Prom 75: The Last Night – BBCSO/Marin Alsop with Iestyn Davies, Joyce DiDonato and Nigel Kennedy

Anna Clyne
Masquerade [BBC commission: world premiere]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act I
Chichester Psalms
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
The Building of the House
Chérubin – Je suis gris! Je suis ivre!
Xerxes – Frondi tenere e belle … Ombra mai fù
La donna del lago – Tanti affetti in tal momento
Candide – Overture; Make Our Garden Grow
Nabucco – Va, pensiero
The Wizard of Oz – Over the Rainbow

Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) [Traditional, arr. Chris Hazell]

Rodgers & Hammerstein
Carousel – You’ll never walk alone
The Sea Reivers
George Lloyd
HMS Trinidad March [UK premiere of this version]
Rule, Britannia! [arr. Sargent]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D, Op.39/1
Parry, orch. Elgar

The National Anthem [arr. Britten]

Iestyn Davies (countertenor)

Nigel Kennedy (violin)

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 7 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Nigel Kennedy and Marin Alsop with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouOne of the trickier tasks a musician has to master is starting a performance. The traditional overture, concerto, symphony programme offers instrumentalists, and sometimes conductors, a formula that puts the easiest piece at the start, though there are some fiendishly difficult overtures! A concert with twenty-one items, as there was for this Last Night of the Proms, is going to tax even the best-prepared ensemble, and adequate rehearsal time needs to be given to ensure that the music is not being seen for the first time in the concert itself. While this was not the case here, there were a number of places where the choir, orchestra, or both seemed ill-prepared.

The Last Night usually includes a premiere – in 2012 we had Mark Simpson’s energetic Sparks, This time Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, which draws its inspiration from mid-18th-century promenade concerts held in London’s pleasure gardens. A whirlwind of notes opens this five-minute piece – evocative of the celebration and hubbub surrounding the masquerade of the title. Overtly tonal, with hints of popular music (Clyne has worked with a wide variety of artists including Björk), Masquerade is disappointingly dull, yet Clyne’s understanding of orchestral colour is magnificent.

One of the celebrated composers this year is Wagner. The Prelude to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg had none of its vitality and warmth lost in this well-balanced performance. The intricate viola countermelody (so often underdone) that is heard below the first appearance of the love motif was here played with aplomb without belying the required tenderness. This would have been a suitable start to the concert.

Iestyn Davies performs at the Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouChichester Psalms was written for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival (at Chichester that year) and contains some of the most difficult choral writing ever. With words entirely in Hebrew, frequently shifting time-signatures and a huge range for the tenors, this is music that requires careful preparation. A suitably declamatory opening with fortissimo brass and chorus led smoothly into the dancing 7/4 ‘Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise unto the Lord)’. Sadly the solo vocal quartet in the first movement coda was augmented to a chamber group, losing the quality of individual voices. Leonard Bernstein noted in the score that “the soprano and alto parts are written with boys’ voices in mind. It is possible, though not preferable, to substitute women’s voices … the long male-alto solo in the second movement must not be sung by a woman, but either by a boy or a counter-tenor”. Curiously, the first performance (in New York City in fact, July 1965) was given by a mixed chorus; however performances tend to always follow the composer’s instruction for a male solo.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies gave poise and elegance to the words of ‘Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd)’; however the innocence of a boy treble was missed. The sudden and contrasting ‘Psalm 2’, as the tenors and bases exalt “Why do the nations rage?”, was all but lost here. The explosive Hebrew consonants that are so important (Bernstein includes a detailed pronunciation guide in the score) were nowhere to be heard. The prelude that opens the third movement – luscious and sustained – showed the BBCSO strings at their best. Chromatic chords lead exhaustingly to the emotional climax and the harps begin a comforting ostinato to underpin Bernstein’s supine melody to words of Psalm 131, “Lord, Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty”. Here tenors and basses in unison were superb though I would have liked more from the harps. A chamber choir once again detrimentally replaced the solo quartet in this sublime corner of the work which also felt rushed and was shown to be very difficult to sing in tune, although the a cappella coda made the hair stand on the back of the neck.

However he is perceived, Nigel Kennedy has earned rock-star status in the world of classical music. Dressed like a busker on Hungerford Bridge, fist-bumping members of the cello section, he played like an angel, and there is the paradox: why, at 56 years of age, does he need to be “down with the kids”? His enthusiasm for music knows no bounds though. The opening of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending was sublime, ringing out every drop of emotion. Throughout, his tone dominated rather than floated above the orchestra – every note clear and precise, but a wispy unfocussed sound at times would have been preferable.

Joyce DiDonato performs at the Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouOne of the lesser-heard of Britten’s pieces, his celebration for the opening of the Maltings at Snape in 1967 was for choir and orchestra, The Building of the House. With English words, the BBC Symphony Chorus was back on home territory in a rousing performance clear in diction and sensitive in musicality. The BBCSO was less sure about the myriad of cues given by Marin Alsop and led to half-hearted entries and a confused opening.

Joyce DiDonato then wowed the audience, first with her wardrobe (she wore three outfits altogether) and then with her confident rendition of Massenet’s ‘Je suis gris! Je suis ivre!’ (I am besotted! I am drunk!). To follow, a rather less successful outing for ‘Ombra mai fù’ (given with its recitative introduction) that sounded too big and brash. The strings, one desk removed from the back of each section, could really have had another subtracted with little ill-effect. To conclude DiDonato’s set (and the first half) one of her party pieces from Rossini’s La donna del lago. DiDonato’s distinctive vibrato was a distraction at the start; however her vocal gymnastics were quite something. She was enjoying herself; so were we.

The second half opened with a polished sequence from Bernstein’s Candide – the Overture, full of life and expectant if naïve hope and then the fabulous ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ – an anthem to common sense. The controlled crescendo that built to the a cappella climax showed Bernstein and the musicians at their best. With the Chorus warmed up came the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco, the performers hanging onto every beat of Alsop’s baton as she kept control of the dynamic markings. Then back to music from the movies (we seem to have had quite a bit this year). Joyce DiDonato appeared in another dress (silver and sparkly) to sing Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz. While not the clearest of diction here – sometimes English needs to be sung simply – it was wonderful to hear the solo voice given without amplification. Whether this was an arrangement or Harold Arlen’s own orchestration we were not told; however the score is one of the finest of the Hollywood classics.

Marin Alsop addresses the audience at the Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouNigel Kennedy returned (having played across the road in Hyde Park moments earlier, one of several “Proms in the Park” events, in Belfast, Glasgow and Caerphilly, London’s line-up included Bryan Ferry, Terry Wogan and Dame Edna Everage). Sporting his beloved Aston Villa shirt (Agbonlahor’s name on the back), it seemed that Kennedy was sent back to make Marin Alsop’s life difficult. His ultra-improvisatory performance of Csárdás by possibly the original Gypsy King, Vittorio Monti, included quotes from The Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Fifth, among others, which Alsop appeared surprised by. Balloons were popped and Kennedy traded improvisatory solos with BBCSO leader Stephen Bryant in a fun-packed performance.

Chris Hazell’s arrangement of ‘Londonderry Air’ is quite different from that heard at Proms in recent years, incorporating a jaunty shanty-like tune ‘The Merry Blacksmith’, which Hazell says “was ideal, as it was a happy tune and could be woven into Danny Boy”. A more substantial and quite beautiful arrangement, Joyce DiDonato sung it for us. Richard Rodgers’s ‘You’ll never walk alone’ has a place in the hearts of Liverpool FC supporters and it is becoming a regular at the Proms too. The audience was invited to sing from the start, which was a pity as we should have heard DiDonato take the first verse and then have everyone repeat … but we all got to sing a great tune twice.

There then followed different sea-songs, starting with Granville Bantock’s The Sea Reivers – tricky rhythms, well performed; followed by George Lloyd’s HMS Trinidad March with chirping woodwinds and bobbing promenaders. And then came a well-decorated ‘Rule, Britannia!’ in the orchestration by Malcolm Sargent. Now on the home straight, the final standards without which there would no doubt be a riot opened with a hearty rendition of Pomp and Circumstance, taken at a fair pace and led nicely into Marin Alsop’s speech. She confirmed 57 sold-out performances. (Hurrah!) £82,500 earned for musical charities (Double Hurrah!) Alsop then commented that she is the first female to conduct the Last Night (more than well publicised), but other women conductors had preceded her this season, such as Sian Edwards and Xian Zhang, and indeed Marin herself (Prom 47), and JoAnn Falletta last year: Alsop was shocked that in 2013 there are still firsts for women. Then a plea that music and art cannot be pushed to the margins – I fear that Alsop is preaching to the converted as music-services teaching in British schools has all but disappeared.

To end, the audience was on its collective feet in a rousing and emotional finale to the 2013 season of BBC Proms – Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem as orchestrated by Elgar, Britten’s hushed arrangement of the National Anthem and a final chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

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Prom 74: Klaus Sonnleitner plays Bach … Lorin Maazel conducts Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner 8

Cantata ‘Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir’, BWV29 – Sinfonia [arr. Guilmant]
Chorale Prelude ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’, BWV662
Chorale Prelude ‘Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist’, BWV667
Chorale Prelude ‘Vor deinem Thron tret’ ich hiermit’, BWV668
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV543
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version, edited Leopold Nowak]

Klaus Sonnleitner (Royal Albert Hall organ) [Bach]

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Klaus Sonnleitner performs at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouKlaus Sonnleitner is the latest successor to Anton Bruckner as organist at the monastery of St Florian (in Linz, Austria). And Bruckner once gave several recitals on the Royal Albert Hall organ. Bruckner greatly admired J. S. Bach’s music, so it was apt that some of the latter’s pieces for the instrument should share this penultimate Prom of the season with Bruckner’s monumental Eighth Symphony.

Sonnleitner produced some of the best timbre and volume heard from the mighty in-house organ during the last several weeks (on a par with Richard Hills, and only him). Opening with the familiar (instrumental) ‘Sinfonia’ from Cantata 29, Sonnleitner was slightly foursquare with the French accentuation as arranged by Alexandre Guilmant but appropriately regal and rock-like. The close harmony of BWV662 proved to be a Sunday-morning benediction that inveigled itself into one’s consciousness only to be martially contrasted by BWV667. The oboe-like stop used for BWV668 made it curiously confidential, and the Prelude and Fugue was respectively swirling (guttural and piercing sounds to the fore) and jubilant, recessing for a while before coming into the fullest bloom. For an encore, Sonnleitner offered another Chorale Prelude, ‘In dir ist Freude’ (BWV615), of musical-box charm.

Lorin Maazel has recorded one of the greatest-ever library-versions of Bruckner 8, for EMI with the Berlin Philharmonic, and there is a more-recent taping with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Like the majority of conductors these days he favours Leopold Nowak’s edition of the 1890 score, which is fine, but for anyone who got to know the work in Robert Haas’s publication, which includes passages from the 1887 original, then the cut that Bruckner may have wanted (or been persuaded to wanting) in the slow movement, and which Nowak sanctions, remains a jarring moment. That aside, Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gave us a magnificent performance, huge in its timescale, resplendent in sound, and compelling at every turn.

Lorin Maazel conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe occasional fallibility aside, this was a burnished and intense traversal ignited by Maazel’s magnetic personality and through the Vienna Philharmonic’s innate way with this music. Maazel should not be thought predictable in this work; his Berlin recording now fits a single disc; his Bavarian version does not; this Proms performance lasted for a rounded 90 minutes that in turn knocked several minutes off a reading he gave with the LSO in November 2004. Yet timings are mere statistics (if not damn lies) and give no clue as to the ingredients of what happened on the night. So with the Vienna Philharmonic we had a first movement that leant more to Bruckner’s moderato than to his allegro, but it was generously laid out and gloriously brassy and the coda’s disillusionment was chilling. And if the scherzo was short on locomotion it certainly didn’t lack for trenchancy, with some pastel-shaded pianissimos tickling the ears; the trio emerged as a country dance with moments of reverie: ah, if only we’d had the third harp that Bruckner so politely asks for, it’s a single part, then these instruments’ arabesques would have been a little fuller in sonority. (It’s rare that you see a music-stand in front of Maazel; typically he was without a score, but in its place he was grateful for the bottle of water and a glass just within reach for some refreshment.)

With the Adagio – the Holy Grail of slow movements – Maazel took the broadest of tempos (but slightly less so than with the LSO and with greater indivisibility, suggests the memory, if still flexible and sustaining 29 wondrous minutes); the result was something special in its beatific calm but with an agony-and-ecstasy ‘pull’ that took the music inevitably towards the cymbal-capped climax, after which something spellbinding happened and altered perceptions of time and space (well, mine); only the growly Wagner tubas seemed to belong to Planet Earth. As for the finale, which can seem discontinuous, it opened imposingly and distilled the noblest of ideals, about building something immortal, all leading to the monumental knot-tying coda, which was as uplifting as it was humbling.

A concert under the BBC Proms umbrella can be a magical occasion, great music and great performers seducing the audience to come-together and actively listen and then leaving the Royal Albert Hall elevated and enlightened. This was one of those instances.

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Prom 73: Imogen Cooper & Paul Lewis play Schubert

Piano Sonata in C minor, D958
Piano Sonata in C, D812 (Grand Duo)

Imogen Cooper (piano) [D958]

Imogen Cooper & Paul Lewis (pianos)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 5 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Imogen Cooper performs at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouImogen Cooper and Paul Lewis are close friends, with Alfred Brendel mutual, for whom the music of Schubert is held dear. With the composer’s music lending itself to late-night listening, this was an ideal match of musicians and repertoire.

Cooper began with the C minor Piano Sonata, explaining in the programme that she chose this piece above its two companions (D959 & D960) for its greater projection in a big venue. That was certainly the case with the crunch of the opening chords, and it was helpful to have the first-movement exposition repeat observed to give the ear time to fully adjust to the sound of a solo piano in the Royal Albert Hall. Cooper’s volume was just right, and when the music was quieter, the (thankfully) attentive audience leaned in to listen. Cooper’s phrasing was exquisite, the right hand octaves given as if floating on a soft breeze. In her reading, there were very slight degrees of rubato, which were integral to the success of both the Adagio and the following scherzo-like Minuet, which Cooper combined without as much as a pause for breath. Despite the acoustic, her clarity in the finale was beyond reproach; Schubert’s private soundworld accessed with dignity but also with revealing insights into the torture and twisted thoughts behind this work.

Imogen Cooper & Paul Lewis perform at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe ‘Grand Duo’ is one of Schubert’s biggest works for piano/four hands, but Cooper and Paul Lewis opted to play it on two pianos so that each could use the pedals. The piece is notably less ‘domestic’ than other works Schubert wrote for this medium; it’s on an orchestral scale, which Joseph Joachim made reality when arranging it in 1855. Symphonic it certainly was here, although both pianists were at pains to keep the intimate discourse of Schubert’s melodies. Imposing gestures did appear, most notably in the hunting fanfares of the third movement, but the trio took a very different turn, mysterious and elusive as a frown descended over the music’s countenance. From the off, things had been amicable, the music having moved to C major. Cooper and Lewis interpreted the first-movement Allegro moderato as closer to the Andante of the second, but thanks to concentrated delivery the pianists ensured success. In the finale Cooper in particular enjoyed the staccato delivery of the folksy tune, the music tripping along with joyous freedom. The friends delighted in the intimacy of their music-making, almost unaware that there was an audience eavesdropping on their every note!

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Prom 72: Joseph Calleja sings Verdi … Xian Zhang conducts Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony

La forza del destino – Overture
Attila – O dolore! Ed io vivea
Les vêpres siciliennes – À toi que j’ai chérie
La traviata – Prelude to Act I
Simon Boccanegra – O inferno! … Sento avvampar nell’anima
Aida – Triumphal March
Luisa Miller – O fede negar potessi … Quando le sere al placido
Rigoletto – La donna è mobile
Manfred – Symphony in B minor after Byron, Op.58

Joseph Calleja (tenor)

Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Xian Zhang

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Joseph Calleja performs at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouGiuseppe Verdi has not done as well during this year’s Proms as his bicentennial buddy Richard Wagner. Even playing on a neutral ground in Kensington, a complete-opera score of 7-0 is a runaway victory for the German. Nevertheless, on the last lap of the season a Verdi-dominant first half to this concert was secured. Xian Zhang pounced straightaway with a stealthy and exciting Overture to The Force of Destiny (real back-of-the-net stuff), edgily lyrical if just a bit too lachrymose, albeit recognisably Italianate. Then the trump card was played, Joseph Calleja (Maltese flags waved) introduced as an on-loan striker who you would want in your team every week. He spearheaded the attack, scoring with some classic arias, vividly communicative without force or strain, ardent and inviting in all he did, pretty good at drama, declamation and deep feeling, too. Not so convincing in ‘La donna è mobile’ though, all a bit smiley, lacking other tenors’ command of the Duke’s cynical seduction technique, and although Calleja (who has been favourably likened to Mario Lanza) is to be congratulated for avoiding showmanship by not holding-on-long to notes, or making them higher, or adding in twiddly bits, one came away feeling that variety of characterisation is not his strongest suit.

The reception for him was ecstatic, but no encore was forthcoming; and irritating that he had to walk off after every aria only to return a few seconds later (to accommodate Radio 3 intros no doubt). Throughout Calleja’s set Verdi’s eponymous Orchestra (he spent many years in Milan) and its music director offered finely drawn support but were hit and miss elsewhere. The Prelude to La traviata wore enough greasepaint to suggest Violetta as an already tragic figure; and if the playing remained full of flavour a whistle for offside should have been blown for a crassly truncated and earthbound Aida ‘Triumphal March’, the inclusion of authentic-looking and gleaming-sounding trumpets failing to stir the spirits.

Xian Zhang conducts the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThis year’s Proms term has featured a Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle: only right and proper that the masterly Manfred should be included (it mostly isn’t). Written between those numbered as 4 and 5, Tchaikovsky turned to Byron for inspiration. The result is one of his greatest works and some of his most sophisticated scoring.

Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi is certainly a vibrant outfit, although cymbal clashes and bass drum strokes sometimes went beyond crude (the tam-tam quite the opposite though!); even so this performance lacked the last degree of weight and dramatic punch, and Xian Zhang’s conducting – sometimes efficient, sometimes malleable, sometimes stimulating – tended to highlight the horns to distraction and left the quicksilver scherzo just a little laboured, not disguising that the off-the-beat rhythms are tricky to negotiate (Alpine fairy, rainbow and waterfall not made pictorial enough). Manfred’s torments as he wonders the Alps were lacking that last degree of personality, although Astarte’s theme (Manfred’s heart-gnawing lost love) was beguilingly shaped. If, as a plus-point, this was a complete performance which respected Tchaikovsky’s intentions (Manfred has had numerous abuse and indignities heaped upon it over the years), somehow it missed being the epic panorama it can (should) be, although the pastoral slow movement was leisurely and eloquent. If the finale wasn’t the wildest of orgies, the introduction of the Royal Albert Hall organ (ironically the programme credited Eugenio Maria Fagiani as playing the composer’s requested harmonium), while on the Gothic side, cleared the way for a transcendental coda, tenderly and movingly played that stirred the soul in its quiet acceptance.

The encore was cleverly chosen; we stayed in Switzerland and returned to Italy – the final section of Rossini’s Overture to William Tell, given a dashing and dynamic outing. The Lone Ranger rides again!

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Prom 71: BBCSO/Osmo Vänskä – Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, VW/Payne Four Last Songs, Pathétique Symphony

Symphony No.3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)
Vaughan Williams, orch. Anthony Payne
Four Last Songs [Procris; Tired; Hands, Eyes and Heart; Menelaus] [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Ruby Hughes (soprano) [Górecki]

Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Osmo Vänskä. Photograph: Greg HelgesonTo balance the jolly japes we can expect from the Last Night, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s penultimate Prom focused on death, with or without hope. And if that seems a great distance to cover, the playing styles in the three works conjured by Osmo Vänskä was so marked that there could have been a different orchestra for each one.

David Zinman’s recording of Górecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ was a rare classical best-seller in the early 1990s, but it had had to wait since 1976 (when the Polish composer was a youngish 43; he died in 2010) for that hit of recognition, by when he had turned away from the avant-garde to rediscover his roots in folk and ancient church music. It’s been years since I’ve played that iconic release, and I’ve not heard the work in a concert performance before, and this powerful reading went straight to the heart. Górecki’s store of slowly unfolding lines, simple structures and harmonic contours, rocking ostinatos, comforting sequences and shifts between major and minor are the bread and butter of holy minimalism, but Górecki achieves momentum, consolation and accumulation with artless immediacy. And he also wrote a gift of a role for solo soprano in the symphony’s three movements – the Virgin’s Stabat Mater lament at the foot of the Cross, the 18-year-old Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna’s prayer to the Virgin scratched on the wall of her Gestapo prison cell in 1944 (which was the most frequently played extract during the recordings heyday), and a mother’s grief over her son’s death.

Ruby Hughes. Photograph: Alejandra HernandezRuby Hughes, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, pitched the songs perfectly between drama and detached reverence, her sparing use of portamento and vibrato adding considerably to the music’s impact, and she magically floated her silvery voice out of the orchestra into the audience. Vänskä was equally in command of the muted orchestra colours, so that the introduction of winds and harp in the first movement made maximum but discreet impression, and the piano and harp in the close of the last one added a starry shimmer of implied hope in this otherwise desolate work. The performance held us spellbound for an hour – give or take weedy dribbles of applause between movements – but it felt timeless.

Anthony Payne is now probably better known for his inspired recreation of Elgar’s Symphony No.3 than he is for his own music, and his newly commissioned orchestrations of Vaughan Williams’s Four Last Songs are in the same distinguished mould. These settings for voice and piano of poems by his wife Ursula composed between 1954 and 1958 were only gathered together as a set in 1960, after the composer’s death in 1958. Payne showed an uncanny process of identification with his monumental Elgar reconstruction, and he shows a similar sympathy in these orchestrations, which capture the idiomatic lyricism, transparency and English transcendence of the Vaughan Williams sound with masterly imagination. The poems have a directness of imagery that binds easily into the music, and Payne’s glorious scoring sustain the poems’ intimacy of love and anticipation of loss (Ursula lived for another 50 years after her husband’s death) while eloquently extending the reach.

Jennifer Johnston, another fine New Generation Artist, let the songs soar with a radiance associated with another set of Four Last Songs. Her voice combines ecstatic range with an affecting contralto weight, and her stage presence, like Ruby Hughes’s, was compelling. Vänskä’s lucid conducting released a glowing, refined sound from the BBCSO, and we are, again, in Anthony Payne’s debt.

Intimations of mortality were much more subjective in Tchaikovsky 6, the ‘Pathétique’, enhanced by Vänskä drawing out an old-fashioned, Russian sound from the orchestra. The first movement in particular had a thrilling volatility of timbre and hysteria of expression, and Vänskä’s deployment of the brass was electrifying and very raw. The black hole that the music falls into near the end was as oppressive as I’ve heard it. The three-legged (in 5/4 time) waltz second-movement had a dark, balletic grace, and Vänskä took the succeeding March’s molto vivace direction to heart, dispatched with febrile intensity. I sighed with gratitude that he moved without a pointless-applause break into the lamenting finale, to make the most out of the contrast. There was a strong flavour of raging against the dying of the light in the music’s flagrant instability, and Vänskä’s approach made clear Tchaikovsky’s stark originality in this movement – there’s was nothing he composed previously that prepares us for it. This elemental performance took huge risks, but they all paid off. The ‘Pathétique’ slumps to a close on low strings, which is just how the Górecki opens, bringing us full-circle.

Prom 71: BBCSO/Osmo Vänskä – Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, VW/Payne Four Last Songs, Pathétique Symphony Read More »

Prom 70: BBC Singers/David Hill – Benjamin Britten’s A Boy was Born & George Lloyd’s Requiem

A Boy was Born, Op.3
George Lloyd
Requiem [London premiere]

Iestyn Davies (countertenor)

Greg Morris (organ)

Choristers of the Temple Church
BBC Singers
David Hill

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David HillThis late-night Prom juxtaposed works by two British composers whose centenaries fall this year. That of Benjamin Britten has been extensively celebrated, whereas that of George Lloyd has been largely the preserve of those enterprising performers who operate at the margins of the music scene. Further comparisons were prompted by the pieces chosen: when that by Britten was premiered its composer had not yet graduated, whereas Lloyd had laid the basis of a promising symphonic and, before long, operatic career; when that by Lloyd was premiered, his feted contemporary had been dead for over two decades and Lloyd himself had merely months to live – his music having enjoyed a modest yet solid revival.

Although it enjoyed a considerable succès d’estime, Britten’s A Boy was Born (1933) has never had a profile comparable to its musical scope and ambition – these six diverse variations, founded upon a medieval German carol (itself a constant comment on its initial four notes), drawing on a wide range of formal procedures that are deftly handled as well as being appreciable at a directly auditory level. The majority of the texts are anonymous fifteenth century, yet room is found for the initial verse of Christina Rosetti’s In the Bleak Mid-Winter as a refrain during the ethereal calm of the fifth variation, then its lengthy successor utilises poems by Thomas Tusler and Francis Quarles as the underlying theme comes gradually to the surface for an apotheosis as virtuosic technically as (a sure pointer to the future) it is restrained emotionally. David Hill secured a performance of absolute assurance from the BBC Singers, abetted by the Choristers of the Temple Church, which reinforced the significance of this, Britten’s first undoubted masterpiece, from a distance of almost seven decades.

Iestyn Davies. Photograph: Marco BorggreveIn his later years, George Lloyd spoke laconically yet unappreciatively of Britten – whose innate Englishness could hardly have found favour with one who saw himself as the belated representative of a musical Romanticism with such as Berlioz and Verdi at its centre. While the three operas and twelve symphonies constitute the backbone of Lloyd’s output, choral music came to the fore in his later years – of which the Requiem (1998) is a comparatively modest though wholly characteristic addition. The dedication to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, moreover, can only partially conceal the fact that Lloyd wrote it in the knowledge that this was to be his last work and set its formal as well as expressive parameters with such in mind.

Playing here for just over 42 minutes, the work follows the expected liturgical text with a few subtle modifications (no ‘Libera me’ at the close, for instance) – its 16 separate sections falling into three main parts. First comes ‘Requiem and Kyrie’, setting the reflective though by no means insipid tone for the whole. Interesting is the role of the countertenor, written at the lower end of the compass so it becomes the mellifluous complement to choral writing which itself is notable for textural clarity and inwardness. Not that Lloyd is earnest in his response – the ‘Dies irae’ sequence that forms the second main part features an almost perky ‘Tuba mirum’ and songful ‘Rex tremendae’ that recall the more irreverent of Poulenc’s sacred works, while the ‘Lacrimosa’ seems consoling rather than elegiac. The third part takes in a matter-of-fact ‘Hostias’, a brief though vibrant ‘Sanctus’, an elegantly supplicatory ‘Agnus Dei’, and a ‘Lux aeterna’ which sees the work through to its close with the voices joined in gently undulating sequences of chords and an enveloping mood of poignancy.

Coming after that of the Britten, the performance from the BBC Singers made a fine case for a work whose demands are as much incremental as absolute. Iestyn Davies coped admirably with the idiosyncratically conceived countertenor role, while Greg Morris applied a light touch to an organ part which frequently evinces a continuo-like dexterity. Applause was polite though hardly sustained, let alone enthusiastic – perhaps reflecting a degree of bemusement in response to music whose antecedents lies in the choral music of Maunder and Stainer from over a century before. Defiantly unoriginal while being unequivocally sincere, Lloyd’s Requiem is far removed from the dis-ingenuity of much current choral music – and all the more appealing for it.

Prom 70: BBC Singers/David Hill – Benjamin Britten’s A Boy was Born & George Lloyd’s Requiem Read More »

Prom 69: Oslo Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko – Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony – Christian Ihle Hadland plays Beethoven

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1880 score, edited Leopold Nowak]

Christian Ihle Hadland (piano)

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 3 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouNorway put its best foot forward when the Oslo Philharmonic was joined for its second Prom this season by Christian Ihle Hadland, the pianist from Stavanger – and a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist of distinction. Equally effective as soloist, chamber musician and accompanist, Hadland is prodigiously gifted, graced with a refined technique and expressive subtlety that isn’t immediately signalled by his owlish, benign persona. Refinement was very much to the fore, both from Hadland and the Oslo PO’s new conductor Vasily Petrenko, in Beethoven’s B flat Piano Concerto, but they also added an infectious vitality to remind us that rhythm was the force leading Beethoven away from the classical poise of Haydn and Mozart towards romanticism.

So far everything that Hadland has given us has turned to quietly gleaming gold; even so, his playing here was something special. The accents that breathe air into the phrasing, the carefully graded echoes that make Beethoven’s patterns hum – Hadland didn’t miss a trick at making the music flicker with light and shade. What’s just as satisfying is that his limpid, light touch projected into the Hall with a clarity that had the ear straining for the next nuanced sound particle – and then there is the lightly-worn grace and wisdom of a musicianship that already knows its worth.Christian Ihle Hadland. Photograph: Kim Laland/BitmapI much enjoyed the sly wit with which the antique-sounding contrapuntalism at the start of the first-movement cadenza expanded into earthy ebullience, and his lead-out from this solo moment was played with exemplary tact. Hadland’s innate understanding of the scale of the Concerto – all the more surprising given that this was also his Royal Albert Hall debut – glowed through the intimate reverie in the Adagio, and regrouped for a bustling, conversational finale. Petrenko could not have been more flexible and supportive, directing the Oslo musicians to allow Hadland’s wondrous playing to flow to maximum effect. The pianist’s encore – a ‘Galliard’ by William Byrd from My Ladye Nevells Booke – was a nicely judged nod to Englishness and played with obvious delight in and understanding of its renaissance idiom.

It’s baffling why the ‘Romantic’ Symphony is generally considered the way into Bruckner’s music – the “I wouldn’t have started here” joke comes to mind, as does – given the amount of revision Bruckner undertook in the Fourth – the line “I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure”. The quality of much of its material and magical atmosphere ensures its success, but it’s still a slog, and the structural confidence and interest of the later symphonies set up expectations in the Fourth that aren’t fulfilled – and it’s a minefield for conductors in choosing from the various versions and editions (the 1874 original is quite different to subsequent re-writes).

The first movement’s lay-out is easy enough to follow, but the slowish second is inconclusive, managing to be a funeral march that marks time; the simple plan of the scherzo guarantees its triumph, but the finale is really testing, as much ‘get on with it’ as ‘stop getting on with it’. Material rotates as in a rondo but without much accumulative power. Crescendos collapse bathetically into nothing; themes reappear for no reason. With such an abundance of material, I’ve yet to hear a performance that clinches the finale; this one from Petrenko didn’t buck the trend. Not helped by some noisy settling down that rendered the opening strings’ rustle barely audible, Inger Bessurudhagen’s eloquent horn solo was exposed rather than surrounded by a misty halo. This brief acoustic lapse, though, alerted listeners to the fact that, surprisingly, Petrenko didn’t exploit the Hall’s distance potential as effectively as he had in the Beethoven. The sound, especially from the woodwinds, was confined rather than expansive, and Petrenko’s preoccupation with tonal beauty – amply realised, especially from the strings – inevitably heightened the Symphony’s episodic and formulaic proclivities – the pre-development transition sounded more like head-scratching. In that sort-of-slow second movement, Bruckner gets near to a Hansel and Gretel naivety, music that’s content to stand and stare and which didn’t respond well to Petrenko’s vision-seeking. The hunting horns in the scherzo worked brilliantly, and the Symphony’s ersatz medievalism came into its own. Yet, after a superbly coherent start to the finale, Petrenko got stuck in the music’s waywardness to a close as unconvincing as it usually is.

Prom 69: Oslo Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko – Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony – Christian Ihle Hadland plays Beethoven Read More »

PCM8: John Dowland Lute Songs – Ian Bostridge with Fretwork and Elizabeth Kenny

The King of Denmark’s Galliard; Can she excuse my wrongs (The Earl of Essex’s Galliard); Lachrimae antiquae – Flow, my tears; Farewell Fancy (Chromatic fantasia); My thoughts are winged with hopes (Sir John Souch’s Galliard); Sorrow, stay, lend true repentent tears; Come again, sweet love doth now invite; Mr John Langton’s Pavan; Lachrimae amantis; I saw my lady weep; If my complaints could passions move (Captain Digorie Piper’s Galliard); Lachrimae tristes; In darkness let me dwell; Shall I strive with words to move (Sir Henry Noel’s Galliard)

Ian Bostridge (tenor) with Fretwork [Richard Boothby, Liam Byrne, Reiko Ichise, Asako Morikawa & Richard Tunnicliffe (viols)] and Elizabeth Kenny (lute)

Reviewed by: Katy Wright

Reviewed: 2 September, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Elizabeth Kenny. Photograph: © Richard HaughtonIn a year holding major anniversaries for Britten, Lutosławski, Verdi and Wagner, this final Proms Chamber Music recital of the season was given over to a celebration of another anniversary-composer. 2013 marks 450 years since the birth of John Dowland, perhaps best known for the melancholic moods of his Lachrimae antiquae and ‘In darkness let me dwell’. This lunchtime concert embraced this aspect of Dowland’s music, combining it with cheerier fare to offer a balanced picture of the composer’s output. Thus, Ian Bostridge and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny joined the viol consort Fretwork to celebrate him.

The concert opened with two Galliards. Contrary to its characteristic lively mood, Kenny and Fretwork lent the dance the feel of a lullaby. A major flaw in balance emerged early on: aside from her decoration of cadences, Kenny’s lute was virtually inaudible over the viols. This proved a problem throughout, with only the lute-songs and the Farewell Fancy for solo lute allowing her to shine.

Ian Bostridge joined Kenny and Fretwork for ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’, subtly elucidating Dowland’s metric play, before ‘Flow, my tears’ found rhythmic animation replaced by intense sustained lines. Bostridge sounded slightly uncomfortable in the depths of his range, but he brought a quality of earnestness to Dowland’s outpouring of despair. Kenny gave a stylish Ian Bostridge. Photograph: © Lukas Beck / Wiener Konzerthausperformance of Farewell Fancy. Each contrapuntal line was clearly defined and she lent a sense of anguish to Dowland’s searching sequences. With Fretwork and Bostridge for ‘My thoughts are winged with hopes’, the tenor’s performance had a sense of confidential confession to it, adding an intimacy which belied his projection.

Bostridge and Kenny made an excellent partnership, each responding to the other. A case in point was ‘Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears’, where both became increasingly impassioned before Kenny released the tension with a flourish at the end of the second couplet. Kenny’s tasteful ornamentation complemented perfectly Bostridge’s emotionally-charged rendition, and the lute-songs were full of rhetorical depth. Fretwork and Kenny gave a warm, languorous performance of Mr John Langton’s Pavan. Although the sound produced by the viols was certainly attractive, its homogeneity frequently masked the interplay between the lower parts. The group emphasised the melodic element of the music: the texture was often top-heavy, Asako Morikawa’s viola de gamba taking precedence.

Beginning with the falling fourth ‘tear’ idea, Lachrimae amantis is the sixth of seven Pavans in the 1604 variation set based upon the Lachrimae antiquae. Fretwork and Kenny Fretwork. Photograph: www.fretwork.co.ukwere undeniably luscious, but lacked some emotional depth. This was righted with ‘I saw my lady weep’, in which Bostridge’s use of sotto voce was most effective. A few of his lower notes were once again slightly approximated, but the emotional depth compensated. ‘If my complaints could passions move’ saw Bostridge explore a wide range of sentiments, with the ensemble responding to his fervor in the second stanza.

Fretwork and Kenny were more successful at capturing the sorrowful mood in another Pavan from the Lachrimae set. They gave a lingering reading of ‘Lachrimae tristes’, with building despair rising to an impassioned climax before sinking into quiet melody. Kenny’s decoration of the spacious cadences was once again well-judged. The Dowland expert Diana Poulton deemed ‘In darkness let me dwell’ as “among the greatest ever written in the English language”, and this account certainly did it justice. Accompanied by lute and bass viol, Bostridge was full of intensity as he explored the dark hues of his lower range. ‘Shall I strive with words to move’ saw the concert end on a cheerier note, displaying once more Bostridge’s glorious upper notes. There were two encores. Kenny’s transcription of ‘Second Lute Song’ from Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana saw the her draw magical colours from her instrument, while Bostridge sounded radiant. The Fretwork returned for a gentle performance of Dowland’s ‘Now o now I needs must part’. This concert contained some exceptional performances of Dowland. It was refreshing to hear him in other modes than the down-hearted to which we are accustomed!

PCM8: John Dowland Lute Songs – Ian Bostridge with Fretwork and Elizabeth Kenny Read More »

Prom 68: Oslo Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko – Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninov – Baiba Skride plays Szymanowski

Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.13 (Winter Daydreams)
Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Baiba Skride (violin)

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Vasily Petrenko conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouVasily Petrenko has just added the conductorship of the Oslo Philharmonic to his credits (he continues to roll along as Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool PO and he is also Principal Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain).

This sneak preview of musical news from Norway suggests a relationship yet to settle. From the off the Tchaikovsky, lacking fantasy and atmosphere, was a little hasty, the first movement (‘Dreams of a Winter Journey’) pushed along with some impatience and nailed in that direction by aggressive trumpets. The viola section stood out though; a wonderful sound and real togetherness. ‘Land of Desolation, Land of Mists’ also lacked poise and needed more space to distil its magic; just a little tense, although dynamics and balance were well judged. At least the scherzo had a certain delicacy before ultimate contrast arrived with the doleful opening of the finale and then the gradual coming of light; yet there were further suggestions that more work had been needed in rehearsal and this rather disconnected performance (clapping between movements underlining such a feeling) was ultimately shunted into the sidings with an accelerando during the coda that was no more than an unseemly rush and also suggesting a lack of confidence in the music.

Baiba Skride performs with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThere was unevenness too in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1940), written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra who made an untouchable recording in 1960. Under Petrenko the first movement was too fast, and not just because the marking is Non allegro, attacks lacked bite (if not from the bass drum) and the saxophone-led central section was rather cool. Petrenko’s handling of the second movement was intriguing, a danse macabre flexibly paced, a ‘haunted ballroom’ of a slow waltz; but, some ear-catching hushed playing aside, it also seemed that Petrenko was vacillating as to just what his view of this music is. Even with the finale as fleet, sure-footed and vividly detailed as it was, the last degree of impassioned fire was missing, that sense of riding to the abyss and with no return journey possible, Petrenko’s conducting just a little precipitate. What to do with the textural conundrum that is the final gong stroke – cut it off fiercely (Ormandy) or let it ring on (Petrenko)? – is made redundant if impatient hands make too-early applause.

However, what happened between these two works was exceptional, a totally compelling outing for Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1 (1916). Petrenko and his new orchestra really ‘clicked’ to beguilingly reveal the music’s perfume, wit and dreamy romance, the kaleidoscopic orchestration made lucid and meaningful. This is quixotic music, languorous and impulsive, that rises in temperature to be exotic, erotic even. Baiba Skride was sensational, totally inside the solo part, technically, musically and temperamentally. It was a fabulous showing from her, outgoing yet retaining the score’s enigmas, and there was a real bond between all the performers that gave the music a transcendental quality.

Skride didn’t offer an encore (which anyway may have detracted from something amazing), but following the Rachmaninov the Oslo Philharmonic did find an extra, a little something from home, one of Geirr Tveitt’s Hardanger Tunes (there are A Hundred of these in his collection); played with rapt sensitivity, this slow and mysterious choice ravished and fascinated and seemed lonely and lamenting as if a sad story was emerging from a Norwegian Wood.

Prom 68: Oslo Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko – Tchaikovsky & Rachmaninov – Baiba Skride plays Szymanowski Read More »

Prom 67: Orchestre de Paris/Paavo Järvi – Pärt, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns – Janine Jansen plays Britten

Arvo Pärt
Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Violin Concerto, Op.15
Overture Le Corsaire, Op.21
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78 (Organ)

Janine Jansen (violin)

Thierry Escaich (organ)

Orchestre de Paris
Paavo Järvi

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 1 September, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Paavo Järvi conducts the Orchestra de Paris at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWith autumn still on leave of absence, here was a Prom of contrasting summer moods: lowering and sepia before the interval, sunny and primary-colour-saturated thereafter. Estonian Paavo Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris, of which he is music director, presented an attractive, predominantly Anglo-French programme to a packed audience whose entente was never less than cordiale.

Many of us first encountered the music of Arvo Pärt in a 1979 Prom that was also televised, in which Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the UK premiere of Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. Järvi eased his way into a superbly controlled account of his fellow-countryman’s short requiem with the stillest of passing bells. These gave way to the music’s haunting and repeated descending figure that finally came to rest on a low, sustained tonic chord. Dignified and devastating, it felt like a burial.

Janine Jansen performs at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe Cantus was an inspired mood-setter for Britten’s Violin Concerto which, in Janine Jansen’s precise yet expressive reading, emphasised the music’s mournful quality. The Dutch soloist’s sound was small, her tone sweet, and her approach romantic yet never saccharine nor sentimental. The refinement of her playing was exquisite – a plucked string was like a pebble skimming on a pond – yet she brought an epic virtuosity to the cadenza that links the second and third movements. Maybe Jansen’s interpretation of the finale was too contained, although first impressions can be deceptive. Her pacing of this closing ‘Passacaglia’ was calm and restful at first, like a lullaby, but as it progressed her instrument’s smile became fixed until, torn between major and minor, it howled its desperation into fetid air.

Thierry Escaich performs at the BBC Proms. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAfter the interval the Parisian players shed their English brogues and got the oxygen pumping with a dash through Berlioz’s euphoric Le Corsaire. After that, endorphins coursing, they launched headlong into the ever-popular Third Symphony of Saint-Saëns. While there may have been a few missed turnings in Järvi’s sometimes hard-driven reading (the strings tended to lose definition in rapid passages), his musicians fizzed. The Orchestre de Paris has a warm sound these days: mellow, homogeneous strings and brass that is neither strident nor over-ripe – and, in Frédéric Macarez, a heroic timpanist. Thierry Escaich’s registrations can hardly be blamed for a Royal Albert Hall organ that wheezed asthmatically in the Poco adagio second movement. On the other hand he attacked the rumbustious finale with a massive mechanical sound that came close to drowning out even the trumpets. Splashes and all, it was quite a ride.

This enchanting concert was brought to a crowd-pleasing conclusion with ‘Galop’, the final movement of Jeux d’enfants by Georges Bizet, the evening’s third purveyor of Gallic warmth. The nights may be drawing in now that September is here, but our long summer of music never felt warmer.

Prom 67: Orchestre de Paris/Paavo Järvi – Pärt, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns – Janine Jansen plays Britten Read More »

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