Prom 76: The Last Night of the Proms 2012

Mark Simpson
sparks [BBC commission: world premiere]
Towards a New Life
Songs of Farewell
Un ballo in maschera – Forse la soglia attinse
Werther – Pourquoi me réveiller?
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Tosca – E lucevan le stelle
Turandot – Nessun dorma
John Williams
Olympic Fanfare and Theme
Carnival Overture, Op.92
The Gadfly – Romance
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Carousel – You’ll never walk alone
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs [including Rule, Britannia!]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D, Op.39/1
Parry, orch. Elgar
The National Anthem [arr. Britten]

Joseph Calleja (tenor)

Nicola Benedetti (violin)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 8 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Members of Team GB and ParalympicsGB appear at the Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWith Team GB anticipated as doing so well it is hardly surprising that the Last Night of the Proms celebrations had the Olympics as one of its focal points and included Josef Suk’s Towards a New Life (which won first prize in a music competition at the 1932 Los Angeles Games) and John Williams’s Olympic Fanfare and Theme (also for the LA games, but in 1984).

The ‘serious’ first half opened with Mark Simpson’s energetic fanfare, sparks. I saw Simpson at the 2007 Proms in the Park – a bespectacled 18-year-old who gave a spectacular performance of Artie Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet. The glasses now gone, Simpson, who shot to fame in 2006 as the winner of the both the BBC Young Musician of the Year and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer, is clearly as gifted a composer as he is clarinettist. Starting and ending quietly (a major triad at the end) the four-minute sparks layers textures to produce a dense mass of sound that grows and then dissipates. A “Respighi-like” section about two-thirds of the way through, while demonstrating Simpson’s unquestionable skill as an orchestrator, gives welcome relief from the bombardment of sound before briefly returning to the earlier cacophony.

Suk’s Towards a New Life (1920) was first written as a patriotic march dedicated to the Czech army fighting to protect the southern districts of Slovakia. Suk entered the piece into a competition organised by the Sokol movement where it won a prize. Subsequently he arranged it for orchestra and, breaking the rules, entered it for the Olympics. At the Proms it was given in an unusual version with chorus. The opening fanfares became an opportunity to place the wreath around the bust of Sir Henry Wood. Amongst the countless Union flags, one solitary Czech flag was waved in the Arena. The BBC Symphony Chorus was in fine voice, Czech pronunciation taken in the singers’ stride. A confident BBC Symphony Orchestra rose to the occasion.

Moving swiftly on (Jiří Bělohlávek clearly aware of the length of the concert), next up was Delius’s Songs of Farewell. The composer had started composition on these settings in 1920 but had put them to aside to concentrate on his incidental music for James Elroy Flecker’s play Hassan. By the late 1920s Delius was blind and paralysed and it fell to an unknown composer and organist, Eric Fenby, who was an admirer of Delius, to assist him in his last years as unpaid amanuensis. Possibly their greatest joint production are these choral songs, settings of fragments of poems by Walt Whitman chosen and edited by Delius’s wife Jelka, to whom the work is dedicated. Joseph Calleja performs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek at the Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou Delius uses the human voice more as a part of the ensemble; however the words sung by the BBC Symphony Chorus were largely inaudible and therefore gladly printed in the programme. The balance between chorus and orchestra was good in a performance only let down by an audience that insisted on applauding each number.

With Joseph Calleja, Bělohlávek and the BBCSO were at the top of their game in this sensitively accompanied account of Verdi. The film The Great Caruso starring Mario Lanza inspired Calleja and he is now one of the finest singers today. Crystal-clear articulation here combined with an ideal tempo to produce a heartfelt and lovely performance and also of the Massenet.

The night’s second soloist, Nicola Benedetti, entered and left the stage to rock-star adulation; however this performance of Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto had its problems, Nicola Benedetti performs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou Benedetti losing connection with the orchestra on more than one occasion (no eye contact between her and the conductor) and being scrappy in the finale. While she does not have the power needed for the concerto’s louder parts, the introspective second movement fared better in this sensitive performance.

To end the first half, Calleja returned with well-known arias by Puccini. Tosca and Turandot were written some twenty years apart each with heroic tenor roles (Cavaradossi and Calaf respectively). Calleja was magnificent in despair as Cavaradossi faces the firing squad in the fortress Castel Sant’Angelo; however he was less comfortable in a rushed ‘Nessun dorma’ and struggled to sustain the longer notes.

Kylie Minogue performs at Proms in the Park, Hyde Park. Photograph: BBC/Danielle PeckAfter the interval there came the party (and the various Proms in the Park were in full swing, too, not least in Hyde Park where Sir Terry Wogan was the host and guests included Kylie Minogue). John Williams’s Olympic Fanfare came after his success for scoring such Hollywood blockbusters as Star Wars, Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Olympic brief was challenging – larger ceremonial trumpets (Herald trumpets) would play the opening and the music also needed to be broken into fragments for use in commercial breaks. Williams satisfied the demands writing music that is bright and optimistic that leads to a triumphant conclusion. As it had done throughout the evening, the BBCSO sparkled, now in the second Czech work, written by Suk’s father-in-law Dvořák, the glittering Carnival Overture. This was a particularly fine, richly homogenous performance.

Sir Terry Wogan presents Proms in the Park, Hyde Park. Photograph: BBC/Danielle PeckBenedetti returned with ‘Romance’ from Shostakovich’s music for the film The Gadfly written in 1955 between his Tenth Symphony and First Cello Concerto. The consoling mood of the piece suited well Benedetti’s reflective style of playing. Then Calleja joined her in an arrangement for violin and tenor of Leoncavallo’s most-famous Neapolitan song Mattinata (Morning). This was the first piece written expressly for the Gramophone Company (now EMI) and was dedicated to Enrico Caruso, who recorded it, with the composer at the piano, in 1904. Colourfully orchestrated, it fitted Calleja perfectly. Benedetti’s part was more of an obbligato rather than an equal to the tenor; however this was an enjoyable diversion that presented an opportunity to give thank-you gifts to the two soloists.

Agustín Lara’s Granada is a vivid depiction of the southern Spanish city by a Mexican-born composer. Twenty years after writing it he made his first trip to Spain and was taken to Granada where he declared that everything in his song was true! All that was missing from the brass section of the BBCSO were sombreros, the musicians happily embracing the soundworld of the Mariachi band. Forcefully articulated with exaggerated dynamics, this was a fun-filled frolic. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘You’ll never walk alone’ gave the audience an opportunity to have a sing. Led by Calleja, everyone was rather too eager to get started so his contribution went largely unheard.

Jiří Bělohlávek at the Last Night of the Proms 2012. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouHenry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs made a slightly truncated return to the Proms. Missing was the clarinet cadenza, usually found before ‘Home, sweet home’; and Malcolm Sargent’s fuller arrangement of Rule, Britannia! made a welcome return, too, following Arne’s original. As usual, bangs, hoots and other such noises added to the performance though noticeably more off-the-beat than usual (a sign of declining musical standards in schools?). Calleja sang Rule, Britannia! bedecked in a Union Jack-emblazoned tracksuit, the jacket of which he opened to reveal a Maltese Cross on his T-shirt (as someone recently said, “don’t make a Maltese cross”!).

In his speech Jiří Bělohlávek offered many thanks to the audience, fellow artists and, of course, the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Not to be outdone by the Olympic medallists (winners from the various rowing events made an appearance), Bělohlávek brought his own – the honorary CBE that was conferred on him recently in recognition of his services to music as a non-British national. The conductor’s tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBCSO ended with this Prom; he becomes Conductor Emeritus and returns to the Czech Philharmonic. A spontaneous chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow…” was quickly followed by Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (‘Land of Hope and Glory’): the emotional state was high. Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem (using Elgar’s orchestration) came next and finally The National Anthem in the arrangement by Benjamin Britten, so hushed at the beginning.

The 119th-season of BBC Promenade Concerts commences on 12 July 2013, the BBCSO’s new conductor, Sakari Oramo, will be at the helm. I can’t wait!

Prom 75: Vienna Philharmonic/Haitink – Haydn & Strauss

Symphony No.104 in D (London)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Clive BardaFor the penultimate concert of this year’s BBC Proms season, the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernard Haitink scaled the heights of Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. As a contrasting opener was ‘Papa’ Haydn’s final symphony, the conclusion of his London period. In this Haitink’s moderation was ideal; time to point and phrase, beginning with a majestic and explorative introduction before an urbane Allegro was set in motion. Here was a fresh-sounding performance, very agreeable to ears set to 2012, neither glossy nor nasal, just sweet and warm, the music speaking for itself, flowing in the second-movement Andante but without overlooking its heart-rending arousals. The Minuet danced with purpose, its trio eye-moistening in its expression, and the finale was a robust summing-up of Haydn’s symphonic career (not that he was finished as a composer), Haitink judging well the music’s blend of culmination and valediction.

As for the Strauss, however descriptive, picturesque and tumultuous, it has definite symphonic shape and reach – and is psychologically deeper than is often considered. Here it benefitted from Haitink’s wholesome approach. Inspired by mountains if not necessarily only ‘about’ ascending and descending one (despite Strauss’s explicit section titles, all 22 of them), Haitink’s approach made this a seamless journey, symphonic seeds sown from the outset embedded into a subdued and misty dawn emerging from ‘Night’, with trepidation in the air for the ensuing climb.

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Matthias CreutzigerIf the opening chord was ragged, and if the brass slipped on the ice occasionally (and good to have the no-expense-spared addition of London Brass for the off-stage hunting calls, Strauss naughtily extravagant), the Vienna Philharmonic’s wealth of experience in this music and the certainty of Haitink’s conducting – scrupulous, balanced, detailed and dynamic – ensured a relationship and integration for each of the events, an arc that found the arriving at the summit as a staging post (after all we have to come down again) and made the storm music all the more inclusive and climactic, made to seem the equivalent of an in-reverse recapitulation when motifs are heard again, now in tumbledown fashion; and the Vienna Philharmonic – willing cohorts to Haitink’s unwaveringly musical approach – knows a thing or two about Thunder and Lightning.

After the bashing that Cameron Carpenter and Wayne Marshall had recently given the Royal Albert Hall organ, it was good to hear its intimate and refined side as part of the orchestral scoring, and come the ‘Epilogue’ the strings eased into one of Strauss’s most-glorious long-sung emotional exposés with golden sound and accustomed style. As ‘Night’ follows day, so it returned; we knew it would – here with an extra and unindulged degree of inevitability. An Alpine Symphony received a 52-minute performance as magnificent as the mountain itself and as deeply articulated as the music demands.

If an encore should follow, then something from one of the Vienna-based Strauss Family (Munich-born Richard unrelated to it) seemed ideal, certainly from this of all orchestras. Thus Johann II’s Voices of Spring waltz (Frühlingsstimmen) was ushered in, unhurried, affectionate, played as only this orchestra can, and somewhat autumnal, suggesting a depth of feeling not always unearthed in more vernal accounts. The moral of the story would seem to be, never judge a piece of music from the composer’s title page alone, especially if mountains and springtime are involved.

Prom 73: Vienna Philharmonic/Haitink – Beethoven & Bruckner

Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Murray Perahia (piano)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 6 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Murray Perahia performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe Vienna Philharmonic gave core repertoire for the first of its two BBC Proms, reminding us of the unassailability of the Viennese tradition, expressed in its inimitable sound, which the Royal Albert Hall floats admirably.

The Proms has fielded over 100 performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, including the legendary one with Pires and Chailly of blessed memory. Murray Perahia’s (his first at the Proms) with Bernard Haitink was in the same transportational league. This is Beethoven’s symphonic music at its most refined, sometimes teetering on the edge of grandeur but preferring a lyrical, dream-like interior world. From the way Perahia gently pushed the concerto out of the subliminal with the opening chord, you knew that he would continue in the same miraculously connective vein.Murray Perahia and Bernard Haitink with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIt seemed that the soloist’s role released its hold on privacy only with great reluctance, laying bare the basic concerto aesthetic with exemplary directness and creating tension in the constant reversions to its original state.

Perahia and Haitink made Beethoven’s point most clearly in the slow movement, an extended one-trick gesture in a realisation of Zen-like depth and mystery. The release into the playful brilliance of the finale was like being offered a gift for coming through the ‘test’ of the first two movements. Every degree of volume, each nuance of phrasing, the way rhythm suddenly asserted itself, was full of meaning, delivered by Perahia with his familiar concentration and deferential flair in a truly recreational account. The only fly in the ointment were the trumpets in the finale, which sounded surprisingly intrusive against the otherwise finely woven playing.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe last time I heard Bruckner 9 conducted by Haitink, I was struck by the uncompromising bleakness that overtook the slow (third) movement. Perhaps the conductor, who for many is still Bruckner’s earthly representative, had folded in the healing psychology of the Beethoven, because the catastrophic climax, heralded by a superbly threatening flute solo, managed to dissolve into a mood of shriven consolation – and, although Haitink is not an advocate of the Ninth’s completion, he left us in no doubt that the three existing movement are far from the whole story.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouHaitink’s modesty and economy of means has become more extreme as he gets older, and both aspects give his conducting an extraordinary empathy and directness – just the opening of his left hand is full of significance, while his right hand’s rhythmic flexibility dips in and out of the swell of Bruckner’s inexorable pulse that belongs to another musical dimension. The levitation away from the home key right at the start of the first movement said it all about the visionary power of the music, with an unerring and steely sense of purpose. The VPO strings moved from bleached-out paleness to incandescent richness with intuitive ease; sometimes though the woodwinds seemed a bit too submissive, noticeably in the trio of the scherzo; and the brass, when not in wave-breaking fortissimo mode, often seemed applied rather than integral.

The overall arch of the music was intact, however, even though its destination remains uncertain. The hall was packed, and the audience knew not to clap between the movements (how could anyone do so after the devastating close of the first movement?). The spectators responded generously to that gesture Haitink makes at the end of such a big work, which gives permission to react.

Prom 74: Staff Benda Bilili

“Staff Benda Bilili are like nothing you have ever seen or heard before: a group of paraplegic street musicians and ex-street kids from the Democratic Republic of Congo, making music rooted in Soukous (or African rumba) with elements of old-school rhythm and blues, reggae and funk. ‘Afropean’ Congolese-born, Belgian-educated rapper Baloji mixes old and cutting-edge sounds with bitingly modern lyrics. But his most recent album finds him returning to his motherland in search of musical understanding and communal improvisation.” [BBC Proms website]

Baloji (vocals)
Staff Benda Bilili: Léon Ricky Likabu Makodu (leader, vocals & guitar), Coco Ngambali Yakala (vocals & guitar),Théophile Nsituvuidi Nzonza (vocals & guitar), Kabose Kabamba Kasongo (vocals), Djuana Tanga Suele (vocals), CavalierKiara Mayingi (bass), Montana Kinunu Ntunu (drums), Roger Landu (satongé & vocals)

Reviewed by: Hannah Sander

Reviewed: 6 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Members of Staff Benda Bilili at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouA concert carefully timed to coincide with the Paralympics welcomed Staff Benda Bilili to the Proms. An extraordinary collection of paraplegic Congolese street musicians and ex-street kids, Staff Benda Bilili has now achieved international fame and been the focus of a feature-length documentary. Success came swiftly. Three years ago the members were living in box rooms and at times even the streets, in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. As their manager said: “Kinshasa is a city of dreamers, and they are the biggest dreamers there.”

The group’s Hollywood-style rise began eight years ago when a pair of French documentary makers stumbled across them busking at a roundabout downtown. The pair had been filming street musicians for the past month, from shégués (street kids) to prostitutes to pot-smoking soldiers, when they found Ricky Likabu and his band. Likabu is disabled, wheelchair-bound since contracting poliomyelitis as a child. Three other members of the group are paraplegic, singing and playing guitar from tricycle wheelchairs, whilst a fourth is reliant upon crutches. The resultant documentary Benda Bilili! received critical acclaim, and allowed the group’s debut album “Trèstrès fort” to make international ripples. Already this summer they have appeared at the pre-Olympics festival, BT River of Music, and will shortly be touring worldwide.

Baloji with members of Staff Benda Bilili at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouStaff Benda Bilili draw elements from rumba, enormously popular in the Congo, blues, reggae, R&B and ska. Theirs is World Music as conceived by the record industry: international, and with warm, round edges. Their unique contribution is a homemade electric lute, built by former shégué Roger Landu as a boy. He was apparently inspired by similar instruments such as the mouth-bow of the Baka Pygmies, a popular instrument amongst Pygmy street buskers. Landu named his instrument a satongé, after the one-eyed demon of Congolese folklore. It is fashioned from an old powdered-milk tin can with an open lid – the ‘eye’ of the demon instrument –and no bottom, which Landu combined with a length of wood cut from a fish basket to make a neck. He then strapped a length of bicycle brake wire to the body, and the uni-stringed lute was born. Landu now uses amplifiers and plays with fierce dexterity. The instrument itself makes a high-pitched screeching noise, much like the upper registers of an electric guitar.

The musicians were joined, briefly, by Congolese-born, Belgian rapper Banjoli. This was his first appearance with the group. He meandered on, tall, spidery and suave, partway through the fourth number (names of songs and translations of texts were not provided) enlivening the evening with his harsh, hip-hop-infused rap. He had been billed as a main part of this concert and it was a shame that he was not given a bigger role. Much of his ten minutes was spent weaving between the instrumentalists with an appealing swagger.

The story behind Staff Benda Bilili’s appearance is fascinating, and yet it was not given space. There needed to be solos for Landu’s satongé, to bring this to the audience’s attention. The members needed to be introduced individually, so that the audience could engage with them, and they with the audience at the back of the stage. Landu looked uninterested, and was continually fidgeting with his amp. Better balancing would have allowed for varied sounds and textures. Instead the overall effect was simply loud.

Prom 72: John Adams conducts Nixon in China

John Adams
Nixon in China – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Alice Goodman [semi-staged; libretto in programme]

Madame Mao – Kathleen Kim
Chairman Mao – Alan Oke
Chou En-Lai – Gerald Finley
President Nixon – Robert Orth
Pat Nixon – Jessica Rivera
Kissinger – James Rutherford
Secretary – Stephanie Marshall
Secretary – Louise Poole
Secretary – Susan Platts

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Adams

Paul Curran – Stage director

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

John Adams, conductor and composer of Nixon in China at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouDoubts, I’ve had a few…

They remain as the opening bars of Nixon in China (first staged in 1987) get underway, a simple refrain that becomes overdone for all that a saxophone adds a Philip Glass Façade-like overlay. Yet this is powerful scene-setting for 21 February 1972, an airfield outside Peking. The orchestra (not huge, pit-size, but rich in winds and brass, plus two pianos, and with a synthesizer that is an orchestra in itself) is joined by the BBC Singers – superb, as they will be throughout the evening – as representatives of the Services, dutiful, accepting of their ‘condition’. In its own way, it’s rather beautiful. The composer is conducting; there is now a lift in the music, a precision of texture, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is on top of the score in a very complete way, as it will be all the way, responding wholeheartedly to the composer’s hard-working and authoritative direction.

But the musical repetitions remain troublesome…

President Richard Milhous Nixon and the First Lady (Pat) arrive; a model plane, representing “The Spirit of ‘76”, is passed through the ranks of the Singers. Cute! Nixon smiles for the cameras. My word, Robert Orth is a true ringer (and singer) for Mr President. He is met by Chou En-Lai, the less lookalike Gerald Finley, but his vocal resources are impressive. Couldn’t decide at this point (or at other places) if the voices were electronically enhanced in some way; something didn’t seem quite right, the vocals a little less than natural both in timbre and dynamics, yet not always. Still, the composer is here, and conducting, so will have his imprimatur.

Alan Oke and Kathleen Kim as Chairman Mao and Madame Mao (Chiang Ch’ing) in John Adams’s Nixon in China at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThis is about, based on, a real event, a US President visiting China, a springboard for Alice Goodman’s flights of fancy – her scenario and words are later questioned by some members of the Proms audience. I’ll stick with the music, with some beguiling and jazzy hues as we go along, a halo of sound surrounding Nixon’s opening speech (“Simply achieving a great dream”) and attracting a web of choral voices. But the music is achieved by too many circular patterns. Not so much “News, news, news…” as qualms, qualms, qualms.

Exchanges between Mao, Chou, Nixon and Kissinger bring a lively acoustic (still not sure if it’s real or contrived) but Adams’s integration of musical styles is skilful and ‘being there’ in the Royal Albert Hall brings its own enhancement, a connection to the performers, the seeing of a telling gesture. Alan Oke is a marvellous Mao, not lookalike either (of course), but, my word, he can reallt deliver the role with charisma.

Scene 3 begins with an elegant dance (this is banquet time, Chinese style). Pat and Richard are supported by a night-club atmosphere, a perchance to dream, but when Chou has a long speech, we’re back to a particularly irritating pattern entirely synthesized. And misgivings are creeping in about how deeply these world figures are being characterised: are they are not too similar, superficial even (with parlando rather than rich vocal lines) but maybe that’s the point. However, the first Act (67 minutes) is now over and it’s been hanging together rather well.

James Rutherford, Jessica Rivera and Robert Orth as Kissinger, Pat Nixon and President Nixon in John Adams’s Nixon in China at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouI have Act One’s final bars firmly in mind; although there has been ample opportunity to get to know them. Elliott Carter has made some tart comments about musical brain-washing… Interval time and a cup of coffee. Mid-sip my companion asks if the Proms could perform West Side Story? Great (unclassifiable) stage-work, of course. No idea, I tell her, but I know a man who does. Roger and out!

Act Two of Nixon in China begins with an upbeat orchestral prelude not far away from Short Ride in a Fast Machine. And here’s news: Pat has a scene to herself, the music suggesting that she is the real individual here, the colourful orchestra contributing much, but we (again) reach a certain point where there is a need for a ‘change of record’, the ear and soul craving a different rhythm, and some of Jessica Rivera’s dynamics are queried by this sound-conscious listener … and then there is a soaring of feeling from the unbuttoned Pat, and this becomes one of the evening’s highpoints; a muted trumpet contributes much.

This concert setting, with some moving around, interaction and a behind-orchestra semi-circle of images, seems to work better than a fully-staged production … or at least the one of Nixon in China that I have seen.

Scene 2, some sort of a play of masquerades, enjoys a whipping up of a real and compelling storm from a few orchestral droplets, and Pat gets some rapturous music, the aftermath suggesting Wagner’s Rhine and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony; another highpoint, and nor should the jaunty ‘Bayonet Dance’ be forgotten. This is a quick-change Act (49 minutes), ending in Red-Book delirium. All in all, compelling and outstanding – the Royal Albert Hall is buzzing.

Act Three (the BBC Singers not further needed). Well, it’s something of an anti-climax, a reminiscing for the main crew, Chiang Ch’ing, Mao’s wife, still with us, still commanding, Kathleen Kim fearless in the top registers (but her enunciation is not so good). She swirls and twirls (the Chairwoman dances!) while Pat yearns. There’s a bit of toilet humour for Kissinger as the air fills with 1920s’ dance music (nostalgic for the then-young Pat and Richard, and seemingly for the Chinese too). Pat utters an obscenity, cut from the printed libretto. We have a menu (apricots, chicken, peppers), an orchestra becoming emotionally edgier while the composer remains tireless on the podium; he has written some impressive three-part counterpoint for the Chinese contingent.

Act Three becomes a postscript; some repetitive patterns still trouble (I know I’ve said this before, but so has Mr Adams), while long-held notes in trumpets and trombones mean rather more. We end (Act Three has taken 35 minutes) on a reflective note for Chou, with solos for violin, viola and cello in the mix, beautifully played, and this guy really knows how to write for saxophones and low winds to create a beguiling web of sounds.

John Adams is of course one of the most-popular and most-played of contemporaries composers. He has also been crowned as the king of modern opera. Not sure about that given the achievements of Birtwistle, Glanert and Previn (the latter announced last year that he is working on a third operatic project). Yet, Nixon Act Two is often stunning, and there is no doubting the sheer success and quality of this performance as a whole – a triumph for the composer/conductor, all the singers and players, and the Proms.

Doubts, I now have fewer…

Prom 71: St Louis Symphony/David Robertson

Tragic Overture, Op.81
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 [original version]
An American in Paris

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

St Louis Symphony
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 4 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Robertson conducts the St Louis Symphony at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouDavid Robertson, a regular at the BBC Proms over the past fifteen years, here brought the St Louis Symphony for its first-ever appearance at the festival. He has been music director these past seven seasons.

Brahms’s two concert overtures (Academic Festival and Tragic) contrast one that is a joyous expression of thanks with one that is tormented and turbulent. With the Tragic Overture’s fatalistic opening chords the St Louis Symphony set out its stall – rich in colour with carefully crafted phrasing, the winds and brass producing a good ‘choir’ tone as part of a strong performance of a work that is not programmatic but dramatic nonetheless.

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff with the St Louis Symphony at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouBeethoven’s Violin Concerto followed, written in late-1806 for Franz Clement who gave the first performance on 23 December that year. Possibly the initial lack of success persuaded Beethoven to transcribe the solo part to make a piano concerto, and for which he supplied a first-movement cadenza. Christian Tetzlaff, like Max Rostal, Eugène Ysaÿe and Wolfgang Schneiderhan before him, has made an arrangement of this cadenza, likewise incorporating Beethoven’s timpani: a worthy alternative to the Joachim or Kreisler cadenzas more frequently heard.

This was a performance made for speed, shorter even than Tetzlaff’s 2006 recording with David Zinman. David Robertson and the SLS were attentive throughout, providing a well-crafted accompaniment. Tetzlaff’s solos were a more mixed affair. Bland and colourless at his first entry (more like scales and arpeggios being practiced) the performance had settled down by the time of that cadenza. The subdued flautando Larghetto with extra-light accompaniment was pure magic although added cadenza into the finale was superfluous and its notes approximate. A sprightly rondo (including another redundant interpolation) was enhanced by chamber-music interaction leading to a rousing conclusion.

Continuing the ‘need for speed’ Tetzlaff played the finale (Allegro assai) from J. S. Bach’s unaccompanied Sonata in C (BWV1005), which felt rushed, showing off the violinist’s technique for its own sake and in contrast to his previously more considered performances.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces dates from 1909, the premiere being given at the Proms under Henry Wood in 1912. The composer revised the score in 1922 and reduced the size of the orchestra in 1949. For this centenary performance, Robertson returned to the original score. Upon the advice of his publisher Schoenberg reluctantly gave each movement a title (‘Premonitions’; ‘The Past’; ‘Colours’; ‘Peripeteia’; ‘The Obbligato Recitative’). The music reflects personal and artistic turmoils. This was an inspired performance by the St Louis Symphony; snarling brass in the first piece gave way to post-romantic gestures in the second that were Mahlerian in origin. Sadly audience coughs, splutters and rustles wrecked the hushed tones of the third piece, ‘Colours’. The conflicts of the fourth were dispatched with venom leading to the final movement and an inconclusive ending with a solo cello, here played by Daniel Lee. Overall this kaleidoscope was expertly laid bare under Robertson who carefully wove Schoenberg’s counterpoint and brought out often unheard lines.

To close was a relaxed and affectionate performance of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris (1928). With car horns that honked and brass that swung this was a joyous performance. This, we were advised, was the first time that an American orchestra and conductor has brought this work to the Proms [not so, if encores count, because Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played it thus on 24 August 1985 – Ed.]. With blues-style slides in the brass and woodwinds, smoochy saxophiones, and portamento string-playing, the St Louis Symphony oozed with confidence and felt right at home.

As an encore was a suitably vivacious performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to his opera Candide, full of life and energy to send the St Louis Symphony off to several European dates on its current tour.

Prom 70: Desert Island Discs

“In a celebration of the 70th anniversary of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Kirsty Young interviews guests from the series and introduces the most popular music choices, including Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565), Coates’s ‘The Dam Busters’ March and The Sleepy Lagoon; and excerpts from Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, Coleridge-Taylor’s The Death of Minnehaha, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Handel’s Messiah, Puccini’s Madam Butterfly and Tosca, plus arrangements of favourite Beatles songs.” [BBC Proms website]

Ailish Tynan (soprano), Anna-Jane Casey (vocalist), Simon Butteriss (baritone), Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Peter Donohoe (piano) and Wayne Marshall (organ)

Huddersfield Choral Society

BBC Concert Orchestra
Keith Lockhart

Kirsty Young – Presenter

Castaways: Darcey Bussell, Sir David Attenborough, Simon Weston and John Sessions, together with former presenters Sue Lawley and Sir Michael Parkinson

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 3 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Kirsty Young and David Attenborough with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Desert Island Discs 70th-Anniversary BBC Prom. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouPerhaps it was the unknown quantity of this Prom that led to a smaller than usual Arena and Gallery audience, but it certainly hadn’t affected seat sales. And those who did join in the 70th-birthday party for a Radio 4 institution presented by a much older Radio 3 institution were in for a treat. Roger Wright may have (inadvertently) stumbled on a solution to the Last Night problem.

This was a hugely enjoyable evening. Yes, it was hard to expect the BBC Concert Orchestra to match the tonal beauty of Europe’s finest (Berliner Philharmoniker and Leipzig Gewandhaus), but these players excel in a variety of music, as their topping and tailing with Eric Coates’s favourites showed. By the Sleepy Lagoon is the signature-tune to Roy Plomley’s evergreen interview-with music programme which illustrates a guest’s life though the choice of their eight pieces of music they would take to a desert island. Started in 1942, Desert Island Discs has (bar an off-air period from 1946 to 1951) welcomed some 3,000 guests (sometimes more than once). As presenter (and current incumbent of the DID interviewer’s chair) Kirsty Young remarked at the end of the concert, it wasn’t only a significant birthday for the programme, for this year marks the 60th of the BBC Concert Orchestra, here under principal conductor Keith Lockhart. The concert’s format was slightly different to the programme – we got to hear whole pieces, although in the case of the two concertos we only heard first movements (Elgar’s Cello Concerto, despite the confident tone of Nicolas Altstaedt, was a curious choice as it ends so enigmatically – the Adagio would have served better). Ailish Tynan performs with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Desert Island Discs 70th-Anniversary BBC Prom. Photograph: BBC/Chris Christodoulou And we got a series of guests who reminisced about their time on the programme. Darcey Bussell introduced Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and John Sessions revealed a passion for Puccini, cueing Ailish Tynan’s ringing renditions (if with muffled diction) of two arias.

There were also two palm trees – one beneath Sir Henry Wood’s bust (making him look like a large coconut), and a much smaller one on the table next to the high-backed leather armchair for Kirsty Young. The electronic display at the back was all tropical blue sky with palm fronds wafting, which those online may have been able to see – there were two static cameras filming as a test for possible future online visuals.

Roger Wright had announced before the concert went live to Radio 3 that Sir Willard White was ill and that his replacement had hot-footed it from rehearsals at the Royal Opera House; Bryn Terfel. Kirsty that his luxury, back in 2003, was Cardiff’s Millennium Centre (you got the impression that she might not have allowed him that). He is one of the few bass-baritones that has centenary-boy Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Song of Hiawatha in his repertoire, and here he sounded in better voice than he had in Delius’s Sea Drift on the opening night, well-backed by the Huddersfield Festival Chorus, if with slightly diffuse attack. The choristers were able to shine (notably without scores) in the two excerpts from Messiah, with authentic hard sticks on the timpani in the accompaniment but with inauthentic clarinets; an arranger was not specified in the programme. A smattering of the seated audience stood for ‘Hallelujah’ including yours truly.

Our first soloist was also one of the previous castaways, interviewed by Kirsty from the organ loft. Wayne Marshall dedicated his louder-than-life performance to Carlo Curley who died on 9 August. Marshall’s blasting of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor seemed spurious, especially in the crunching closing section. The programme-book (in a feature for all of the pieces) told that this J. S. Bach piece (if in fact by him) had been chosen on DID 36 times, by such diverse luminaries as Janet Baker and Arthur C. Clarke, if not by Marshall.

Cellist Nicolas Altstaedt performs with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart at the Desert Island Discs 70th-Anniversary BBC Prom. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAn excerpt from Plomley’s interview with Jacqueline du Pré preceded the first movement of the Elgar (no pressure then!), but all the other ‘guests’ were live, including Kirsty Young’s two immediate predecessors as presenter, Sue Lawley and Michael Parkinson. And there is something quite overwhelmingly special when Sir David Attenborough walks on. When he goes on to encapsulate the wonder of music in general and the Proms in particular by remarking on his own recent discovery – just three nights earlier – of Lutosławski’s Third Symphony, it was like him discovering a new species and sharing it with enthusiasm and awe.

Peter Donohoe performs with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Desert Island Discs 70th-Anniversary BBC Prom. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouPeter Donohoe (whose luxury for the desert island was a water-bed) joined the BBC Concert Orchestra for the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, achieving the exact opposite effect of Wayne Marshall’s playing with some exquisite pianissimos. This followed Off Side by Rhet Stoller, for over forty years the signature-tune for Match of the Day, complete with rattles and whistles. That had been chosen twice by Mrs Mills and Simon Weston. He was present thirty years on from his injuries and offering – appositely during the Paralympic Games – a moving tribute to the spirit of those who survive natural and man-made atrocities and to the memory of those who do not.

DID musical choices are not restricted to classical music, so each half had a nod to popular song. In the first we had a three-movement suite of four Beatles numbers, in full-orchestra arrangements by Rob Mathes, featuring solo oboe in Eleanor Rigby, trombones in Strawberry Fields Forever leading to massed strings in Penny Lane, while The Long and Winding Road, was poignantly led by solo cello. Tracks by The Beatles have been chosen over 250 times. In the second half we had four vocalists – Anna-Jane Casey and Simon Butteriss joining Tynan and Terfel and the Huddersfield Choral Society – in a medley of the most-chosen songs. Butteriss gave us his Noel Coward in Mad Dogs and Englishmen, with flame-haired Tynan adding Judy Garland and Edit Piaf, before Terfel sang What a Wonderful World with a couple of phrases growled in honour of Louis Armstrong. The chorus segued neatly between Imagine and a short burst of Underneath the Arches, before Anna-Jane Casey added an evocative Je ne regrette rien. All that was left was My Way, the audience joining in with the ‘chorus’ verses. So great fun, a splendid celebration of a much-loved institution; and it was Prom 70, too!

PCM8: Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Debussy

Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon; Élégie; Masques
Préludes – Book II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 3 September, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerIn his 150th-anniversary year, this year’s BBC Proms season has included an examination of Debussy’s principal chamber works – and now, courtesy of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a well-programmed piano recital.

Aimard began with Debussy’s last published work, a three-minute piece written in 1917 in gratitude to his coal merchant. Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (Evenings lit by glowing coals) proved a vivid and descriptive introduction, based as it is on notes from the final Prélude of Book II, ‘Feux d’artifice’. Listening to Aimard was akin to gazing deep into the fire itself, the notes softly but hypnotically cast. The Élégie of 1905 is more direct in its musical language, Aimard probing the melodic line, while Masques had a cheeky edge to it, playful around the edges but with some judicious pedalling to aid dynamics.

These pieces were but mere trifles, however, in comparison with Aimard’s account of Book II of the Préludes. From the outset it was clear he knew this music’s every expression and nuance.He was just as compelling to watch as he was to listen to, and shared an aside or two with the audience in a wonderfully unhinged ‘General Lavine – eccentric’, with a bluesy inclination or two slipped in to its leading melody. For the tolling of the United Kingdom national anthem at the outset of ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq.’ He caught the bare-faced vulgarity of the lower octave statement, inclining his head towards the audience as he did so, while as the piece progressed the notion of Debussy indulging in musical doodling was difficult to resist.

Elsewhere there was intense poetry, with a softly brushed account of ‘Brouillards’ setting the atmospheric tone from the outset, and the lazy habanera of ‘La Puerto del Vino’ also cast a beguiling charm. The attention to detail in ‘Bruyères’ was exquisite, complemented by evenness of touch; the use of silence was similarly telling. Throughout it was notable that Aimard barely reached the fortissimo dynamic, but it was also clear that his variation of volume was keenly honed and scrupulously prepared. When he did finally reach the loudest peak, in a sparkling display of ‘Feux d’artifice’, the effect was stunning and completely convincing, negating the need for an encore.

Prom 68: Cameron Carpenter plays Bach & Mahler on the Royal Albert Hall organ

Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV542
Cameron Carpenter
Étude-Fantasy for Pedals on the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G major, BWV1007
Improvisation on the Bourrée from Bach’s Cello Suite No.3 in C, BWV1009
Bach and Mahler, arr. Carpenter
‘Syncretic’ Prelude and Fugue in D

Cameron Carpenter (Royal Albert Hall organ)

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 2 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Cameron Carpenter. Photograph: Michael HartTwenty-four hours later, here we were again. Cameron Carpenter, 31, returned for his second BBC Prom with more music by and inspired by J. S. Bach, and what proved a mixed and ill-judged programme. Carpenter was at his best when playing “the old wig’s” music ‘straight’, not in his own arrangements. Thus, BWV542 found Carpenter relishing the free form of the Fantasia, and giving its opening a Gothic treatment, with powerful and immediate playing. Whilst the Fugue was too weighed down, his command of the instrument was spellbinding, though the big-sudden-bang close – and he does seem to like these – was misjudged.

Carpenter’s Improvisation on the ‘Bourrée’ from the C major Cello Suite was questionable for its purpose. He only occasionally summoned this organ’s vast possibilities of dynamics, colours and registrations: the choice of the cello’s dance hardly helped his cause, Carpenter not taking on its jaunty ideas, and proving limited over eight minutes. However, this was nothing to the sheer awfulness of his preceding Étude-Fantasy for Pedals, based on another movement for unaccompanied cello, one of Bach’s most sublime, and recognisable, creations. From Carpenter, the purity and beauty of the original is destroyed in favour of the circus tent and gaudy glitter.

The ‘Syncretic’ Prelude and Fugue (syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, a sort of bridge-building exercise) binds first Carpenter’s re-working of the ‘Chaconne’ from Bach’s D minor violin Partita (BWV1004) and then Carpenter’s transcription of the finale (part fugal) of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony; some fifteen years ago Carpenter transcribed the whole symphony for organ but put it aside, finding what he had done too difficult to play. The Chaconne works quite well in this treatment: Carpenter gave it a big and bold Victorian soundworld, and elsewhere explored the notes in revealing fashion. However, the transcription of the Mahler, in this performance, swallowed-up Mahler’s meticulous writing. As an encore, Carpenter had fun with the Jeeves and Wooster TV series theme tune.

Carpenter is a very talented organist, and an imaginative arranger, but this second Prom proved one too many.

Prom 69: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Chailly – Messiaen & Mahler

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Symphony No.6

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 September, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Riccardo Chailly. Photograph: Gert MothesA concert of two distinct halves! Olivier Messiaen’s 1964 tribute to the dead of both world wars, each of the five movements headed by quotations from the Bible, and scored for a vast array of woodwinds, brass and percussion (no strings attached!), may not seem standard Leipzig Gewandhaus fare, but was given a compelling and rewarding outing here. Messiaen’s instructions sanction performances in the open air and even on mountaintops, so the space to fill of the Royal Albert Hall came into its own, the sinewy textures, often gong- and bell-inflected, effortlessly filling the void. Riccardo Chailly (the Gewandhaus’s music director), mindful of the requested long pauses between movements, led a solemn 32-minute ritual, Olivier Messiaen not afraid to let rip with the apocalyptic gong crescendos (but did we have the largest and deepest-sounding such instrument available? Not if Simon Rattle’s LSO account last year is a guide) or implacably sustain the long winding road of the final section, increasingly intense and affirmative, from darkest depths to celestial clouds.

But Mahler 6 was such a disappointment, way too fast in the first movement and curiously lightweight in sound (despite ten double basses), Chailly breezing through this opener with little consequence, and with no suggestion of the stoical hero’s struggle with the elements and various evils. The pace was forced, ‘Alma’s Theme’ was thrown away (the exposition repeat told us nothing new), the insistence on primary colours palled, percussion and brass dwarfing the strings (a problem with risers maybe) and suggesting that such balance preferences may work better in the Neues Gewandhaus, with even the mountaintop episode (here a link back to Messiaen) seeming impatient, the Gallery-positioned cowbells hard in tone.

Cartoon reacting to the first performance of Mahler's 6th symphony, 19/1/1907. Caption reads: Good gracious! Fancy leaving out the motor horn! Ah well, now I have an excuse for writing another symphony.In terms of the middle movements’ ordering (click on link below), Chailly was seemingly correct to place the Andante next (at least regarding its position during the composer’s lifetime, only for Alma, Frau Mahler, to then muddy the waters); but, quite frankly, after that glib, square-bashing first movement, it scarcely mattered, for however beautifully played and expressed it was, this slow movement was no Heaven-sent corollary to what had gone before. Ironically, Chailly’s way the now third movement scherzo would have been better second, continuing this hard-driven, angular and detail-exaggerated conception, the movement’s potential for longueur beaten into submission, but so too its courtlier episodes.

As for the huge finale, there was a visual aspect, a very large box and a very large mallet with which to hit it. It might have looked impressive, but come the moments of hammer-blow cataclysm, although the sound was suitably non-metallic, as Mahler directs, there was little aftershock and the two (rather than Mahler’s superstitious three, which some conductors reinstate) crisis-points went for little, the movement initially under-motivated if gathering some if not enough impetus later; and, the second stroke was louder than the first, contrary to Alma’s dictum that the former one should do the most damage. On that she was correct.

Conductors such as Barbiriolli, Gielen, Horenstein and Tennstedt (and others) have dug deep into this great symphony – and, if you will, stared death in the face. Not even by comparison was Chailly found to be superficial and carousing, the LGO’s playing impressive if dutiful. Only at the work’s very end, when fate finally ‘wins’, was there the impression of something meaningful beyond the notes, and the closing silence had a charge, too – but 80 or so minutes too late.

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