Proms 2011 – The Last Night: Lang Lang, Miraculous Mandarin, Jenny Agutter, Susan Bullock, Edward Gardner, Rule Britannia!

Peter Maxwell Davies
Musica benevolens (Musicians Benevolent Fund commission: world premiere)
The Miraculous Mandarin – Suite
Götterdämmerung – Immolation Scene
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat
Grande Polonaise brillante, Op.22
Mo nighean dubh (My Dark-Haired Maiden)
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell), Op.34
Richard Rodgers
The Sound of Music – Climb ev’ry mountain [arr. Robert Russell Bennett]Carousel – You’ll never walk alone [arr. Stephen Jackson]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D
Arne, arr. Sargent
Rule, Britannia!
Parry, orch. Elgar
The National Anthem [arr. Britten]

Susan Bullock (soprano)

Lang Lang (piano)

Jenny Agutter (narrator)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 10 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Edward Gardner conducts the Last Night at BBC Proms. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThe 117th-Season of BBC Proms has broken box-office records and the Last Night’s opening music paid tribute to the Promenaders. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Master of the Queen’s Music) was commissioned by The Musicians Benevolent Fund (in its 90th-year) for a musical “thank you to the Promenaders for their magnificent donations to musical charities over many years.” In the 8-minute Musica benevolens Maxwell Davies sports a style that engages from the first note. The six Fanfare Trumpeters of the Household Division, in resplendent red tunics, joined the brass of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to introduce a broad choral unison: “Benevolent music, colour and symmetry, music and harmony.” The Chorus and some in the Arena (they had rehearsed earlier in the evening) chanted a slow middle section espousing various “musical truths” drawn from Promenaders’ slogans.

Then two Promenaders (Dafydd Price-Jones and Classical Source’s very own Nick Breckenfield) flattered Sir Henry Wood (the founder of the Promenade Concerts) with the time-honoured decorating of his bust with a chaplet of laurel leaves. Edward Gardner then conducted a scintillating account of the Suite that Bartók’s prepared from The Miraculous Mandarin (more or less the first two-thirds of the score). The original ‘pantomime’ (ballet) is a sexual and violent tale that the composer anticipated being censored. The first production in 1926 lasted one performance, and the Suite was born. The buzzing of the BBCSO strings and the snapping, snarling brass portrayed the busy clamour of the city to good effect. Energetic playing by the cellos sent rosin-dust flying as part of a dynamic and exciting reading, not least in the ‘chase’ music with which the Suite ends.

Susan Bullock & Edward Gardner at the Last Night at BBC Proms. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouIf you only have time (and the stamina) to listen to one of the four music-dramas that make up Wagner’s Ring Cycle, make it Götterdämmerung, which culminates with the ‘Immolation Scene’ as Brünnhilde throws herself on a funeral pyre worthy of a hero and big enough to set alight Valhalla. Part of Wagner’s brilliance in this scene is the way that earlier Leitmotifs all return: music that represents Fire, Gold, The Hero, the Rhine, and the Rhine-Maidens. Susan Bullock has a masterful command of the role of Brünnhilde, and her powerful dramatic voice was more than equal to the BBCSO. This was an engrossing performance. How can you follow that?

Lang Lang plays at the Last Night at BBC Proms. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouLang Lang’s appearances either side of the interval gave something of an answer. He gave a convincing if over-loud performance of the Liszt, from bland and character-less to a triumphant conclusion via a triangle-coloured scherzo that was technically brilliant if dull and rhythmically unusual at times. Sadly, Chopin’s Grande polonaise (shorn of its added-later opening Andante spianato) said more about Lang Lang the virtuoso than Chopin the composer. As an encore, a beautiful and dreamy performance of Liszt’s D flat Consolation showed that gems can be found amongst the showman’s output.

Percy Grainger’s simple block-harmonisation of My Dark-haired Maiden was pleasant and well sung by the BBC Symphony Chorus though it isn’t the best this composer has to offer. Benjamin Britten famously wrote to a friend that “I have a small film to write for the Board of Education”. The film was The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a set of Variations and closing Fugue on a ‘hornpipe’ found in Purcell’s music for Abdelazar. At this Prom the original spoken commentary (by Eric Crozier for Malcolm Sargent) was replaced by Wendy Cope’s new text (the piece can be performed without narration). The main difference in this version is its rhyming verse, which gives a Dr Seuss-like quality that is attractive though unfamiliar. By comparison to the original, Cope’s opening seems over-long, though this was possibly not helped by Jenny Agutter’s narration, which deflected attention away from the music. The poetry that falls in between the solo sections worked well however, although the BBCSO sounded tired and unprepared for the tricky corners that Britten litters his score with. The opening – majestic and stately – was here heavy and lacked subtlety. The wonderful horn section from the first half was no longer at its peak but the percussion made up for the precision lacking in other solos. Reassembling the orchestra In the Fugue was much slicker; it romped home, instrumentalists clinging on for dear life.

Susan Bullock at the Last Night at BBC Proms. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThe music of Hollywood movies has made resurgence in recent years at the Proms. John Wilson’s remarkable reconstructions of music used by film studios have been much acclaimed most notably for the music of Richard Rodgers to Oscar Hammerstein’s librettos. Vocalists such as Kim Criswell and Sarah Fox have reignited interest in this music through well-researched and stylistically accurate performances. Sadly the BBCSO is not the John Wilson Orchestra and Susan Bullock, for all her fantastic ability on the operatic stage, is not Sarah Fox. In the first of two Rodgers pieces – ‘Climb ev’ry mountain’ – Bullock seemed to be in a constant battle to overcome a dominating orchestra, and she was also flat and breathy. As for the new arrangement of ‘You’ll never walk alone’, with harmonisation by Stephen Jackson (Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus), as soon as Susan Bullock began to sing so did the audience, which drowned out the subtle harmonies that became more apparent in the second verse when the official chorus joined in. This was a far less triumphant version of a piece that has many meanings (a Liverpool FC flag was waved during the quiet ending). I’d like to hear this arrangement under better conditions.

The traditional ending to the Last Night followed: Elgar and Arne, with Susan Bullock dressed as a mythical heroine (a flashing breast-plate, and party-poppers in her staff), a speech by Edward Gardner (in which he thanked everyone, using three microphones in the process) and Parry’s Jerusalem in the generous orchestration by Elgar. The National Anthem was given in Britten’s hushed treatment for the opening verse. On first hearing it, in 1967, the Queen said that she had never been so affected by this national hymn, “and I’ve heard it once or twice before!” Britten’s arrangement continues to have a similar effect, this Last Night audience, regardless of nationality and colour, singing it with full voice in celebration of a spectacular season of Promenade Concerts.

Susan Bullock sings Wagner at the Last Night:

Lang Lang plays Liszt:

Lang Lang plays Liszt’s Consolation No.3:

Rule, Britannia! with Susan Bullock:

The audience sing Land of Hope and Glory:

Katherine Jenkins at the Last Night:

Proms 2011 – Weber’s Der Freischütz with Berlioz’s recits/Andrew Kennedy, Gidon Saks, Sophie Karthäuser, John Eliot Gardiner

Der Freischütz – Romantic opera in three acts to a libretto by Johann Friedrich Kind after Johann August Apel & Friedrich Laun’s Gespensterbuch [1841 Paris version; translated into French by Émilien Pacini with recitatives by Hector Berlioz and including his orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance; concert performance]

Max – Andrew Kennedy
Kilian – Samuel Evans
Kouno (Cuno) – Matthew Brook
Gaspard (Caspar) – Gidon Saks
Annette (Ännchen) – Virginie Pochon
Agathe – Sophie Karthäuser
Samiel – Christian Pelissier
Ottakar – Robert Davies
Hermit – Luc Bertin-Hugault

Monteverdi Choir

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 9 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Der Freischütz as the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe heralded interventions by Berlioz may have cornered the pre-Prom chatter, but Der Freischütz is still Weber’s show. The original version (1821) helped elevate German Romanticism to the status of high art and inspired a generation of composers, Liszt and Wagner among them, towards a veneration of supernaturally-tinted bygone worlds. The plot is simple: it’s Faust with bullets; yet the ink for Goethe’s Part One was barely dry when the opera first appeared, so it is more an offshoot (no pun intended) from ancient legend than a close relative of the Mephisto tale. In his Memoirs, Hector Berlioz pays homage to Weber’s “masterpiece” and laments its treatment at the hands of the idiotic impresarios who controlled Parisian opera in his day. In presenting the ‘Berlioz version’, Sir John Eliot Gardiner dusts off a curio that the French composer only agreed to undertake for the Opéra de Paris in order to protect a work he loved from being mutilated by lesser hands. It was damage limitation rather than creative inspiration that guided his pen. Berlioz’s technical skill served him well: his recitatives, written to replace the spoken dialogue of the original, are not only faithful to Weber’s idiom but they flow imperceptibly into the arias and tighten the work’s dramatic structure. There is an unexpected residual benefit, too: Der Freischütz sounds great in French.

Sophie Karthäuser & Virginie Pochon sing in Der Freischütz as the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe cast for this 2011 Opéra Comique production (presented at the Royal Albert Hall in concert form, aside for the odd musket and a steaming kettledrum in the Wolf’s Glen) was warm-toned and free from florid histrionics. As always with Gardiner, singers had been selected not for their marquee value but for vocal type, ensemble blend and dramatic effectiveness. Most voices were on the small side, with the ’tache-twirling exception of Gidon Saks as Gaspard, an unspeakable cad who lures our hero Max (Andrew Kennedy) over to the dark side. As for Kennedy himself, he was not afraid to emphasise the weaknesses of the hapless chasseur maudit. With the exception of the vowel-chewing Saks everyone’s French diction was exemplary, even among the non-Gallic cast members, and nowhere more so than amongst the magnificent (and multi-talented) members of the Monteverdi Choir.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts, and Andrew Kennedy, Gidon Saks & Christian Pelissier sing in Der Freischütz as the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIf the Overture began discreetly, that was clearly a dramatic decision on Gardiner’s part as his inconspicuous introduction heightened the impact of Weber’s resounding horns (and the horn-like trumpets of Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique) on their first appearance. The work as a whole was a field day for section leaders as player after player enjoyed an unbuttoned moment; and we now know why Berlioz took it upon himself to orchestrate Weber’s piano piece Invitation to the Dance, for although he slotted this interlude into Act Three with the utmost reluctance (in order to meet the Opéra’s demand for a ballet) his sure taste and musical judgement allowed it to fit seamlessly into the drama. I am not sure why Gardiner replaced this divertissement’s solo cello with massed ranks of them, but as a reading it was certainly light on its pins. Indeed, throughout the opera his brisk tempos were of a piece with Weber’s lyrical momentum and with the lean, economical libretto that rattles through its tale with brio and conviction – so that our disbelief is all but suspended until the preposterous dénouement.

What spatial fun the Monteverdi choristers had in Act Two as the entire auditorium became the Wolf Glen. They were the animals of the forest, murmuring and screeching while the kettledrum came to the boil and Christian Pelissier’s spoken (and amplified) Samiel cast his satanic spell. Murmurs of a more affirmative nature filled the hall when Sophie Kärthauser (as Agathe, our not-quite-doomed heroine) so exquisitely delivered her two set pieces, the Act Two ‘Prayer’ and the Act Three ‘Cavatina’; collective excitement was palpable as several thousand of people simultaneously discovered an enchanting talent. Virginie Pochon was similarly radiant as Annette, Agathe’s characterful confidante, but it was the heartfelt conviction and vulnerability of Kärthauser, dew-voiced and intense, who stole our hearts and the evening.

Proms 2011 – Philadelphia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit – Sibelius, Rachmaninov & Ravel … Janine Jansen plays Tchaikovsky

Finlandia, Op.26
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
La valse – poème choréographique

Janine Jansen (violin)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Charles Dutoit conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAn American orchestra, a Swiss conductor … what better piece to start with than Sibelius’s Finlandia, more of a national anthem for the country than the official one. Still it gave those of us still smarting (twice) from the ear-bashing that the Pittsburgh Symphony’s brass section dished out earlier in the week to find out what the Philadelphians are like in this department … and the answer is warm, rounded, golden even, and integrated as far as trumpets and trombones are concerned; these musicians don’t swamp their colleagues (and are not encouraged to), although the Philly’s horns were a bit too immediate throughout the evening and Charles Dutoit did seem to favour them. Nevertheless, whatever its current financial situation, the Philadelphia Orchestra still sounds “Fabulous” as it was branded during Eugene Ormandy’s forty-plus years as music director (1936-1980). Dutoit is not Director but Artistic Advisor and Chief Conductor (Yannick Nézet-Séguin is waiting in the wings to be an Ormandy successor, following Muti, Sawallisch and Eschenbach).

Janine Jansen & Charles Dutoit, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouFinlandia received an exciting and touching performance. Then Janine Jansen tantalised in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, teasing the ears with restrained dynamics, inveigling the heart with seductive phrasing and exciting the senses with her volatility; quite intoxicating as Tchaikovsky’s Classical lineage met his Romantic side. Jansen offered a thoughtfully explored first-movement cadenza, the ‘Canzonetta’ was a moonlit serenade (not a million miles away from Glenn Miller) and the finale (uncut) was fiery and reflective. Throughout, Dutoit and the Philadelphians were attentive and characterful accompanists, woodwinds a constant joy. As an encore, Jansen followed Anne-Sophie Mutter (two nights earlier) by playing the ‘Sarabande’ from J. S. Bach’s D minor Partita (BWV1004), richly expressed and suggestive of time immemorial.

Janine Jansen & Charles Dutoit, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouRachmaninov wrote his swansong work for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1940. Eugene Ormandy conducted and he and his Philadelphians made a great recording of it in 1960 – one that has rightness successively through it. Dutoit did it proud, too, running one movement to another (which makes musical sense and avoids intrusive applause) a continuity that underlined that this is effectively Rachmaninov’s Fourth Symphony. Dutoit nailed exactly the Non allegro marking for the first movement, trenchant rather than driven, so that when the saxophone-led wistful middle section arrived a through-line could be sustained; sultry sax-playing and tender opulent strings, too. Dutoit refused to rush at any point, rewardingly so, the second-movement waltz poised, bittersweet and lingering (haunted ballroom type of thing) and turning on a sixpence to the fluid coda that had no need to do the 100-metres dash. The extensive finale was built with organic power to Orthodox frenzy – both defiant and accepting – the nostalgic central section well-sustained and made meaningful – to complete an outstandingly perceptive performance, played from the inside.

La valse (1920) seemed a potential cancelling-out of the Rachmaninov – both works reach cataclysm (Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales before Symphonic Dances would have been very effective), but Dutoit, and old hand with this music, ensured a flourishing performance, refined and eerie at the opening, double basses slithering, ‘the waltz’ itself becoming more fractious as it journeyed to its World War One destruction, an era shattered, things would not be the same again. This wasn’t the most-seismic La valse, but it was assured and full of personality, Dutoit as physically vigorous here as he had been in Finlandia.

We were not done. Dutoit came back with a bouquet of flowers and walked into the Second Violin section, found Louis Lanza, handed him the flora and embraced him. Mr Lanza was retiring after close-on 50 years’ service (so, a personal link to a couple of decades of Ormandy’s tenure). Then Dutoit paid another tribute – to London audiences’ appreciation of Berlioz’s music thanks to “the great conductor Colin Davis who has done so much for the cause of Berlioz. We will play in his honour the ‘Hungarian March’ from The Damnation of Faust.” They did too, and this Audience Choice piece (at least when the Budapest Festival Orchestra is in town) was brought off with style and panache.

Proms 2011 – Tribute to Stan Kenton [Claire Martin, BBC Big Band, Jiggs Whigham]


Claire Martin (vocalist)

BBC Big Band
Jiggs Whigham

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Stan Kenton (1911-79) after a concert in Munich 1973. Photograph: Hans BernhardIn a Proms season with understandably its fair share of Liszt and Mahler, why not also a slot devoted to Stan Kenton – the American bandleader whose centenary falls this year. The present programme, cannily assembled and magnetically directed by Jiggs Whigham, certainly made for one of this season’s most memorable late-nighters.

With its mesmeric opening fanfare and surging dynamism of what follows, the opening section from Kenton’s Artistry in Rhythm started things at the top, then Bill Holman’s arrangement of Edgar Sampson’s Stompin’ at the Savoy made for a snazzy continuation. Claire Martin made her first appearance to the unstoppable verve of Charles Strouse’s A Lot of Livin’ to Do (from the musical Bye Bye Birdie), Holman’s arrangement setting up numerous solo and section ‘breaks’ to compete with the vocal, while Bill Russo’s Portrait of a Count was a fine showcase for the trumpet-playing of Martin Shaw. Claire Martin then the stakes were further raised with Kenton’s arrangement of Harry Warren’s effervescent Jeepers Creepers (from the film Going Places), before Marty Paich’s ambitious arrangement of Arthur Johnston’s My Old Flame (from the film Belle of the Vanities) found her in more reflective mood – with vocal subtly enhanced by fluid pianism from Robin Aspland.

Claire Martin. Photograph: Kate EastmanLike Duke Ellington, Kenton was always searching for ways to fuse the big-band medium with the formal diversity and expressive reach then associated with classical music – one of the most potent results being Concerto to End All Concertos, with its allocation of sections and solos to steadily evolving moods whose thematic links are made explicit in a majestic apotheosis, and in which the BBC Big Band gave of its collective best. Hardly less impressive was Holman’s scintillating arrangement of Ernesto Lecuona’s Malagueña with its heady yet ominous atmosphere; after which, Martin returned for the sultry repose distilled in Holman’s arrangement of Sonny Burke’s Black Coffee, followed by the wistful elegance Lennie Niehaus brought to Billy Strayhorn’s immortal Daydream. The main set closed with El Congo Valiente – the sure highpoint of Johnny Richard’s suite Cuban Fire which, with its riotous percussion and irresistible panache, fairly brought the house down.

Time for an encore in Harold Arlen’s That Old Black Magic (from the film Star-Spangled Rhythm), Martin discreetly joined by Whigham on trombone. An affecting end to a worthwhile show whose lateness no doubt accounted for the less than capacity audience and only makes a ‘main evening’ Kenton slot more necessary.

Proms 2011 – BBCSO/Robertson – Isabella & The Planets … Christian Tetzlaff/Birtwistle’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra [UK premiere]
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Holst Singers (women’s voices)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroDavid Robertson rounded off his contribution to this year’s Proms with this wide-ranging concert of British music – taking in an established classic alongside the revival of an early work by a still under-appreciated master and the first UK hearing for a major contemporary figure’s rare excursion into musical abstraction.

Although works featuring an instrumental soloist have long been a part of Harrison Birtwistle’s output, the composer has fought shy of designating any one of them a ‘concerto’. Perhaps the nearest instance came with Antiphonies for piano and orchestra, but now Birtwistle has bitten the proverbial bullet and come up with a Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2010) for Christian Tetzlaff – who undertook the world premiere in March with Marcelo Lehninger and the Boston Symphony, and whose reading certainly suggested his intention to establish the piece within a modern repertoire that has had no successor since that of Ligeti.

Christian Tetzlaff. Photograph: alexandra-vosding.deBirtwistle has spoken of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as an indirect catalyst in his endeavours; yet, other than overall length and the tendency (noticeable in the composer’s other orchestral works from the past decade) towards relative transparency of texture, the similarities are remote. Formally, too, this piece continues the line of ensemble interplay which has been a mainstay since his early maturity, but a sequence of five duos – each featuring the violin soloist – that run across its length offers the likely key to its underlying construction. The phrasing of the title, moreover, draws one’s attention to the consistency of the relationship between soloist and orchestra: one in which the former is always, though more than, first among equals. While this ensures a high degree of integration at all levels, it risks minimising the expressive diversity within that unity – such that the closing section, with its laconic pizzicato gestures from the violinist, feels strangely out of context and thus not the outcome of a methodical evolution. Hardly the fault of Tetzlaff, who played with keen assurance, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra which responded with alacrity to Robertson’s unforced direction – yet the impression, at least on first hearing, was of a work that represents less of a new departure than might have been supposed.

The Birtwistle was thrown into greater relief by being preceded by a work from Frank Bridge’s formative years. Based on a lurid – and not a little ludicrous! – poem by Keats, Isabella (1907) was not its composer’s earliest orchestral work but its Proms premiere in that year certainly helped to establish his reputation. Understandably so, given the music’s surging ardour during its initial third as it evokes the love of the heroine and Lorenzo, before the central span effectively summarises the latter’s murder and the disappearance of his head after being hidden in a pot of basil with a violent span given impetus by a nagging woodwind rhythm. The glowering climax is less of a reprise than the recollection of initial material, intensified by the skilful play on tonalities. Focussing on purely musical issues enabled Robertson to establish no mean momentum, underlining why this unlikely though effective fusion of Tchaikovsky and Franck won the plaudits it did just over a century ago.

The Planets (1917) has never wanted for performance since its incomplete premiere almost 93 years ago. Nor have many Proms seasons these past six decades gone by without a hearing, of which Robertson’s ranks with the very best. One of its assets was a willingness to point up those composers whose example, if not always their music, influenced the content of these ‘Seven Pieces for Orchestra’. ‘Mars’ thus emerged bracingly if unpredictably on its way to a seismic climax (made more so by the hush immediately before it), while ‘Venus’ tempered its gentle radiance and rapt harmonies with those very English qualities of transience and regret. ‘Mercury’ was as deft and lithe as needed (not least its airborne fugal section), but ‘Jupiter’ was a little deadpan in its ebullient outer sections while, in its central trio, Robertson was hardly the first conductor to fight shy of extra-musical associations. ‘Saturn’ was an undoubted highlight (as of the Suite itself), passing through remoteness and tragedy towards a rapturous leave-taking, to which ‘Uranus’ was an admirable foil in its abrupt contrasts and (via a scintillating organ glissando) sudden implosion. ‘Neptune’ was then a marvel of interweaving textures, the Holst Singers emerging imperceptibly then evanescing away magically at the close.

Overall, an impressively realised account that made the most of the work’s originality and the suitability of this acoustic in capturing its arresting qualities. There was intrusive applause between each movement (except the last two), but also a commendable silence while they were in progress suggested not a few people out there were listening.

Proms 2011 – Pittsburgh SO/Honeck – Lohengrin & Mahler 5 … Mutter plays Rihm

Lohengrin – Prelude to Act I
Gesungene Zeit
Symphony No.5

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 6 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Manfred Honeck conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWith its impressive sequence of big-name music directors and extensive foreign touring, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is an institution that has consistently punched above its weight. Manfred Honeck may not have the name-recognition of some of his predecessors but, despite straitened finances, his arrival has reportedly generated real excitement after the post-Mariss Jansons years of treading water. A sometime Abbado assistant who spent years as a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic under such as Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel (the latter a Pittsburgh predecessor), he brings a wealth of insider-knowledge to his music-making and a distinctive if hyped-up Viennese/Bohemian take on expressive content. Placing his Second Violins on the right and tucking in the double basses behind the Firsts, he encourages ultra-expressive playing with generous, some would say over-generous, inflections of tempo and dynamic within the larger frame. Rubato is ubiquitous, wind solos are allowed an invasive rustic edge and there is no shortage of vibrato from the eloquent Pittsburgh strings. Good intentions then but two big problems on the night: the unblended brass section consistently dominated everything else while the longer line of the three works sometimes got lost in a welter of surface incident.

The Wagner was presumably chosen to demonstrate the prowess of the PSO’s sweet-toned strings, the Mahler to showcase a cycle that is being put together for the Japanese Exton label. No.5 is heard so often these days that it can be difficult for even the most expert teams to impress with it; at the 2006 Proms the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä underwhelmed. Honeck, another conductor who knows what he wants (and is no stranger to the work having led a previous Proms account with the Oslo Philharmonic back in 1996), fared better but it was not plain sailing. There was no lack of character in the opening funeral march, the scherzo sounded less interminable than it often does and the fine control of string tone made for an absorbing Adagietto at a broad tempo. At first the boisterous finale looked like capping the reading in rather splendid fashion, lighter and lither than the norm … until the blare of horns and trumpets wrecked the effect. Has Honeck’s mix of European string sound and American wind sonority yet to settle? Perhaps the acoustic of Heinz Hall makes for a different, less-strident effect. I may react less negatively than some to the conductor’s manicured, stop-start approach but the Mahler risked turning into a concerto for brass band. Applause between movements was back too.

Anne-Sophie Mutter at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAt the geographical heart of the evening the inimitable Anne-Sophie Mutter arrived in a strapless turquoise frock. Surprisingly perhaps she was not peddling her new disc of contemporary would-be classics. Instead she revived the 24-minute piece composed for her by Wolfgang Rihm in 1991 and 1992 as an on-disc partner for Berg’s Concerto. Large claims are made for Rihm as one of the important composers of his generation. His pieces are perhaps too numerous and too various for non-specialist listeners to get a proper handle on him – but Gesungene Zeit (Time chanted), a study in sonority which uses a small orchestra at first as a kind of resonating chamber for the violin, is alarmingly thin stuff and not much happens. Mutter, whose insistent, high-octane performance-style is not to all tastes, played from the score. One could only marvel as she contrived to keep Rihm’s essentially monophonic construction airborne, the high-lying violin ‘aria’ sustained with the full sonority and unending line she once claimed to have learnt from Herbert von Karajan and also attributes to the properties of her own violin. Surrounding her were a variety of special effects, too many of them sounding like the keening of hearing-aids at a Sunday morning concert at Wigmore Hall. The hum of a generator somewhere in the building accompanied the closing bars. Undaunted by cannonades of coughing and fairly lukewarm applause, Mutter played something else, the ‘Sarabande’ from the D minor Partita (BWV1004). Bach encores seem to be a new Proms ‘tradition’.

The orchestra offered two Carlos Kleiber-associated extras after the Mahler. The best and subtlest playing of the evening came in Josef Strauss’s slow polka Die Libelle (The Dragonfly), its launch delayed by the distant sound of crashing glassware. Alas the orchestra’s buzz-saws were out in force again for a chunk of Der Rosenkavalier, but the capacity crowd seemed happy enough with it.

Proms 2011 – Christian Tetzlaff & Lars Vogt

Sonata in A for Piano and Violin, K526
Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano

Christian Tetzlaff (violin) & Lars Vogt (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 5 September, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Christian Tetzlaff. Photograph: alexandra-vosding.deContrasting violin sonatas formed the programme for the last in this year’s Proms Chamber Music series at Cadogan Hall. The established partnership of Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt looked at Mozart’s final sonata for piano and violin, written at the age of 31, and Bartók’s first published example in the form (he had already written three), composed at age 40.

Mozart takes a relatively expansive approach to form in this three-movement work, exploring lyricism in the slow movement but applying more energy to the faster music. The latter was very much in evidence from Tetzlaff and Vogt, who took the first movement at a brisk pace, leading to some constricting of the piano’s phrases in particular, with TetzlaffLars Vogtsnatching at a few of the rapid descents. Both musicians missed some subtleties. Gradually things settled, and the softly voiced Andante found Tetzlaff applying more of a dolce tone. For the finale the bluster returned, though this time it suited Mozart’s Presto more appropriately, and Vogt applied some nicely shaped phrasing to the upper-register octaves.There are few niceties in the faster music of the Bartók, an incredibly muscular piece that demands much from performers and audience. The transition from the Mozart was eased by a brief chat with BBC Radio 3 presenter Catherine Bott. If conducted well these conversations provide insight into the forthcoming performance, and here the use of musical examples to illustrate Bartók’s thematic processes in the first movement was helpful, and possibly invaluable to first-time listeners.

Once began it was noticeable how Tetzlaff and Vogt were concentrating more, and also that there was a new-found intensity to their execution. Fortissimo passages were punched out by Vogt, barely concealing their violence, while Tetzlaff brilliantly applied Bartók’s folksy sleights of hand to the melodies. The jarring dissonances from the piano carried maximum weight, and occasionally one feared for the instrument, so strong were Vogt’s interjections, but there was delicacy too in the theme’s development and eventual reappearance. The finale was even more brutal, totally casting aside inhibitions in this high-voltage music. As well as giving maximum force to Bartók’s full-throttled allegros, the duo brought a very different intensity to the slow music with many expressive turns, Tetzlaff exploring the outer limits of pianissimo as the musicians focussed on an ideal mix of meditation and tension.

As BBC Radio 3 went off-air, Tetzlaff and Vogt gave a generous encore, the finale from Dvořák’s Sonatina (Opus100). With fresh melodic invention and touches of humour it made the ideal light-relief to the lean and muscular Bartók.

Proms 2011 – Pittsburgh SO/Honeck – Braunfels’s Fantastic Appearances … Tchaikovsky 5 … Beethoven/Hélène Grimaud

Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz, Op.25 [excerpts]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Manfred Honeck. Photograph: Toshiyuki UranoThis Prom was originally planned to include a rare performance of Frankfurt-born Walter Braunfels’s Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz, or so the Proms Prospectus for this Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra appearance suggested. Although the Braunfels (therein estimated at 47 minutes) and the Beethoven would have made for an outsize first half, such length and juxtaposition is a Proms tradition. In the event we got only snippets of the Braunfels, 15 minutes’ worth, but in a recent interview Manfred Honeck declared it a great work, yet to fit it into a Pittsburgh concert a few months ago he had made his own performing edition, timed (very precisely) at 22 minutes. But why not respect the piece and plan around the size that Braunfels made it? All Honeck did at the Proms was to conduct the 30-second ‘Introduction’, the first (Theme) and fourth Appearances (Erscheinungen) and the ‘Finale’; that’s not an edition, that’s simply taking four from fourteen sections and hacking the work to death.

Braunfels (1882-1954) composed Fantastic Appearances between 1914 and 1917 (during which time he saw action in World War One), its premiere being in 1920 under Volkmar Andreae, the year that Braunfels’s rather wonderful opera Die Vögel appeared. The Berlioz-inspired piece (from La Damnation de Faust) did well for performances in its early years, attracting conductors such as Furtwängler, Nikisch and, in New York, Bruno Walter. If it has now faded from view, at least there is a recording, a very good one, with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and Dennis Russell Davies (CPO 999 888-2); sadly though the ninth Erscheinungen is omitted (a scherzo and trio accounting for 26 pages of the score, not that CPO’s booklet-note writer knew of its excision) for the entirely spurious reason that it was sometimes excluded in those initial accounts. Davies’s version, already at 49 minutes, would obviously have been several minutes longer. Honeck’s truncation gave us a lopsided view of this skilful, imaginative, flair-filled creation (appealing to admirers of Max Reger’s and Richard Strauss’s orchestral works, and owing much to the former’s Hiller Variations and Mozart Variations). Frankly the idea of playing excerpts should have been dropped, for in this Pittsburgh presentation the slow fourth Appearance, however beautiful, seemed too long out of context, as did the swaggering finale in which trumpets and trombones were too loud. We need a complete recording and BBC Proms owes us the work in its entirety (would that be a UK premiere?); maybe Martyn Brabbins can do the honours, the first half of the concert being Boris Blacher’s Paganini Variations and Ernö Dohnányi’s Nursery Tune Variations (with ideally Steven Osborne as the witty and character-vivid pianist).

Hélène Grimaud. Photograph: Mat Hennek/DGFollowing bowdlerised Braunfels, Hélène Grimaud deliberated with Beethoven’s opening solo, and she thoughtfully modulated elsewhere while being zesty and crisp if at times ungainly – with a moment of coming off the rails in the first movement – woodwinds too deferential to the piano’s up-front timbre. She was rather uniformly pacifying in the central Andante, the strings remaining too gruff and aggressive before taking a mannered to-nothing withdrawal.

And mannerisms abounded in the Tchaikovsky, which Honeck used for showmanship and orchestral virtuosity; no soul, no depth of feeling. Dynamic tweaks abounded – yes, these strings can play a deadly-hush pianissimo but without it illuminating the music and the clarinettists can raise their bells to make sure we don’t miss their twirls – and became affected early-on and more and more irksome. But what really sunk the performance was the coarse domination of the (technically perfect) brass – spiteful-sounding trumpets (four of them sometimes playing together rather than Tchaikovsky’s requested two), macho trombones and attention-seeking horns – Honeck visually whipping them up and obliterating everything else, perverse when the Pittsburgh strings are glorious (when audible), warm and silky as well as unanimous of phrase, amplitude, colour and deftness. Rarely has this symphony seemed so crude and emotionally empty. One enchanted moment though: William Caballero’s horn solo at the beginning of the Andante cantabile was astonishing for its sensitivity, poise and poeticism.

The first encore was an entr’acte from Bizet’s Carmen, sporting a lovely flute solo from Lorna McGhee (ex-BBC Symphony Orchestra), and the second was ‘Galop’ from Khachaturian’s music for Masquerade, predictably ‘in your face’ if brilliantly played, Michael Rusinek misusing his clarinet solo to ‘crossover’ to The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four; might as well have done a lick of Back in the USSR. Although it hardly mattered by this point.

Proms 2011 – Thierry Escaich Organ Recital

Overture in the Baroque Style [improvisation]
Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’, BWV659
Evocation III (on ’Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’) [UK premiere]
Chorale Prelude ’Jauchz, Erd, und Himmel, juble hell’, Op.67/15
Chorale No.2 in B minor
Adagio in D flat
Triptych on themes by Liszt [improvisation]

Thierry Escaich (organ)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Parisian organist Thierry Escaich is the titulaire at St-Etienne-du-Mont, the only church in Paris, apparently, with a screen between nave and choir (a magnificent and bizarre Renaissance creation flanked either side by spiral stone staircases). Marcel Dupré presided there for 57 years (from 1929 to 1986), so Escaich could hardly be following in grander footsteps.

Thierry Escaich. Photograph: Sébastien EromeThe French organ school, especially of the last century, raised improvisation to a great art, and the tradition is still flourishing with Escaich. Experience had indicated that organ improvisation, particularly in a concert, is work-in-progress, so often the triumph of style over content with a tendency to delight for rather a long time, a wow-factor technical display exploiting equally awesome instrumental facilities, but Escaich went some way to demonstrating why it might be the time to revisit that opinion. Overture in the Baroque Style was an impressive piece of pastiche, leaking into something much wilder, with echoes of Bach’s D minor Toccata (and Fugue). Escaich sometimes got stuck in a groove of particular figurations and great rolling sequences whizzing up and down the manuals, but it was a sizzling curtain-raiser nonetheless.

It sounded more ‘composed’ than his committed-to-paper Evocation III, which lingered lovingly over dramatic contrasts and almost palpable textures. Escaich’s powers of “composing in real time” were much more satisfyingly tested in his concluding Liszt improvisation (based on themes from Piano Concerto No.2 and St Francis walking on the Water, submitted 45 minutes before the recital), a thrilling burst of virtuosity that hurtled towards an unspecified crisis. I still have doubts about this elevation of improvisation to an art-form, but in the end, I suppose, all music is ephemeral.

Inserted into this organist-as-composer showcase was a discreetly played, meditative J. S. Bach chorale prelude, a brilliant one by Max Reger (amazingly the first organ work of his to be played at the Proms), and a lovely short Liszt Adagio based on a melody composed by the sister of Tsar Nicholas I. The inclusion of César Franck’s Chorale No.2, a great work magnificently played with some bold registrations, was a reminder that organ recitals, like any recital, are much more satisfying built round a few big works rather than a lot of short ones.

Christopher Cook’s avuncular mid-recital conversation at the console with Escaich added nothing to our appreciation of the organist or his programme, and I can’t imagine it furthered the cause of accessibility.

Proms 2011 – Sir Colin Davis conducts Beethoven’s Missa solemnis

Missa solemnis, Op.123

Helena Juntunen (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor) & Matthew Rose (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir & London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Colin Davis conducts Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouSir Colin Davis may need to sit these days, but there was not a hint of frailty in this performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, nor in his vision of a work ranging from Catholic triumphalism to a melting subjectivity that would not sound out of place in Fidelio. He took quite a risk though with some very steady tempos in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ – directions such as ma non troppo, maestoso and pesante were very much taken to heart and robbed the delirious Presto change of gear in the concluding paean of the ‘Gloria’ of its impact.

Yet Davis’s monumental approach in the opening movements, where Beethoven sometimes seems to be telling God what’s what, was of all of a piece with delivering the work to its open-ended and entirely human conclusion in the ‘Agnus Dei’. Many performances make the change of tack from public grandeur to private contemplation so abrupt as to be almost schizophrenic; Davis allowed it to steal in with a memorably rapt “Et incarnatus” section in the ‘Credo’. It became steadily more of a presence through the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ and made the sense of resignation at the return to human cares and reality in the ‘Agnus Dei’ all the more plausible, as though everything that had gone before was beyond reach. Davis has the knack in large-scale works of carrying through one big interpretative idea to a logical conclusion, and he made it work powerfully here.

Helena Juntunen, Sarah Connolly, Paul Groves & Matthew Rose sing at the BBC Proms 2011 in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe London Symphony Orchestra responded to its former Principal Conductor and current President with a layered, refined sound, properly Classical yet full of Romantic possibility, generously fulfilled in Gordan Nikolitch’s glorious playing of the violin solo in the ‘Benedictus’. The combined choruses were superb, singing with an airy spaciousness and scant regard for Beethoven’s punishing vocal demands, and with great attention to the Latin text (rather undermining Davis‘s lament in the printed programme that Latin has become an unknown language for most people). The quartet of soloists, used predominantly with chorus-like anonymity, had few chances to shine, but Paul Groves was thrilling in the outburst in “Et homo factus est”, and Matthew Rose, always impressively musical, skilfully inflected the change of mood in the ‘Agnus Dei’. Sarah Connolly created the stillness so vital for the start of the ‘Benedictus’, and Helena Juntunen (replacing Carmen Giannattasio) gave a gleam to the ensemble.

It’s true that what Messiaen refers to as “transports de joie” were measured out rather carefully by Davis, but the spiritual complexity of Beethoven’s vision – and the Missa solemnis is a very tough nut to crack – was well served.

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