sounds of parties close by or across a landscape. Davies skilfully caught the ricochets of sound as if from other buildings and structures, introducing oblique riffs that threatened to dominate but which were quickly replaced. Neon, too, suggested a colourful tapestry, and proved the most immediately memorable of the three compositions. Cast in 7/4 throughout, and decisively conducted by Ben Gernon, its weird and wonderful sounds included the keyboard intonation used by Stevie Wonder to underpin “Superstition”, given rhythmic impetus in this performance by Hannah Gill and, across the stage, percussionist Callie Hough. Busy and kinetic, it suggested the movements if not the melodies of Stravinsky’s Septet, rhythmically charged but with its funky rhythms eluding capture thanks to that ‘missing’ beat in the bar. At the same time there were riffs and motifs to latch on to, with cello and bass in particular helping rhythmic momentum.

The 20-minute Wild Card also benefitted from Davies’s comments, the depiction of the “fool’s journey” laid out – the “fool” being one of the 22 Tarot cards of the Major Arcana. Davies also suggested characters to listen out for, though at times it was very hard to tell who was being portrayed, with several cards often turned over together. When ‘The Hanged Man and Death’ appeared the sonorities were especially striking, with pizzicato strings and timpani setting the eerie scene, while the lumbering dance of ‘The Devil’ that got the work underway tapped into the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s lower woodwind strength. Characteristically, Jiří Bělohlávek revealed the colorations of the score, while playing it relatively safe emotively. The careful shading and subtle pointing of Davies’s more playful riffs helped, with shards of melody and small groups of texture jostling for position as the cards shuffled. The percussion section was especially fine here, busy with a variety of clicks, thumps and whirrs. Perhaps inevitably the score and its concept brought to mind Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes, though in its own clever twist the final card was snuffed out at the end as if in a passing apparition. Davies’s attention to detail and cross-genre fertilisation proved an intriguing listen, if not quite grabbing the audience, initially given the Prelude to Act Three of “Lohengrin”, a celebratory introduction but lacking heft.

In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony the brass-players assumed far greater importance, all eighteen of them (and therefore more than Bruckner scored for) seated across the top of the stage; their too-loud and edgy sound overly-dominated most of the climaxes, and to the detriment of the strings. There were however many fine things about Bělohlávek’s Bruckner, particularly once the Adagio had settled from a rushed start, opting to crown its C major peroration with the cymbal and triangle combination beloved of some – but not all – Bruckner specialists (but the edition being used was not clear-cut and was, very unhelpfully, not clarified in the programme). Rather than take each movement as a single phrase, Bělohlávek showed the ‘joins’ of Bruckner’s workings, with some pronounced adjustments of tempo in the finale until the unison passages and the first movement theme, powerfully wrought, won through.

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Faune … La mer … The Rite of Spring

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
La mer – three symphonic sketches
The Rite of Spring

Orchestre National de France
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Rosemary Beauchamp

Reviewed: 7 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Daniele GattiAn enchanted recorder-like flute opened Debussy’s Prélude, and a fruity (finely accomplished) bassoon solo introduced The Rite of Spring. Debussy’s enchantment continued to a rapturous climax, Daniele Gatti keeping the elusive Faune on the move, if sometimes a little breathless and with some unconvincing retards – fluctuations that failed to gel the work across its whole – but delicately shaded and detail-conscious nonetheless. There were though some intonation worries from the winds, although their distinctive timbres were welcome. The strings were more uniform, however, and betrayed unanimous confidential pianissimos and warm-toned intensity with equal persuasion, yet the occasional lack of poise in the orchestra’s ensemble suggested that Faune might have been preferable after the interval as a companion to The Rite, and that the concert would have begun better in a blaze of bonhomie, Chabrier’s Joyeuse marche, say, to scintillate and settle both musicians and audience. (Okay, Joyeuse marche is in this year’s Last Night. Therefore, the Overture to Chabrier’s “Gwendoline” would have been a rare treat!)

Mystery suggesting latent power informed the dawning opening of La mer, as much symphony as seascape, yet this suggested force didn’t quite materialise, Gatti notifying this ‘sea’ as greyer than other conductors have done and with some emphasising and indulgence on the conductor’s part that seemed at-odds with Debussy’s crystal-clear line, his Boulez-like attempt at instrumental clarity (if without the Frenchman’s reason) sometimes exposing Orchestre National de France as not quite within the world’s elite. The first movement (reaching Midday) seemed a long haul to its (here) rather brassy ending. Following a ‘Play of the Waves’ second movement that was too studied for these waters to be properly energised or for musical motifs to be meaningfully exchanged, Gatti left too long a gap (at least there was no applause, or whistling, this time!) before launching the anticipated tensions of the ‘wind and sea’ finale, which again was handicapped by a slightly-under tempo and an over-concern for articulation at the expense of atmosphere and drama (even the reinstated brass fanfares sounded tame).

This Paris-centric concert continued with The Rite of Spring, premiered in France’s capital city in May 1913 to an audience-reception usually referred to as a riot (more in response to the ballet itself than Stravinsky’s score). Gatti (music director of Orchestre Nationale de France since September 2008, in succession to Kurt Masur) was on surer ground in Stravinsky than in Debussy; even so there were some precipitate moments, some dullness, some gratuitous balances favouring the ‘usual suspects’, and some headlong tempos that undermined the work’s dance genesis – here was yet another Rite designed for the concert-hall rather than for the choreography of the theatre –, yet it was undeniably exciting and, one very glaring lapse of togetherness aside, played with more vitality and interaction than had been evident in Debussy.

Not a classic account of The Rite, but it won an extended ovation, and finally an encore, the very antithesis to the Russian Pagan Scenes just listened to, for we were given the wondrously dark and Heaven-sent Prelude to Act Three of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” in a luminously-sounded and raptly eloquent execution, the highlight of the concert, enough to suggest that should Orchestre National de France and Daniele Gatti be wheeled-back for a future Prom then a whole evening of Wagner ‘bleeding chunks’ could be a Deutsch-fest winner of an evening.

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Paul Lewis Beethoven (4) [RSNO/Denève]

Overture, Le carnaval romain, Op.9
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
The Sacrifice – Three Interludes [London premiere]
The Pines of Rome

Paul Lewis (piano)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 6 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Things got off to a cracking start with a performance of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture that was bawdy, gaudy, thoughtful, beautiful, and great fun; Stéphane Denève directing an extrovert account of great brilliance.

Paul Lewis. Photograph: Jack LiebeckIt was followed by the final instalment of Paul Lewis’s Beethoven Piano Concertos given this season. Lewis was more at home than in those previous performances. The first movement got off to a splendid start, Denève setting a brisk, and totally satisfying, tempo for the first movement, Lewis responding with thrilling, and very energetic, playing. In some ways one felt that it was Denève’s performance rather than Lewis’s, so in control was he. In the Adagio Lewis distanced himself somewhat from the music, giving a rather bland, and square, reading and the finale lacked the heft required to bring about the big finish Beethoven intended. Lewis has the technique, to be sure, and the heart of a Beethovenian, but he hasn’t yet quite got to grips with these concertos as complete entities.

Stéphane Denève. Photograph: J Henry FairJames MacMillan’s opera “The Sacrifice” was written for Welsh National Opera and is based on a take from the Mabinogion. As with Britten and Tippett, a concert-piece has been extracted from the score, but I wonder if MacMillan has done himself any favours, for there is a lot of Britten in the second and third interludes, much to MacMillan’s detriment. Indeed, there were times when I fully expected the ‘Storm Interlude’ from “Peter Grimes” to burst forth! Also, with an over-abundance of percussion, much orchestral detail was obscured; but there is too little music of real substance, and a lack of personality overall.

Denève’s conducting of The Pines of Rome was as extrovert and colourful as one could have wished for, but he was also as tender as a gentle lover in the quiet solitude of ‘Pines of the Janiculum Hill’. The final march of the Roman Armies in ‘The Pines of the Via Appia’ was superbly handled and the climax, with the addition of the Royal Albert Hall organ, was truly a roof-raising experience. The RSNO responded to every demand Denève made of it, with playing of the very highest calibre. The evening was Denève’s for the insight and interpretative élan he brought to the music-making.

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Le Poème Harmonique

Il ritorno dullish – Dormo ancora o son desto?; Lamento della ninfa
Bergamesca ‘La barchetta passaggiera’
Chi non sa come Amor; Son ruinato, appassionato
Vilanella ch’all’acqua vai
Canzonetta ‘Sguardo lusinghiero’; Jacara (aria alla napolitana); Chaconne ‘Acceso mio core’

Le Poème Harmonique
Vincent Dumestre (theorbo/Baroque guitar/director)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 6 September, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

I’m surprised how strongly I object to being encouraged (this time by the BBC Radio 3 presenter Catherine Bott) to let the music just wash over me. It was the same in the matey introduction to Maria João Pires’s late-night recital of Chopin Nocturnes at the start of this year’s Proms, when, as the lights dimmed, we were exhorted to relax and ‘chill’ and let this peerless pianist’s exquisite mastery become up-market ambient background music. If nothing else, it’s a rather insulting, dumbing-down attitude to take to artistry that takes a lifetime to refine. Here, in a bid for a dash of 17th-century Venetian authenticity, Cadogan Hall’s lighting was turned off in favour of some atmospheric glowing from a couple of old-style candelabra and ‘genuine’ gas footlights that lit the performers, rather unflatteringly, from below.

Vincent Dumestre. Photograph: Per BuhreOtherwise, the audience was left to make what it could of Le Poème Harmonique’s programme, called “Venice: from the streets to the palaces”, from the style of the music and from what seemed to be authentic gestures that enhanced the drift of the words that we couldn’t follow in the dark. Here was this carefully researched recital consigned to diminished appreciation by the demands of atmosphere. Much of the music was in that early-baroque, high-mannerist style of supercharged declamation, closely tied to texts that deal with the anguished coils of love, but with not much in the way of melody, like a lot of popular music trapped in limited harmony and making its impact through insistent rhythm and repetition.

Undeniably impressive was the fierce soprano of Claire Lefilliatre – voluptuous and raw, and full of Mediterranean light and shade. That makes it sound like a delicious, not-so-subtle wine, but her voice and presence were very intoxicating. She was thrilling in the Monteverdi Lament, and whipped up quite a storm of unrequited, doom-laden passion in the Ferrari pieces, with some very nifty gestures and sub-balletic footwork. Her three male singers, two forthright, natural tenors and a seductive bass, injected a bit of bloke-ish jollity in a Bergamesca by Manelli about some passengers on a boat getting drunk, and there was something to do with a cat – but I only divined this afterwards, at my better-lit leisure.

Each number was neatly staged (by Benjamin Lazar), and both the singers and the six-strong band of baroque instrumentalists (led by founder Vincent Dumestre) performed with great persuasion, and one can easily imagine their earnest French audiences taking them very, very seriously. The group has been around for 12 years and gathered quite a reputation for recreations of baroque stage works. This energetic Prom was more in the way of a taster, hinting at more substantial delights to come.

Le Poème Harmonique Read More »

Handel, Porpora, Telemann & Vivaldi

Giulio Cesare – Empio, dirò, tu sei
La fida ninfa – Aure lievi, che spirate
Orlando furioso – Sol da te, mio dolce amore; Sorge l’irato nembo
Concerto in E minor for Recorder, Flute and Strings, TWV52e1
Polifemo – Alto Giove
Orlando furioso – Ah sleale … Io ti getto elmo
Concerto in D for Two Violins, RV513
La fida ninfa – Dimmi pastore

Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto) & Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor)

Laurence Paugam (violin), Alexis Kossenko (recorder) & Jean-Marc Goujon (flute)

Ensemble Matheus
Jean-Christophe Spinosi (director & violin)

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 6 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the greatest strengths of the BBC Proms is its ceaseless power to surprise and captivate, breathing magic into the most ordinary-looking of concert programmes. This will not be breaking news to Classical Source readers, but it still bears repeating and has particular relevance to this late-night Prom of Baroque concertos and opera arias.

A cursory glance at the listings suggested no more than an unchallenging evening in the agreeable company of Handel, Porpora, Telemann and Vivaldi. But the programme turned out to have been very cleverly and enterprisingly planned, and it was brought to life with terrific panache by Ensemble Matheus under its charismatic founder Jean-Christophe Spinosi. With some superb instrumental soloists and a couple of outstanding singers added to the mix, and with the whole concert bathed in that unique late-night atmosphere, it all added up to an entrancing and memorable event.

Philippe Jaroussky. Photograph: Simon Fowler/Virgin ClassicsFirst up was countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, launching the concert in dervish-like fashion with Caesar’s ‘Empio, dirò, tu sei’ from Handel’s opera. Bristling with rage, Jaroussky exhibited power (never at the expense of tone) and impeccable coloratura, and the furious energy of the string-playing was great, but marred by some ragged ensemble and scrawny sound. This was evidently just initial jitters, however: Ensemble Matheus provided sympathetic and stylish accompaniment for the rest of the night: not as pungent or visceral as some European early-music groups, its dynamism and vibrancy were on near-ideal levels.

The following arias from Vivaldi operas introduced sumptuous contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Rich and velvety, she floated through the gossamer-like ‘Aure lievi’ from “La fida ninfa”. Returning in trousers for the male title role of “Orlando furioso”, Lemieux proceeded to pin us gloriously to our seats with her colossal ‘Sorge l’irati nembo’, and later exuded captivating drama in the darkly brooding ‘mad-scene’ from the same opera. Both she and Jaroussky, who held the hall spellbound with passionate eloquence and nobility in Nicola Porpora’s ‘Alto Giove’ from “Polifemo” – a rival to Handel’s most sublime arias – displayed supreme fluency of vocal line and stunning, well-integrated, ornamentation.

Jean-Marc Goujon. Photograph: jeanmarcgoujon.euVivaldi’s tender love-song ‘Sol da te, mio dolce amore’ featured a gently rippling, though fiendishly virtuosic, flute obbligato, played with great aplomb by Jean-Marc Goujon. As soloist in Telemann’s Concerto for flute and recorder, Goujon was ideally matched for technical brilliance and theatrical flair by Alexis Kossenko – who pulled off the incredible feat of making the small-voiced recorder carry in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall without ever over-blowing. Swaying and bobbing in perfect synchronisation, the duo made the most of Telemann’s inventive score, rounded off with a rustic Gypsy finale rendered with foot-stomping exuberance.

Director Jean-Christophe Spinosi picked up his violin for one of Vivaldi’s most substantial concertos, partnered by Ensemble leader Laurence Paugam – a dazzling showcase in which Spinosi showed he was not afraid to use occasional vibrato for extra sweetness.

The crowning glory of the night was a couple of Vivaldi numbers with Jaroussky and Lemieux, beginning with the playful love duet ‘Dimmi pastore’. With both singers throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the scene, it soon became clear which character was wearing the trousers – even though the formidable Lemieux was back in her dress. It then appeared that Jaroussky was to have the encore to himself – an assumption confirmed for anyone who recognised Orlando’s aria ‘Nel profondo cieco mondo’. But he was soon re-joined unexpectedly by Lemieux, who pranced onto the stage to jump in with his next lines, and the singers proceeded to turn the number into an ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ preening diva display. This hilarious, yet always musically first-rate, performance was an entirely apt ending to an engaging and delightful recital.

Handel, Porpora, Telemann & Vivaldi Read More »

Sir Henry Wood (continued)

Birthday Fanfare for Sir Henry Wood
London Pageant
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 [Revised Version]
Karelia Suite, Op.11
Symphonic Variations
Eugene Onegin – Waltz & Polonaise

Steven Osborne (piano)

Ulster Orchestra
Paul Watkins

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 5 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Henry Wood. Photograph: BBCIt was more than Sir Henry Wood day, it was the end of a Sir Henry Wood four days, starting with his extravagant orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and then including Simon Rattle and his Berliners in Mahler 1 and Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, of which Wood gave the UK and world premieres respectively. And finally this concert by the Ulster Orchestra, with new principal guest conductor (and no stranger to the Proms, though as a cellist) Paul Watkins, hot on the heels of the BBC Concert Orchestra’s recreation of the 1910 Last Night, in all its bitty glory.

In fact, Watkins himself presided over a fairly bitty concert – with works from Wood’s own lifetime. The Ulster Orchestra is in fine fettle, with a full-bodied sound, more immediate than many an ensemble, and playing well for Watkins’s clear and enthusiastic beat.

Brass and wind attacked Sir Arthur Bliss’s Birthday Fanfare for Sir Henry Wood (on his 75th-birthday), which, although listed for 1944’s First Night (not verified), may never have been played at the Proms. The threat of flying bombs certainly meant a scheduled performance on 10 August was cancelled, and Wood died soon after the season ended. In 2010, as an opener in Wood’s honour, it was perfect and led into Sir Arnold Bax’s London Pageant written (without official commission, but with the promise of performances from the BBC) for the coronation of George VI (the official commission was Walton’s Crown Imperial). Very much in Pomp and Circumstance mode, it could easily hold its head high against No.4 which we’d heard just a few hours earlier. There was a connection to the Proms’ original home, the Queen’s Hall, as it was one of the works in the last-ever Prom in Langham Place on 7 September 1940, before the Hall got repeatedly hit in the Blitz the following year.

Dorothy Howell’s exotic symphonic poem Lamia came next, its tenth Prom, all made very early. Composed before she was 20 in 1918, this is remarkably assured in its telling of snake-girl Lamia who is given human form by Hermes to find the man she loves, Lycius. When he persuades her into a public marriage she is recognised and condemned to be changed back into a snake. Slithering flutes open and close the work, which also encompasses a love-scene, tender and ardent by turns, and fleet-footed dancing at the wedding. There is a hint of Dukas in Howell’s orchestral palate. Lamia was well worth discovering and Watkins and his players seemed effortlessly in tune with the idiom.

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Eric RichmondThe year before Howell composed Lamia, Rachmaninov revised his youthful First Piano Concerto, which received a typically incisive performance from the nimble fingers of Steven Osborne, making you wonder why it’s not heard more often (30 so far at the Proms, of which only the first two were in the discarded original version).

I’m always amazed by some Prom performance tallies of what we regard as staple repertoire. Schumann’s symphonies are barely into second-figures status, and here we had only the third complete performance of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite since the War (though Wood had conducted it often before). So it was good to hear this irrepressible lilting music live in the Royal Albert Hall, as it was Parry’s sonorously and finely wrought Symphonic Variations (only it’s seventh performance, the last being in 1936).

To follow such orchestral fervour, Tchaikovsky’s rustic Waltz from Act Two and more the regal Polonaise from Act III of “Eugene Onegin”, were like announced encores. However, it was good to be appraised of Wood’s prowess in the opera pit, for he had given the UK première of Tchaikovsky’s ‘lyric scenes’ in 1892 (in English). And they rounded the concert, the Wood Day, and the mini Wood festival off in fine style.

Sir Henry Wood (continued) Read More »

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