Year: 2011

Proms 2011 – BBCNOW/Jac van Steen – Paganini Rhapsody/Hamelin, Cockaigne & Háry János, Michael Berkeley/David Goode

Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
Michael Berkeley
Organ Concerto [London premiere]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Háry János – Suite

David Goode (organ)

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jac van Steen

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 3 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jac van Steen. Photograph: Ross CohenQuite a lot of time in this lengthy Prom was taken up by platform changes – first between the large forces of the Elgar and the chamber ensemble of the organ concerto and, in the second half, to move the piano back into the orchestra (it is used in the Kodály) and replace it with the East-European folk instrument mostly associated with Hungary, the cimbalom. The opening piece found the orchestra tired and/or under-rehearsed. Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture (1901) is a portrait of the London he knew; the brass, strident throughout the evening, was unduly dominant, drowning out any subtlety of phrasing that the woodwind and strings might have played; maybe not, for this orchestra was on autopilot from the start!

The brass high in the Gallery at the start of Michael Berkeley’s Organ Concerto heralded a revitalised BBCNOW. The huge and open space of the Royal Albert Hall was ideal for the striking opening to this magnificent work. Surprisingly this was its first London performance; yey it dates from 1987, employs standard winds plus percussion and strings, so why it isn’t performed more often is an enigma. Berkeley’s Organ Concerto was commissioned by the International Congress of Organists and first performed in Ely Cathedral at the Cambridge Festival. It is in a single movement and divided into two halves – the first fast, the second slower. The composer says that “the liturgy of Easter pervades the Organ Concerto” and though it is not outwardly programmatic the essence of Easter (bringing light after darkness and the cleansing power of fire) encompasses the music’s spirit. David Goode, head of keyboards at Eton College, was well matched to the orchestra’s volume (the Royal Albert Hall organ has a tendency to dominate if not kept in check) though sometimes the choice of registration meant that the middle ranges were muddled amongst the orchestral parts and lost. Well-articulated and precise wind-playing together with sympathetic brass lifted this concerto to another plain. On occasion concentration was lost by the musicians (some wayward pizzicato) but otherwise this a focused performance.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photograph: Nina LargeRachmaninov’s creative muse was often at odds with his career as a performer. On leaving Russia in 1917 he found himself much in demand as a virtuoso pianist. In 1934, after relatively few compositions (but including the first version of Piano Concerto No.4), he wrote what would become one of his most popular pieces. Paganini Rhapsody is based upon the Italian composer’s 24th Caprice for solo violin, a stimulus for many composers, Brahms, Lutosławski, Liszt, Blacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of Rachmaninov’s 24 variations, XVIII (in which the composer turns the Theme on its head) has become one of his best-known melodies. Tempo disagreements between soloist and conductor at the start were soon sorted out, Jac van Steen accompanying Hamelin sympathetically. Sadly there were too many ragged edges (the witty ending was not together for instance), which gave this performance a feeling of under-preparedness.

Finally, the sparkling Suite that Kodály compiled from his ‘song-play’ (1925-26) about the Walter Mitty-like character Háry János. (It is the Hungarian way that the surname comes first; János equals John.) There is a Hungarian notion that says if someone sneezes during the telling of a story then it is confirmation that the tale (however preposterous) is true. Kodály opens the Suite with an orchestral ‘sneeze’. Sadly various members of the audience took this as their cue for coughs and wheezes of their own. It’s hard not to relish Kodály’s use of colour – from the bright percussion in ‘Viennese Music Clock’ to the brass, wind (including saxophone) and percussion in ‘The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon’ that depicts Háry’s single-handed defeat of the whole French army. BBCNOW was enjoying itself. With few exceptions (the viola solo in the third movement seemed rushed) pacing and detailing were well-judged, as was balance, ensuring the cimbalom played by Ed Cervenka was heard throughout.

Proms 2011 – Michael Tippett & John Tavener, Gubaidulina’s The Canticle of the Sun – BBC Singers & Natalie Clein

The Windhover; Plebs angelica
Popule meus [UK premiere]
Little Music for Strings
The Canticle of the Sun

BBC Singers
Natalie Clein (cello)
Britten Sinfonia
David Hill

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 3 September, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

David HillIt did cross my mind to head this review “Hurrah for Tippett” – the reasons will become apparent, but it is strange how the music of this great composer has almost completely disappeared from concert programmes since his death in 1998. Even these relatively minor pieces coming from the beginning of his compositional career remind us how much we should still appreciate this mercurial figure. The two short choral works opening this Prom are, like so much of Tippett’s music, by no means easy to sing, but held no terrors for the BBC Singers. Under David Hill’s clear direction they negotiated the springing rhythms of The Windhover with ease and gave one of Tippett’s few settings of a sacred text, Plebs Angelica (Angelic Host), an appropriate breadth and grandeur. Little Music comes mid-way between Tippett’s two masterpieces for strings, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra and the Corelli Fantasia; a smaller and less-significant brother perhaps, but still full of that unmistakable Tippettian radiance. David Hill and Britten Sinfonia made the music sing and dance – the Purcellian slow movement was beautifully controlled, whilst the finale brought a smile as the music mischievously scampered off into the distance.

Natalie CleinSir John Tavener was in the audience to hear Natalie Clein give the UK premiere of Populae Meus – what the composer describes as a “meditation on the Judaic and Christian text O my People, what have I done to you?”. By all accounts the violent timpani solo (finely played by Jeremy Cornes – who wasn’t given a credit in the programme or a call at the end) represents man and his rejection of God. The solo cello and strings remain serene and represent the Light that wins through. If all this sounds a bit familiar and predictable – it was! One could have nothing but admiration for Natalie Clein’s passionate advocacy and her command of the sometimes hair-raisingly writing for cello.

Sofia Gubaidulina is 80 this year, which must be the only logical reason for programming The Canticle of the Sun – certainly the dreariest forty minutes I have spent in any concert hall for some time. With the exception of some rather wonderful moments for the basses at the beginning, most of the choral writing is homophonic – obviously influenced by the chants of the Russian Orthodox Church, but nowhere near as spine-tingling and interesting. All manner of scrapes and jingles from the vast battery of percussion could not divert from the fact that there is no musical substance here at all, just a collection of sound-effects meant to illustrate the glowing text of St Francis of Assisi – and didn’t! The performers gave their all – again – Clein’s playing was heroic, gamely taking on the tiresome party-tricks. Two percussionists from Britten Sinfonia (Owen Gunnell and Cornes again) gamely imagined themselves in some strange 1960s’ Roundhouse new-music concert and Huw Watkins added some pretty sounds on the celesta. The BBC Singers need to be commended for keeping a straight face, not least when Clein performed her flexatone solo and the ladies had to imitate its sound (how original is that!) and for doing what they did as well as they did. I can’t imagine that the afternoon was any more rewarding for them than it was for many in the audience, judging from some of the comments heard afterwards.

Hurrah for Tippett!

Proms 2011 – Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer – Liszt & Mahler, Dejan Lazić plays Totentanz & Lady Gaga Fugue

Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust – Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke (Mephisto Waltz No.1)
Symphony No.1

Dejan Lazić (piano)

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 2 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Dejan Lazić. Photograph: Susie KnollIt was easy to tell which Prom-goers have children around the house. When Dejan Lazić launched into his encore, the Royal Albert Hall audience divided into those who instantly identified Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance (given the Bach treatment by Giovanni Dettori and the moniker of Lady Gaga Fugue) and everyone else for whom the smug chuckles of recognition remained a mystery until they could collar someone in the know. (Like me, thanks kids!) Lazić had just completed a debonair performance of Liszt’s firecracker Totentanz. The Croatian is an artist of such precision that he practically touch-types at the keyboard, playing with a refinement that recalls the young Michel Dalberto but with added wit – happily so, as a sense of humour is invaluable when making a case for this set of variations on the ‘Dies irae’ plainchant, a rhapsody on a theme of death spiced with a nod from the Devil. It’s a catchpenny idea that outstays its welcome even at fifteen minutes, and despite the sprightly advocacy of Lazić and Iván Fischer, its impact was shallow: a triumph of orchestration over contemplation.

Iván Fischer. Photograph: Budapest Festival OrchestraThe Devil is very much at the helm in the Mephisto Waltz. This is a more substantial creation than Totentanz: a brief but densely-packed episode that revisits Liszt’s endless fascination with the Faust legend. The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s febrile introduction on low strings heralded a series of brief melodic strands that took their time to build up through a range of colours until the whirling, frenzied climax. The work’s middle section anticipates Tchaikovsky in its momentum, while in the later pages (depicting erotic dances at the village inn) its untidy construction was convincingly disentangled by Fischer and his disciplined Hungarian players.

Blumine, the discarded second movement from Mahler’s First Symphony, provided a moment of repose and enchantment. The solo trumpeter sat amid the horn players and wistfully wove his romantic melody. As for the parent work, Fischer’s reading was notable for the prevalence of mezzo-piano as his dynamic of choice. This was not a frenetic First but a dapper, controlled reading entirely devoid of vulgarity, even during the inner movements where a spot of earthiness would have released a few more musical endorphins. As it was, every section of the orchestra played like a cluster of precious stones, with a polish that was sparkling and beautiful but also self-contained and inorganic. For much of the symphony’s duration one marvelled at the exquisite sound but longed for something more spirited to cut through; and in the finale it did. At Mahler’s direction Stürmisch bewegt (‘tempestuously’), Fischer tore the lid off Mahler’s orchestration and set its colours free to roar through the Royal Albert Hall. The spick-‘n’-span reading that had gone before gave way to a showbiz ending as Fischer beckoned not just the horns (requested in the score) but the entire brass contingent (not marked) to its feet for that closing flourish. Too little too late, but a tingle moment even so.

Proms 2011 – Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer – Audience Choice

“Tonight the audience will be asked to choose what they would like to hear played from the range of possible options in the orchestra’s capacious music library.” (Proms Prospectus)

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Rarely, if ever, has there been a Prom without a programme in advance; very rare in British concert life is that the case but, on occasion, in Budapest, it has become a regular feature of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer’s seasons, whether in their ‘surprise’ concerts (the works only announced at the event) and at ‘audience choice’ presentations. It was the latter that Fischer and his BFO brought to the Royal Albert Hall for a late-night appearance and their second Prom of the evening. There had been no clue in the Proms Prospectus or on the website about how the audience would choose the music … so as we entered the Hall we were each given a handsomely printed raffle ticket (mine was numbered 1843) and asked to appraise the 285 listed pieces printed in the programme and decide – if you were lucky in the ballot – what piece you would request.

Music is chosen at the Budapest Festival Orchestra's Prom, BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouFischer explained further as he introduced the BFO’s tuba-player who walked into the audience with all the raffle stubs in the bell of his instrument. People were randomly asked to choose a number. Once the holders of each had been identified they were asked to shout out their choice of music, and the winner was adjudged by acclamation. Fischer, who arbitrated, swiped away those that fell at the first fence, and sometimes ask for a re-vote. In essence it was like the American presidential election; we had primaries where the choice was delimited, and a final vote to decide the winner. It just didn’t last 18 months. I’ve heard comment that it sounded chaotic and long-winded on the Radio 3 broadcast, but following the tuba around the hall, seeing where the winners were located and listening for their choices was great fun. When no-one owned-up to a raffle ticket Fischer threw a rabbit soft-toy into the Arena: whoever caught it could make a choice.

Iván Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe selection was extraordinary including thirty-eight symphonies, split into movements: from the first eight by Beethoven, three of Brahms’s, the first and third movements of Bruckner’s 7, the last three of Dvořák’s, several by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, from Mahler were the inner movements of No.1 (heard earlier in the evening), the Adagietto from No.5 and all four of No.6 (no sight of a hammer though), Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’, Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’, Rachmaninov 2, Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ and Tchaikovsky 4 and 5. Also sprach Zarathustra was there (but the organ was switched ‘off’) as was The Rite of Spring … four works by Leroy Anderson, nine excerpts from Bach, Bottesini’s Gran duo concertante, Grigoras, Dinicu’s Hora staccato, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Leó Weiner’s Serenade. None of these got chosen.

The first choice was between Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1 and Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude and, the winner, Kodály’s Dances of Galánta (more idiomatically performed than by Jurowski and the LPO earlier this season). The second choice involved the first movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony – dismissed immediately! – and a draw between Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances (“these are too easy for us”, Fischer said) and Josef Strauss’s Music of the Spheres waltz. We got both. The third was between Mahler’s Adagietto, Ravel’s Boléro (“it’s long, so we would only play a bit” – but the same length as Galánta) and, the winner, the Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla. The final choice saw a four-way split (the rabbit thrown into the arena unnecessary) between Leroy Anderson’s Plink, Plank, Plonk, Berlioz’s Hungarian March, and a final showdown between Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and Stravinsky’s Tango. Miraculously, Stravinsky won; but, once that had been played, Fischer suggested that the final work would be the Berlioz.

After our choices and while the hard-working librarian (regrettably not name-checked in the programme) was retrieving the music, we had musical interludes. There was some Transylvanian folk-music, Bartók violin Duos, some Telemann, body-popping percussionists, a brass chorale and a didgeridoo. Fischer likened the effect to a rehearsed reading of a play, and that things could go wrong. But this is the Budapest Festival Orchestra (now playing in mufti) and the pieces by Kodály and Bartók were home runs. The performances were hugely enjoyable, making up in their sweep for any lack of finesse. This concert immediately seemed to gain classic status and embodied Henry Wood’s vision for the Proms.

Proms 2011 – Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta – Webern, Albéniz & Rimsky-Korsakov … Gil Shaham plays Bruch

Passacaglia, Op.1
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Iberia [selections, orch. Arbós: Fête-Dieu à Séville; El Puerto; Triana]
Capriccio espagnol, Op.34

Gil Shaham (violin)

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Zubin Mehta at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThis year brings Bombay-born Zubin Mehta’s 75th-birthday and also marks his fifty-year association with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (from eleventh-hour replacement for Eugene Ormandy to Music Director for Life). The IPO is also 75; save it was the Palestine Orchestra for the first twelve years of existence. (The orchestra’s biography as printed in the programme was less than helpful on this point.) Although Mehta and the Israel Phil are always welcome musical visitors to London, this particular choice of music barely limped out of the Proms Prospectus – the same Webern piece that Mehta conducted here two years ago (with the Vienna Philharmonic) followed by the most-ubiquitous of violin concertos (long overdue a rest for all its charms and once again favoured ahead of Max Bruch’s other fiddle concertos and the wonderful Scottish Fantasy), and then some insubstantial Spain-related pieces. Short-measure, too, even by ‘modern’ concerts’ standards, let alone Proms marathons.

Anton Webern’s Passacaglia (1908) – with which he finally acknowledged his musical self – was finely blended and balanced, mysterious and shifting, lyrical entreaties growing to passionate outbursts, all anchored by the antique form … and, then, the first of several disruptions by those who are pro-Palestine/anti-Israel. (Pre-concert there had been a peaceful demonstration outside the Royal Albert Hall; it was dignified and sufficient.) For all the hubbub, this accurate and impressively prepared performance of Webern carried on to its end, if sometimes inaudibly but to an ovation. Those who interrupted had immediately done their cause no favours; indeed it was detrimental. Those who responded as if at a football match trying to get a player red-carded were no better.

Zubin Mehta with Gil Shaham at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe opening of the Bruch was turned into a false start, drowned-out by continuing hostilities (by now BBC Radio 3 had cut the broadcast). When peace broke out, it was ‘take 2’, and a wonderful performance, Gil Shaham radiant, intense and enthused, Mehta giving a masterclass as an accompanist, the IPO at-one with the soloist and its long-serving, still-vigorous maestro. As an encore, Shaham offered the ‘Preludio’ from J. S. Bach’s E major Partita (BWV1006), athletic, well-tempered and variegated.

Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAn even longer hiatus before the Albéniz (Radio 3 again cutting loose) from different places in a coordinated campaign – whatever the message, it was lost to others’ annoyance. It was a while before the patient, head-bowed Mehta was able to give us some orchestrated Albéniz; under the circumstances, welcome, sort of evocative and picturesque, but however great the piano originals may be, Enrique Fernández Arbós’s often-garish orchestrations diminish them, despite the sterling advocacy of the performers. Before Rimsky, yet another commotion, and now fists were flying as an irate concert-goer took his frustration out physically on a protester. Both miscreants were ejected (quite rightly) as the other interrupters had been, as was someone in the Arena who unfurled the Israeli flag – how did he get that through the increased security? (I even had my Evening Standard inspected!) There were supposed to be in-depth bag searches, but of course you can’t stop anyone getting in who has no baggage and who has come to shout.

Iberia may be nearer the real thing than Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol (although a travelling naval captain, Rimsky never saw Spain for himself), but it’s a masterpiece of how to use an orchestra subtly, suggestively and vibrantly without coarseness. Mehta and his musicians brought it off brilliantly; silky strings, personable woodwinds, bright but not blatant brass, and crisp unforced percussion (less-loud than in Arbós’s over-scored mêlée), and with some notable solos from violin, flute, clarinet and harp (the IPO’s musicians were not listed by name). Mehta could though have sprinted more to the finishing post, and the encore – ‘Death of Tybalt’ from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet – needed to live more dangerously. Only one extra, atypical Mehta, but in-keeping with the weeks-old feeling that this concert didn’t do these visitors full justice. But that was before the unwanted and unwarranted stoppages, for ultimately the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta were vindicated to deserved acclamation … for it was the music that won … and those who came to object and those who responded in loud-mouth fashion lost. And Radio 3 listeners were mostly spared listening to this war-like situation and got the same works as recordings.

Proms 2011 – David Robertson conducts Beethoven’s Choral Symphony … Yo-Yo Ma plays Graham Fitkin’s Cello Concerto

Composer Portrait
Graham Fitkin
Musicians from the London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 61
Cello Concerto [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Christine Brewer (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor) & Iain Paterson (bass-baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Proms is an (almost) annual tradition which has survived the best part of a century of upheaval, the question nowadays being what to programme in the first half that might place it within an enhanced context. Here it was for a newly commissioned cello concerto providing appreciable yet not unmeaningful contrast.

Yo-Yo MaWhile not a newcomer to the Proms, Graham Fitkin has not been represented by anything so substantial as the Cello Concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma – its 30-minute span pitting its soloist against sizable but, for the most part, sparingly used forces. The austere opening bars build tension gradually, arriving at a rocking motion which admits of greater emotion en route to the initial climax whose impetus holds good through an intensification of this section – culminating in a climax of rhythmic unisons hammered out by the orchestra against the imploring soloist. From here, tension subsides to a recall of the rocking motion, now suffused with greater melodic directness as the music returns to its introspective origins and a sense of finality not so much tragic as fatalistic in import. All very coherent and considered in its drawing on aspects of the post-minimalist idiom associated with Fitkin, while opening-out its expressive range with discreetly applied rhetoric. By turns thoughtful and incisive, Ma was in his element throughout and this is one new concerto he should certainly consider adding to his repertoire.

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroThe path by which Fitkin came to his Cello Concerto was tellingly illustrated though the three works heard beforehand at the Composer Portrait. Sciosophy (1986) was among his first characteristic pieces in its energetic yet also playful repartee for four pianos, while Hurl (1996) drew from saxophone quartet an overtly ruminative dialogue with each of the constituents locked into a process whose harmonic and melodic concerns maintain an equable accord. Most distinctive, though, was Sinew (2008) – its diverse sextet (clarinet, horn, string trio and piano) pursuing an intensive discourse in which held chords added to the accruing intensity. Committed performances by musicians from the London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble.

In hinting at an elemental aspect, Fitkin’s concerto established a link (however tenuous) with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. David Robertson has given arresting accounts of the Fifth, Seventh and Eighth of the cycle during his tenure as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and his approach to the present work was defined by real textural clarity as well as lithe though not unyielding tempos. Thus the opening movement eschewed overtly metaphysical overtones, but its contrapuntal intricacy and cross-rhythmic impetus were much in evidence; qualities equally relevant to its scherzo successor, in which all repeats were observed and Robertson made a virtue out of maintaining an unbroken tempo through the trio section, nimble if a little lacking in pathos. The Adagio then found a viable accommodation between rapt inwardness and the lightness of touch now most often favoured, drawing its themes into an eloquent discourse whose focus was only offset by less-than-immaculate wind-playing, and a seeming uncertainty as to how the coda should prepare for what follows.

Christine Brewer. Photograph: Christian SteinerIn spite (or perhaps because) of this, Robertson secured a largely convincing traversal through the finale – for all that the seismic opening gestures were underwhelming and the cello and double bass recitatives went for little in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. A distinct plus-point was having the four vocalists in front of the chorus at stage-left, making them intermediaries rather than soloists per se. Iain Paterson was laudably expressive in his initial calling, and Toby Spence had the necessary ebullience for his ensuing march-past, but the female singers were less assured – Christine Brewer, in particular, sounding uncharacteristically out of sorts during the quartet passages. The combined BBC and Philharmonia choruses lacked little in dynamism or, in the introspective music after the central episode, that sense of awe which opens out the work (indeed, the symphony as a genre) into new and still misunderstood ways. The BBCSO responded with alacrity to the purely orchestral sections, and if the coda seemed incisive rather than exhilarating, perhaps it is unwise to expect transcendence every time.

Proms 2011 – Netherlands Radio PO/Zweden – Bruckner 8 … David Fray plays Mozart

Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 score edited Leopold Nowak]

David Fray (piano)

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 30 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Fray. Photograph: emiclassics.comFluency and refinement were there for the taking in the French pianist David Fray’s Proms debut, as was his clean and analytical approach to one of Mozart’s biggest piano concertos, which for all its C major majesty does not wear its heart on its sleeve. What was missing, though, was the volatility of dialogue and busking with the orchestra – in this respect, it was unfortunate that the impact of Maria João Pires’s performance of K595 three days previously was still resonating, reminding us of the delirious range of opportunities Mozart offers, especially in the piano concertos.

Fray was memorably elegant and oblique in the piano’s first entry, but after that shaft of insight he became rather bedded down with the orchestra, emerging almost as a desire for recognition into a vivid and poised cadenza (by Friedrich Gulda). Fray’s stage style – leaning back on a low chair with head hunched over the keyboard and some extravagant elbow movement (shades of Radu Lupu and Glenn Gould) – isn’t going to win any Alexander Technique prizes and was of a piece with his predominantly self-contained approach. He was much more instinctive in the operatic slow movement for which Jaap van Zweden adopted a singer-friendly, easy tempo that hovered in mood teasingly between andante and allegretto. A touch more engagement from Fray with some wonderfully nuanced orchestral playing (particularly the fine woodwinds) and an awareness of the soloist’s right-to-roam would have tipped this movement and the concerto as a whole into a much more layered, broader experience.

Jaap van Zweden. Photograph: IMG ArtistsJaap van Zweden delivered layers and broadness to spare in his thrilling performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (in Leopold Nowak’s edition of this much tinkered-with score), a work served very well by the Proms over the. As leader of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Van Zweden would have played in umpteen performances of this masterpiece, and this must have contributed to the authority and long-distance cogency that made this particular performance so special. As his series of Bruckner recordings is confirming, Van Zweden has an instinct for the way in which Bruckner’s music connects and grows, producing that certainty that what you hear is only a part of what is going on subliminally; with the endless qualifying of his material and his tortuous, troubled working towards a resolution, Bruckner sometimes seems like music’s answer to Henry James.

The first movement was remarkable for the bleakness of the opening, an unfolding of fragmentary utterances, with shades of grey barely admitting the possibility of light that would have given Shostakovich food for thought. This sense of desolation continued right through to the flat-lining end, an elimination of life-signs superbly realised by the orchestra. There are a few people who prefer the original version’s final peroration to the revision’s open-ended inconclusiveness, but the composer’s second thoughts surely give the symphony a much longer reach. Van Zweden’s brisker-than-moderato Allegro also helped heighten the feeling of unfinished business. Throughout there was a Parsifal-like intensity that had the audience on tenterhooks for its eventual release in the finale (with no inter-movement applause misery). After the scherzo, taken at a terrific lick, and a trio full of Mahler-like wistfulness, Van Zweden settled into a deeply searching reading of the Adagio, his firm pace slowly moving the music away from the doubts of the first movement and approaching the long-jump to the climax with scrupulous preparation, a hair-raising blend of effort, weight, inevitability and achievement. The scale was perfectly judged, and its grandeur well served by outstanding playing.

Another reason I connected with this performance was the suggestion of Bernard Haitink’s self-effacing and patient way with this symphony, not just for the layers of revelation in the Adagio but also in the superbly handled finale, right down to the unmarked but absolutely right applying of the breaks (bar 478 of the Nowak edition) that somehow acts like a hinge to the closing pages. The NRPO more than justified its continuing existence (in doubt earlier this year) in playing of great quality, breadth and awe-inspiring athleticism, and Van Zweden’s lucid, passionate conducting reminded us all what a staggering, and staggeringly original, work Bruckner 8 is.

Proms 2011 – Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott

L [London premiere]
Gismonti & Carneiro
Bodas de prate; Quatro cantos
Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op.19

Yo-Yo Ma (cello) & Kathryn Stott (piano)

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 29 August, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

For all the grandeur and status that the Royal Albert Hall brings to the BBC Proms, some music is better suited to the more intimate setting of Cadogan Hall. In this recital, the seventh of eight Proms Chamber Music concerts, Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott played music that took little effort to enjoy.

Kathryn Stott & Yo-Yo Ma. Photograph: Michael O'Neill & Lorenzo Cicconi MassiGraham Fitkin’s L was commissioned by Stott as a present for Ma on his fiftieth birthday. L is the Roman for 50 and for the composer, “L is for line, for lust, life and longing.” Stott is a champion of Fitkin’s music. From the start her nimble fingers deftly executed the rhythmic episodes that surround the melodic heart of the piece. Ma was no slouch either – his cello spike shook with the force of his bow hitting the strings. Afterwards the composer spoke about L, saying that it was written as a surprise for the cellist. The piece has developed in the hands of these performers since its composition in 2005. Its approachability should make L an attractive addition to any cello and piano programme. Fitkin described L as “kitsch, brutal and sensual”, but for the second and third pieces in the recital ‘kitsch’ alone will suffice. Bodas de prate (Silver Wedding) and Quatro cantos (Four corners) is a collaboration between the Brazilian composers Egberto Gismonti and Geraldo Carneiro. Where Fitkin’s music was precise this was wispy and impressionistic and leaning too much towards over-sentimentality. The jazz-influenced arpeggios in the piano were handled with due reverence by Stott but it’s hard to take this music too seriously.

Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata was completed in November 1901 and first performed by its dedicatee, Anatoliy Brandukov and the composer in the December. It is the composer’s final chamber work and was written soon after the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto. After twenty-five years of performing together, the synergy between these Ma and Stott was supremely evident, changes of tempo and style negotiated with no apparent effort and without eye-contact. If there was a zone to be in, they were. The enquiring opening movement leads into a sprightly scherzando second without giving the audience time to applaud. The “oh-too-easy-sentimentality” that Rachmaninov railed against was kept in check while every drop of passion that he boxed up inside the music was wrung out. Only in the third-movement Andante did the magic momentarily falter as the melody in the piano right-hand became a little abrasive on this very resonant Steinway grand. The finale enjoyed a bravura conclusion.

After the sign-off to BBC Radio 3 listeners, there was another South American treat for those in the hall, the theme from Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission, which has been done to death through arrangements and recordings, but the charming simplicity of the central melody in the sensitive delivery of Yo-Yo Ma was a perfect ending.

Proms 2011 – Hooray for Hollywood – John Wilson Orchestra [42nd Street, West Side Story, Doctor Dolittle, Mary Poppins]

Warner Brothers and the birth of the movie musical – 42nd Street

Fred and Ginger at RKO – Top Hat; Swing Time; Shall we dance?

Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy: Hollywood’s sweethearts – Maytime

Hollywood goes to war – Strike up the band; Can’t Help Singing; On the Town; Four Jills in a Jeep

Fred’s Swansong – Ziegfeld Follies

Judy’s Comeback – A Star is Born

The Fabulous Fifties – Calamity Jane; The Student Prince; Funny Face

From Stage to Screen – Gypsy; West Side Story; The Music Man; The Band Wagon; Guys and Dolls

End of the Golden Age – Mary Poppins; Doctor Dolittle; Hello, Dolly!

Annalene Beechey (vocalist), Charles Castronovo (tenor), Matthew Ford (vocalist), Sarah Fox (soprano), Caroline O’Connor (vocalist) & Clare Teal (vocalist); with soloists from the Maida Vale Singers: Matthew Little, Stephen Douse, Nigel Richards & Stuart Matthew Price

Maida Vale Singers

John Wilson Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 29 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Following on from the 2009 Prom celebrating MGM’s musicals, this 2011 Prom cast the net a little wider by taking a look at what other studios were doing at that time. Warner Brothers, RKO and 20th Century Fox all had impressive music departments. Warner Brothers pioneered talking-pictures and with its release of the first feature-length movie in 1927, The Jazz Singer, the Golden Age of Hollywood began. This concert focussed upon key events in the thirty-year period that started with Warner Brothers’ 42nd Street in the early-1930s and ended with 20th Century Fox’s Hello, Dolly! in 1969. In between came the seven years that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers spent at RKO, the Second World War and the move from stage to screen.

John Wilson at the Hooray for Hollywood Prom. Photograph: BBC/ChristodoulouJohn Wilson, speaking to a packed Royal Albert Hall, said that very little of significance happened between The Jazz Singer and 1933 when movie-director and musical choreographer Busby Berkeley arrived at Warner Brothers to choreograph Harry Warren’s 42nd Street. For Wilson, this was the birth of the movie musical. However the opening Overture recognised two notable exceptions – ‘Swanee’ from The Jazz Singer and Al Jolson’s 1928 follow-up hit The Singing Fool – also a Warner Brothers production. 42nd Street was the first grown-up film musical and as a testament to the lasting success of Warren’s music it was produced for the stage in 1980 winning the Tony Award for Best Musical. Though only five songs were used in the film (more from the Warren/Dubin catalogue supplemented the stage show), ‘You’re getting to be a habit with me’, and the title-song were overnight successes. Annalene Beechey’s Prom debut signalled what was to come in a tightly-rhythmical performance sung with 1930s’-depression-filled New York authenticity and a convincing accent.

As previous Proms have shown, the partnership between the Maida Vale Singers and the John Wilson Orchestra is a fruitful one built upon mutual respect for the music. (The JW Orchestra and MV Singers have been here every year since 2009.) In the last three years we have become accustomed to the polished craftsmanship of Wilson and his assistants (and his hand-picked musicians) who painstakingly recreate this wonderful music. In this prom we heard the well-known alongside the less-familiar, all given to a new audience.

John Wilson & Caroline O’Connor at the Hooray for Hollywood Prom. Photograph: BBC/ChristodoulouHollywood folklore says that Fred Astaire’s RKO screen-test report read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” From such a disappointing first encounter the partnership between Fred and Ginger grew. They made nine musicals together, for the fourth – Top Hat (1935) – Irving Berlin was the composer to what was to become F & G’s most successful film. Matthew Ford, known as one of the finest big-band singers in the UK, was unsteady at the start in the title-tune but became more convincing as the evening went on. The RKO era continued with music from Jerome Kern and vocals from the splendid Clare Teal (from BBC Radio 2’s Big Band Special) in a fine performance of ‘A Fine Romance’ from Swing Time. Ford seduced the ladies in ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ which, by way of segue, led seamlessly into George and Ira Gershwin’s 1937 musical Shall We Dance and a duet for Ford and Teal in ‘They All Laughed’.

In terms of balance, the loudspeakers being placed high in the canopy over the orchestra made the perennial problem of amplifying the singers more acute. Soloists and orchestra will always fall into different soundscapes while this overhead system continues to be used though.

Matthew Ford, Caroline O’Connor & Sarah Fox and the John Wilson Orchestra perform Triplets from the MGM classic at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouJeanette MacDonald is best remembered for musicals with Maurice Chevalier (Paramount Studios) and Nelson Eddy (MGM). Her trained voice gave composers such as Rudolf Friml (Rose Marie, The Vagabond King) and Sigmund Romberg an opportunity to stretch the conventional bounds of musical theatre. Maytime established Romberg as one of the leading operetta composers. The story and the score of the 1937 film was different to Romberg’s original 1917 Broadway production with only one song remaining – ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ The sassiness of 42nd Street a memory, Beechey found the perfect mixture of loving-warmth and impossible-love in this beautiful song.

The war years for Hollywood ignited patriotic fervour amongst its composers. Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band, with Caroline O’Connor’s marching entrance, and a solitary Star-Spangled Banner waving in the Arena, set us on what could easily have become a jingoistic frenzy. Jerome Kern’s ‘Can’t Help Singing’ introduced the delicious voice of Sarah Fox. A technique honed through the singing of late-nineteenth-century operatic roles meant that competing with an orchestral tutti was never going to be a problem; amplification was therefore not needed and a much better balance was achieved. On the Town – Bernstein’s development of his ballet Fancy Free – was given a similar treatment to Romberg’s Maytime when it was made into a film in 1949. Most of Bernstein’s music was dropped (apart from ‘New York, New York’) in favour of songs by Roger Edens whose soft-shoe shuffle in ‘Main Street’ was expertly acted out by the Maida Vale Singers. The war years ended with a heart-felt presentation of the Harry Warren classic ‘You’ll never know’ made famous by Vera Lynn, the wordless Maida Vale ladies adding to the realism as a tear formed in the eyes of the more elderly members of the audience.

Judy Garland’s appearance in A Star is Born was promoted as her comeback (she had been replaced by Jane Powell in the 1951 film, Royal Wedding). With music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Star was an instant sensation. Caroline O’Connor stole the show with her brassy rendition of ‘The Man That Got Away’ after a more-flippant account of ‘Gotta Have Me Go With You’ in which she was joined by the Maida Vale Singers’ tenor Stephen Douse and bass Matthew Little. Onto the Fabulous Fifties and a delightful account of Sammy Fain’s ‘Secret Love’ from Calamity Jane. Sadly the low-register verses and ever-keen Orchestra meant that Clare Teal’s voice was inaudible until the fantastic sweep skyward to the words “Now, I shout it from the highest hills” – but, what a song! Romberg made another appearance in the 1950s section with The Student Prince that introduced Charles Castronovo. The credits to the film read “the singing voice of Mario Lanza”; Lanza had been dismissed by the studio after an argument with producer Dore Schary to be replaced by Edmund Purdom who mimed his way through the songs. New York-born Castronovo is familiar to the world’s opera-going public. He has won special praise for his Mozart roles such as Tamino (The Magic Flute) and Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni). Castronovo’s performance was exceptional.

The penultimate section: From Stage to Screen looked at musicals that found their way to the silver screen in the 1950s and 1960s. Gypsy had been a critical success for Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim in 1959. It contains many songs that have become standards, such as ‘Everything’s Coming up Roses’ and ‘Some People’. The Overture was given a welcome airing and with a nod to Ethel Merman for whom the part of Madam Rose was written. Sondheim appeared once again as the lyricist of West Side Story alongside composer Leonard Bernstein. The melody for ‘One Hand, One Heart’ was originally written for Candide. Bernstein’s 1984 recording of West Side Story using opera singers (including Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras) clearly meant something special. This exquisite account by Fox and Castronovo, would no doubt have pleased the composer.

At the end of a music-packed evening was the section entitled End of the Golden Age. Here there was a dip into the latter-day genii of the Hollywood musical: Richard & Robert Sherman (Mary Poppins), Leslie Bricusse (Doctor Dolittle) and Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!). To start with we had a UK vocalist doing an impression of an American actor doing an impression of a cockney, in ‘Jolly Holiday’ from Mary Poppins. It is difficult to listen to this song without wincing at Dick Van Dyke’s dodgy accent, generally regarded as the worst in cinematic history, though he claims that his Irish coach didn’t do the accent any better. Thankfully Matthew Ford does a lousy impression of Dick Van Dyke! Keeping to the theme of a less-than-perfect singing-voice we turn to the tone-deaf Rex Harrison for whom composers wrote for him to ‘speak to the music’. Matthew Ford’s account of ‘When I Look in Your Eyes’ from Doctor Dolittle navigated skilfully its tricky speech-like rhythms. The whole company returned to see off ‘Put on your Sunday Clothes’ from Hello, Dolly! before the inevitable encore took us back to the beginning with Richard A. Whiting’s ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ taken from the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel.

Proms 2011 – Mendelssohn’s Elijah – Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh with Simon Keenlyside

Elijah, Op.70 [sung in the English translation by William Bartholomew]

Rosemary Joshua (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Jonty Ward (treble), Robert Murray (tenor) & Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

Taplow Youth Choir
Ulster Youth Chamber Choir
Chethams Chamber Choir
North East Youth Chorale
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir

Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 28 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Paul McCreesh. Photograph: Sheila RockA couple of generations ago, when size was everything, Britain’s amateur choral societies had two trusty stand-bys, Messiah and Elijah. Big shows both, each a knock-’em-flat epic and a good, lusty sing. Gradually, as the march of scholarship led to historically-informed performance-styles, our evolving tastes cut Handel down to size and despatched Mendelssohn altogether; yet here’s Paul McCreesh, a pioneer of the new enlightenment, to show us that with Elijah the Victorians had it right. Around five-hundred performers, including a massive orchestra complete with serpents and assorted ophicleides, gave a performance of it that did indeed knock the audience flat.

A routine Elijah can be a bore, and many a head must have nodded when, two hours in, Mendelssohn’s chorus assures us that “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved”. There was no danger of that here, because McCreesh had the measure both of the work and of his huge forces. He might have been conducting a madrigal, so extraordinary was his attention to detail; moreover, his interpretation was often revelatory, with the heathen “Baal, we cry to thee” emerging as a confident imprecation rather than a frantic plea. The youthful vigour of McCreesh’s choirs ensured a warble-free sing, the choristers’ blend and tonal richness a joy throughout. The only choral disappointment was in Mendelssohn’s sorbet interludes for trio, quartet and double quartet where the singers (drawn from the Gabrieli Consort) over-sang into the cavernous space.

Sarah Connolly. Photograph: Peter WarrenThe starry quartet of soloists all had their moments: it was a pleasure to hear Simon Keenlyside engage so dramatically with the title role, even though he lacked resonance in low-lying passages, and Sarah Connolly had a lot of fun with her differentiated roles as the good Angel and the wicked Queen. On the down side, Robert Murray sounded vocally tight while Rosemary Joshua’s vowels at the start of Part Two (‘Haar ye, Aasrael’) were frankly bizarre.

As a sonic spectacular, this was an evening rich in contrasts. While the orchestra’s ninety-odd gut-string players supported the choirs like a millionaire’s feather-bed, William Whitehead used the Royal Albert Hall organ not to bolster the texture but to cut through it in the most thrilling way at climactic moments. Perhaps the most arresting contribution of all came from Jonty Ward, a treble with a rock of a voice whose brief appearance as the Youth had power and self-possession. This Prom was a great event, an exhibition of magnificent musicianship and proof positive that Elijah is back.

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