Arvo Pärt Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten Britten Violin Concerto, Op.15 Berlioz Overture Le Corsaire, Op.21 Saint-Saëns 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
With 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.
The 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.
After 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.
William Alwyn The True Glory – March William Walton Battle of Britain – Suite [arr. Colin Matthews] Richard Rodney Bennett Lady Caroline Lamb – Elegy for Viola and Orchestra Leighton Lucas Ice Cold in Alex – March Richard Addinsell Dangerous Moonlight – Warsaw Concerto
2001: A Space Odyssey – Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30 [opening], György Ligeti Atmosphères [excerpt], Johann Strauss II An der schönen blauen Donau – Waltz, Op.314 [abridged]
Michael Giacchino Star Trek: Into Darkness – Suite David Arnold Independence Day – End Titles Jerry Goldsmith Alien – End Titles John Williams Star Wars – Suite
Lawrence Power (viola)
Valentina Lisitsa (piano)
BBC Concert Orchestra Keith Lockhart
Reviewed by: Chris Caspell
Reviewed: 31 August, 2013 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Following closely John Wilson’s Hollywood Prom, the BBC Concert Orchestra, with its Principal Conductor Keith Lockhart, presented a programme of film music (note not music from the movies). With English terminology set, the first half focussed mainly on wartime Britain; the second was sci-fi and superheroes – music taken from blockbuster, er, movies. The ever-versatile BBCCO is well-versed in this genre so it was disappointing to find William Alwyn’s The True Glory so poorly executed. Strident brass and percussion engulfed strings and woodwinds from in this short and insubstantial work
The Walton fared much better as muted trombones snarled while twirling strings tangled in a dogfight. His Battle of Britain score never made it into the eponymous film save the Spitfire music. Hollywood took a dislike to Walton’s efforts, commissioning Ron Goodwin to write something more substantial. As rescued by Colin Matthews the Suite shows Walton as master tunesmith and orchestrator – and the ‘March’ is classic Walton. By contrast, the snippet from Leighton Lucas’s contribution to Ice Cold in Alex is much less sophisticated. Lucas wrote many film scores, including for the The Dam Busters.
Richard Rodney Bennett sadly died on Christmas Eve last year. Elegy (for viola and orchestra) is arranged from music that he had written for the 1972 costume drama Lady Caroline Lamb. Lawrence Power’s impassioned performance in the recurring love theme gave cohesion to the disparate elements that make up the work. Masterfully orchestrated it includes a significant part for harpsichord that subliminally sets the music in an earlier time (early 1800s) while using a melodious style. To end the first half, probably the most famous of the bunch: the Warsaw Concerto that Richard Addinsell wrote for the 1941 melodrama Dangerous Moonlight. Originally the director wanted to use Rachmaninov’s music, but for copyright reasons Addinsell was asked to write something that sounded close to his music. Valentina Lisitsa is an obvious choice having affinity with the Russian composer’s music. However there was too little cohesion between her and Lockhart who found it difficult to respond to Lisitsa’s varied tempos.
The three excerpts from 2001: A Space Odyssey moved one to another. This worked well; however a short break after the Ligeti to clear the aural palate would have been appreciated. Richard Strauss’s ‘sunrise’ from Also sprach Zarathustra received a straightforward reading (on the quick side) but mercifully without the gratuitous rallentando that often appears when this opening from severed from the rest of the work. While the Ligeti (what we got of it) is not standard fare for the BBCCO, this was a well-prepared performance. The ‘other’ Strauss (Johann II) felt hurried, the music tumbling headlong. It got better, though the piece was brutally truncated.
The latest of the Star Trek movies, Into Darkness, was released earlier this year. Michael Giacchino’s score, dynamic and rhythmic, carries the movie from scene to scene as any good score should. However, we heard the premiere of a Suite that does the opposite, opening with Alexander Courage’s original TV theme that switches, without development, into the music from the new movie. The effect was a disjointed hodgepodge.
David Arnold signalled a return to melody in the music written for the sci-fi disaster movie Independence Day. The massive percussion section requires two peals of tubular bells, together with a pair of large bass drums and a pair of tam-tams. Despite a potential ‘wipe out’ of the strings and woodwinds the balance was good and Arnold’s long flowing melodies shone through. As with Walton’s Battle of Britain, Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Alien suffered at the hands of director and editors. Music was cut, moved around and even music that Goldsmith had written for other films was used. Though cut from the final film the carefully crafted end-titles music (replaced by Howard Hanson’s Symphony No.2) recalls material that was introduced earlier in the film. The hauntingly beautiful trumpet melody, here perfectly executed, provides a satisfying closure to the movie and a brilliant link to the music of John Williams that followed.
When George Lucas started the project that was to be Star Wars he was keen to mimic Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 by using a variety of classical pieces to accompany the movie. John Williams persuaded Lucas that an original score would evoke the emotional appeal that he wanted and the rest – six movies later – is history. Williams uses the Wagnerian technique of Leitmotif to give each character a theme. This Suite uses music taken from the first two movies. Princess Leia’s theme, naïve and romantic, is in the best tradition of Hollywood love themes and calls for extended solos for the horn, flute and violin. The Cantina Band music was originally scored for trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, steel drum, synthesizer, various percussion and Fender Rhodes piano. Here the music is considerably scaled-up both in length and orchestration. The final ‘main title’ music brings together many of the leitmotifs, including Leia’s theme in a dramatic and glorious conclusion to the film and the Prom. The BBCCO kept the music fresh and Lockhart, who at various times introduced the music, reminded us that he became conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1995, following in John Williams’s footsteps. “He’s a hard act to follow”, so it was apt that the encore would be the superbly uplifting and beautifully played main title to another Williams score: Superman.
Britten Simple Symphony, Op.4 Tippett Little Music for Strings Britten Elegy for Strings [world premiere] Lachrymae, Op.48a Walton Sonata for Strings
Catherine Bullock (viola)
Camerata Nordica Terje Tønnesen (violin)
Reviewed by: Katy Wright
Reviewed: 31 August, 2013 Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
This fifth and final Proms Saturday Matinee concluded the Saturday-afternoon Marking of Benjamins Britten’s centenary year by placing him in the context of his British contemporaries with works by Tippett and Walton. Included was the premiere of Britten’s Elegy for Strings. It seemed appropriate that this piece new to us was performed by a group making its Proms debut. Camerata Nordica plays without conductor or with the use of chairs (for the upper strings, anyway), adding visual drama to its performance.
Britten’s Simple Symphony is a charming set of four movements based upon themes composed between the ages of 9 and 12. Camerata Nordica captured the music’s inherent humour, from the scampering ‘Boisterous Bourrée’ to the thrilling romp through ‘Frolicsome Finale’. Clean articulation was coupled with a light but resonant sound, although the focus occasionally drooped in the tender moments of ‘Sentimental Saraband’.
Clocking in at just over ten minutes, Michael Tippett’s Little Music for Strings is of four modest sections played continuously. Camerata Nordica brought a soaring lyricism to Tippett’s angular and melodic lines, and its emphasis of the linear aspect of the part-writing helped to maintain a sense of flow and direction. With spacious cadences and rhythmic punch, it was an exuberant performance.
The premiere of Britten’s Elegy for Strings followed. The piece was written in the school holidays when Britten was 14, by which time he was already having lessons with Frank Bridge. A pathos-laden chorale introduces the funeral march theme, which is restated in the brisk Allegro (over crisp chordal accompaniment). A warm major-mode section offers some light relief from a stormy fugato, before a return to the opening of the Allegro and a reminiscence of the chorale. Tønnesen’s plaintive violin solo heralded a rich passage, before the work concluded by retreating to the depths. Although the material needed more development, it was fascinating to hear Britten finding his voice at such an early age.
From Britten’s early output to later: Lachrymae is a set of variations on Dowland’s ‘If my complaints could passions move’ and composed in 1950 for viola and piano as a break from Billy Budd, and arranged with strings in the last year of Britten’s life. Camerata Nordica provided an atmospheric accompaniment to Catherine Bullock’s solo, whether in fragile glassy chords or the burnished lower strings of the last variation. Bullock gave an introspective and restrained reading, characterising the music well. However, she sounded nervous: not only quiet but her upper range lacked some richness.
An obvious bedfellow for Lachrymae is William Walton’s Sonata for Strings. Walton completed his (second) String Quartet in 1946, re-working it for string orchestra in 1971 at the request of Neville Marriner. Even though the String Quartet was critically disparaged as “laboured” and “not first class”, Walton’s biographer Michael Kennedy heralded it as the rediscovery of the composer’s “true voice”. The work still contains traces of its original conception, retaining intimacy. Camerata Nordica’s lean sound gave the piece a touch of elegance, preventing indulgence but without sacrificing the air of wistful nostalgia which suffuses the first movement. The Lento was particularly special: the players shaped it well, bringing a sense of calm to Walton’s long-breathed melodies and building effectively to climaxes with a round and robust sound. However, the group’s lively approach would have benefited from a touch more restraint and consideration: a few passages (most notably in the second-movement Presto) sounded wild, with slips of both intonation and tone creeping in.
A recurring problem throughout the concert was the cohesion of the first violins, particularly when heard against the exemplary blend of the cello section. Overall, though, these were fresh and engaging performances.
Bantock The Witch of Atlas Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26 Sibelius Pohjola’s Daughter, Op.49 Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Anika Vavic (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra Vladimir Jurowski
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 30 August, 2013 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
We opened with further Bantockian adventures, a 15-minute piece by the relatively young Granville Bantock (1868-1946). He’s a feature of this year’s BBC Proms. Courtesy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s eponymous poem, The Witch of Atlas (1902) was Bantock’s response to a Three Choirs Festival commission. A quintessentially English arrangement! Yet the music has Russian traits – Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov came to mind, and a Tchaikovskian harp conjured a prima ballerina – which may be the score’s appeal to Vladimir Jurowski who led a well-prepared account. Trouble is, for all the suggestiveness and niceness of the music, and there is no doubt that Bantock was a skilled illustrator and orchestrator, there isn’t a great deal to get hold of while listening and even less to remember. Staying with the distaff side, from Witch to Daughter, she of Pohjola (location) – they share incomparable beauty – Jurowski has conducted very little Sibelius (he dedicated Symphony 3 to Bantock) in London (maybe none) and wasn’t entirely at home here. In this music of genius, Kristina Blaumane’s eloquent cello solo promised much, and if the early stages of this masterwork were fluid and fantastical, Jurowski then kept too tight a rein on faster and grander sections, the music not igniting as it should.
Coming in between, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto (the least interesting of his five such works) was given a curious outing. Chanel-attired Anika Vavic (from Serbia) impressed with her ‘first among equals’ approach. She is clearly a poetess of the piano and made you listen, and her moderated and modulated account (possibly a problem for impatient and lazy listeners) was not only musical but the antithesis of the fast, loud and self-aggrandising performances that this tedious and banal piece usually receives. But it doesn’t respond any better to understatement either, and if I loved Vavic’s ambiguous left-hand pay-off to the second movement, and her quiet charisma throughout, there was also the suspicion that she and Jurowski had not had enough time to rehearse a thorough collaboration, nor they with the orchestra. Nevertheless, should Vavic bring us some Mozart, Beethoven (Piano Concerto 4), Schumann, Chopin … anything needing lyricism and a gentle touch, then I’ll be first in the queue to hear her.
Richard Strauss’s Zarathustra brought the most out of the LPO/Jurowski partnership. Cue Stanley Kubrick, sunrise scene, 2001 good reasons to listen to the music (less concentrated than Sibelius’s though: was this a wise juxtaposition!), organ and double basses throbbing, secure trumpets and vibrant timpani salvos (from either William Lockhart or Dominic Hackett, ENO Orchestra members, replacing the indisposed Simon Carrington). But, said organ was consistently too loud every time Catherine Edwards played it, and quite what the loud splurge was at one point … it sounded as if she had fainted and fallen on every key! (She hadn’t.) Jurowski, avoiding sentimentality and bombast – the strings singing (and with Viennese charm from leader Pieter Schoeman in ‘Das Tanzlied’) – found the music’s science, swashbuckling and suavity, if not always its temporal polarities. Come the ambiguous close (via a brilliantly clangourous ‘Midnight Bell’), and despite some seismic upheavals, there had been enough containment to ensure that we weren’t quite as wasted as we might have been.
Mozart Der Schauspieldirektor, K486 – Overture Peter Eötvös DoReMi (Violin Concerto No.2) [UK premiere] Bruckner Symphony No.7 in E [edited by Leopold Nowak]
Philharmonia Orchestra Esa-Pekka Salonen
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 29 August, 2013 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
With this Proms visit the Philharmonia Orchestra under its Principal Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, renewed the beauty contest that has been a feature of the closing days of the season. But even in a crowded field, the Philharmonia’s playing was exceptional, not only in its virtuosity and chameleon-like response but also in leading listeners to re-think expectations of music they think they know well.
Mozart’s 1786 comedy Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was a mischievous commission from Emperor Joseph II to be performed alongside Salieri’s Prima la musica, e poi le parole (Music first, then the words), the Mozart sending up theatrical jostling for power backstage, a prototype of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (and used the Salieri as the basis of Capriccio). The Philharmonia set up the Overture’s robust good humour with period-style bounce and earthy rasping horns. It was over in a flash, leaving us gagging for more.
What we got – after a panic-stricken wait longer than the Mozart for a percussionist and the timpanist – was the UK premiere of DoReMi, the second violin concerto by Peter Eötvös. The title derives from the syllables of Midori’s name, recast as DoReMi, the first three tones in the tonic sol-fa system hitherto only immortalised in The Sound of Music.While Eötvös avoided the obvious Midori ordering of notes (E, C, G), the endless permutations and, to the composer, significances of the work’s three-note driving force, it inevitably recalls the rigorous, post-serialist cellular methods adopted by Boulez, although Eötvös’s music tends to be more discursive. Like Salonen, and indeed Boulez, Eötvös is a composer/conductor, for whom time spent in front of an orchestra feeds him with endless possibilities of sound. As well as the motto-variants saturating the score, the ear was also saturated by his acute orchestral imagination. You couldn’t help but be impressed, but it wasn’t involving. And even though it lasted only 22 minutes, there were uneasy moments, particularly in the cadenza, when the delights of navel-gazing sonorities and mercurial compositional games seemed endless. Midori was extraordinary – vivid, pliant, diaphanous – but even her tireless playing didn’t release much in the way of musical character and psychology. Yet, with all its exquisitely crafted colours, slides, drones and stylistic dips into jazz and folk, it seemed a great pleasure to play.
I can imagine Brucknerians raising their collective eyebrow at Salonen’s approach to the Seventh Symphony, in a performance that recaptured the thrill and wonder of my first hearing it, some years ago. Those used to rock-like juxtapositions and huge sonorities may have felt that Salonen’s generally forward-moving tempos, preference for airy, rather classical phrasing and a general lightness of being may have imposed too much febrile instability on the music. Salonen, a noted Sibelius conductor, applied the same sort of organic flexibility to this particular ’cathedral in sound’, handled in such a way that you were as much aware of the stained glass as you were of the structure.
The Philharmonia’s attention to colour was phenomenal, the level of connectivity between the instrumental hierarchies consistently intense and the transparency of sound sometimes of impressionist delicacy – the sort of blend that can instantly retreat to admit some stunningly well-played wind solos. Salonen’s pulse for the first movement was not in itself surprising, but the musicians’ responsiveness was such that he could pull of expressive ritardandos, and the music had an unmistakable Alpine freshness, the sort of contentment that Mahler would agonise about losing. Another great Sibelius conductor, Colin Davis, was particularly successful in the Seventh’s Wagner-elegy Adagio (which he used to place third), grading the approaches to the summit with visionary control, and Salonen was just as magisterial in the music’s regrouping for the final ascent, the shadows cast by the quartet of Wagner tubas yielding to beckoning, brilliant trumpet calls and giving the (Nowak edition’s) cymbal and triangle a glorious inevitability – and, again, the layering of sound was stupendous. I much enjoyed the pressure Salonen applied to the scherzo and the rather flashy results, and he played with suggestions of mood-swings in the here not-so-rustic trio. The biggest risk Salonen took was in the finale, fleet-footed to the point of weightlessness but miraculously balancing the slow movement’s centre of gravity and making the transformation of the first one’s main theme really sing out. You could well imagine such momentum going off the rails, but the Philharmonia Orchestra’s response ensured a breathtaking outcome.
Composer Portrait Charlotte Seither Minzmeissel Seul avec des ombres Water, Earth and Air I Musicians from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland: Catriona Morrison (mezzo-soprano), Lee Holland (flute & bass flute), Heather Nicoll (bass clarinet), Joe Bostock & Glynn Forrest (percussion) and Ed Cohen (piano); Fergus MacLeod (conductor) Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London
Prom 61 Stravinsky Scherzo à la russe Bogoroditse Dyevo Otche nash Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Op.77 Charlotte Seither Language of Leaving [BBC commission: world premiere] Stravinsky Petrushka [1947 version]
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra Josep Pons
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 28 August, 2013 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The main Prom opened with three Stravinsky vignettes, further contrasted with his Petrushka at the end of the evening. Scherzo à la russe, originally scored for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra (jazz band), was here in its ‘symphony’ guise in a bright and breezy outing, Josep Pons slightly more interested in the squeeze-box imitations that sometimes masked the tune. A similar fate of imbalance befell Petrushka (a shame, by the way, not to use the preferable and more opulent orchestration of 1911). The outer tableaux could be leaden at times, and under-characterised, a Shrovetide fair less bustling than usual, and quite often details that accompany were spot-lit at the expense of ‘top lines’. The interior worlds of the middle tableaux were more compelling, and if there were moments of uncertainty along the way, then Daniel Pailthorpe was a magic flautist and Elizabeth Burley brought thrust and glitter to the all-important piano part. The two a cappella settings had been spun as musical gold; Ave Maria was sweet and soothing, wearing its liturgical quotient lightly (following which indiscriminate clapping ruined the contemplative mood), and Our Father (Pater Noster) was a little more austere, the composer’s Slavic roots underlined. The congregationally gathered BBC Singers gave wonderful renditions under Pons’s discreet direction.
The centrepiece of the concert was a magnificent account of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. From the off, with cellos and horns perfectly balanced, there was a real sense of expectation in what proved to be a tailor-made accompaniment for Frank Peter Zimmermann’s vital, edgy and sweetly expressive exposé of the solo part. The sound of his violin carried effortlessly into the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall lauding Zimmermann’s impeccable and absolute playing, stressing the passion and logic of Brahms’s invention, the first movement culminating in Joachim’s ‘standard’ cadenza (there are several choices at this point) that was fiery while being integral. The BBCSO was so considerate and complementary (lucid and warm), and woodwind solos floated forward, not least Richard Simpson’s exquisite oboe contribution to launch the slow movement.The finale was not force-fed but swinging, Zimmermann and Pons trying to out-sforzando each other, not as a battle of wills but as collegiate and joyous music-making. In many ways Zimmermann is the epitome of a contemporary clean-cut violinist, but he knows the old-world charms of his forbears and there were some nice laconic touches to sign-off with. Not all encores are appropriate. This one was, the ‘Preludio’ (the one Rachmaninov transcribed for piano) from J. S. Bach’s E major Partita (BWV1006) given with unflinching machine-like execution by Zimmermann yet leavened by numerous changes of dynamics and an expressive ‘turn’ just before the end. It was an exhilarating envoi to an immensely impressive account of the Brahms, here revitalised.
Otherwise the evening belonged to German composer (born 1965), Charlotte Seither. In the early-evening Portrait she talked with Andrew McGregor (BBC Radio 3) about what he termed her “extraordinarily detailed” music. He dealt deftly with her sometimes oblique responses, following them up pertinently while allowing her full vent and also ensuring we got to know about the chamber pieces being played. Minzmeissel (Seither’s invented word: mint chisel) is after Kafka, “problematical” to set him to music she said; the result a five-minute piece that proved strangely alluring, intense, fragmented, breathy – whether sound or syllable, or a silent open mouth, they carried much import – Catriona Morrison unfazed by the vocal demands and Ed Cohen cooking inside a piano differently ‘prepared’ to John Cage’s recipes – I don’t think that he ever used a bag of lentils or sandpapered the piano wires. Seither likes instruments because they have to be played by people. Seul avec des ombres (Alone with the shadows), written for the 300th-anniversary of Frederick the Great’s Flute Book (Das Flotenbuch) – she was one of 70 composers commissioned –, is forensically notated even to the point of asking the performer to “think a crescendo”. Micro-managed, yes, but with room for the player to be an individual in reaction to the score, which over four minutes packed many effects and echoes; a recurring rebarbative gesture would have called many a dog and the ‘distant’ writing was simply remarkable, so quiet. Stylistically Debussy’s Syrinx was occasionally called to mind while outstripping Varèse’s Density 21.5 in terms of advancement. Lee Holland and her flute seemed to have the music sown up.
Finally in the recital the first of Seither’s Water, Earth and Air pieces, one with Italian resonances, right back to Monteverdi, and which also brought out relationships with the music of Luciano Berio (acknowledged in her biography). Morrison, Holland and Cohen returned, the former armed with a teaspoon and saucepan lid (you couldn’t make it up), the second-named with a bass flute (rarefied) and the pianist ready for more unusual tones, and first appearances for Heather Nicoll (bringing the earthy timbre of a bass clarinet) and a couple of percussionists, one of whom had a sly blow on a recorder. Fergus MacLeod might have stopped conducting early on when someone’s mobile went off, in this of all pieces where sounds are so subtle and unexpected, and especially given the broadcast later in the evening. But here was another fascinating piece, the voice seeping through as if from centuries ago and the use of instruments confounding the senses (and with an element of Ligeti’s Aventures / Nouvelles Aventures) – which one(s) and where positioned? As an example of sonic manipulation without electronics, this was compelling.
The need to hear more of Seither’s music was at this moment paramount, a requirement duly obliged with the premiere of Language of Leaving in the Prom itself. Scored for a standard symphony orchestra with enough percussion for five persons but no timpani, celesta, harps or piano (gainfully employed elsewhere). The Italian connection continued through the use of words by Francesco de Lemene (1634-1704), the BBC Singers now in a semi-circle behind the instrumentalists, 24 in number, M&F equally divided, although the composer sees them as 12 groups of two. Perhaps inevitably, and certainly in the listening, if you pair voices and instruments as in Language of Leaving (“You will only comfort me if you leave with me and stay with me”), then Berio’s Sinfonia is conjured up, and one of Seither’s preoccupations is that instruments are voices and voices are instruments. The use of Swanee Whistle (piston flute) and trombone glissandos (at other times these instruments were growly) can be derided (and some did, laughing foolishly). But amongst a tapestry of sound there was much that was arresting and thought-provoking – significant or jokey? – and not everything could be heard that was seen (cello slides, for example) but this 20 minutes was enjoyably spent, sometimes wondering how to react to the hypnotic and hallucinatory unfolding of events. Maybe an ancient ritual, the conveying of runic inscriptions, and towards the end the gentlemen of the Singers moved into Plainsong territory following strange, disturbing, even nightmarish orchestral propositions, when the music wasn’t being remote and Tibetan that is; all notated to a fault and reciprocated by Josep Pons and the BBCSO. This commission was a good call.
“Twenty-six years after his first Proms appearance, with his big band Loose Tubes, jazz pianist and composer Django Bates returns with his own trio in a new partnership with the Grammy-nominated Norrbotten Big Band from northern Sweden. Together they present a celebration of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker – bebop pioneer and beloved hero of Bates – adding their own spin on Parker classics such as ‘Confirmation’ ‘Scrapple from the Apple’ and ‘Donna Lee’, interleaved with Bates’s own compositions, fast becoming part of the jazz canon.” [BBC Proms website]
Django Bates The Study of Touch [UK premiere]
Belovèd [Django Bates (piano), Peter Bruun (drums) & Petter Eldh (double bass)] Markus Pesonen (electric guitar) Ashley Slater (vocalist) Norrbotten Big Band
All arrangements by Django Bates
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 28 August, 2013 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
It hardly seems 26 years since Django Bates brought Loose Tubes to the Royal Albert Hall for a late-night Prom which, reckless even by the standard of that most unpredictable of big-bands, gave notice of the executive health of British jazz in the 1980s as well as the creative zeal of one of those ‘young lions’ who took the UK music scene by storm during that decade. Bates has been a constant presence ever since and, if his musical vision now seems less radical, this in itself underlines his sheer consistency whether as composer, arranger or bandleader. Proms 2013 found him in action as part of his trio Belovèd, together with the Norrbotten Big Band, in this celebration of one of the seminal figures in post-war jazz.
The programme was well chosen to reflect both the potency of Charlie Parker’s select though influential output and that of Bates’s recent compositional ventures. Certainly Parker’s ‘Confirmation’ made for a scintillating curtain-raiser, not least in its showcasing the imaginative interplay between trio and band, then a songful arrangement of the David Raksin/Johnny Mercer standard ‘Laura’ allowed for a notable measure of soloing from among what is in any case an orchestra of soloists. The set duly reached an initial high with Parker’s own inimitable ‘Donna Lee’ – its stabbing off-beats and unbridled rhythmic incisiveness an open invitation to the musicians, not least in the unerringly controlled disintegration of the closing stages.
Next (earlier than might have been imagined but none the worse for that) was a first UK outing for Django Bates’s The Study of Touch (2012) – inspired by a ‘‘simple diatonic loop’’ (to quote the composer) which was made the basis for this enticing dialogue centred on the formal and expressive possibilities of nuance, featuring a visceral soprano sax solo from Håkan Broström and a stealthy tenor sax input from Karl-Martin Almqvist. After which, ‘Ah-Leu-Cha’ came as a perfect foil – this most fluid and enigmatic of Parker’s compositions yielding both style and substance, not least in Bates’s teasing recourse to microtonal piano (one of several unobtrusive uses of this keyboard during the course of the evening).
This oblique sense of mystery continued with Bates’s ‘We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way’, brought gently to earth by a deadpan trombone solo from Peter Dahlgren, before fellow trombonist Ashley Slater stepped forward for the single vocal item – a distinctly off-the-wall version of the Hal David/Burt Bacharach classic ‘A House is not a Home’ with its smouldering preamble on bowed guitar (just one instance where Markus Pesonen made his edgy presence felt) and a contribution from Slater that, starting flat and straying on the wrong side of gritty, did not find this enterprising performer at his best. Not a disaster by any means, though not the expressive highpoint its context might have intended.
Time seemed to be running short, but some quick introductions from Bates ensured that the advertised programme was heard in full. Parker’s ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ featured in an arrangement that made the most of its ‘jazzy’ ebullience, and in which Bates took time out from his keyboard duties for a quick dance (or even two) in the Arena, while the Gene de Paul/Don Raye standard ‘Star Eyes’ proved suave and languorous by turns. It rounded off what must be one of the most enjoyable (and certainly best attended) ‘late-nighters’, and left one with the hope that it will not be so long before Bates returns to these concerts, perhaps with a full-scale BBC commission.
Britten Billy Budd, Op.50 – Opera in a Prologue, two Acts and an Epilogue to a libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, based on the short novel Billy Budd by Herman Melville [Semi-staged performance; sung in English]
Captain Vere – Mark Padmore First Mate – Michael Wallace Second Mate – Benjamin Cahn Mr Flint, sailing master – David Soar Bosun – Richard Mosley-Evans Donald – John Moore Maintop – Dean Power Novice – Peter Gijsbertsen Squeak – Colin Judson Mr Redburn, first lieutenant – Stephen Gadd Lieutenant Ratcliffe – Darren Jeffery Claggart, Master-at-arms – Brindley Sherratt Red Whiskers – Alasdair Elliott Arthur Jones – Brendan Collins Billy Budd – Jacques Imbrailo Novice’s Friend – Duncan Rock Dansker – Jeremy White Cabin Boy – Charlie Gill Midshipmen – Sebastian Davies, Tom Foreman, Quentin Zach-Martins & Will Roberts
The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra Sir Andrew Davis
Ian Rutherford – Stage Director
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 27 August, 2013 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Having read Mark Valencia’s review (link below) of Glyndebourne’s first revival of its staging of Billy Budd, I was kicking myself for not moving Heaven and Earth to get to it. But in no way was the packed Royal Albert Hall short-changed – coming only two days after the opera closed this year’s Glyndebourne summer season in Sussex, this simplified staging for the House’s annual Prom, if anything, gained in intensity by not having the inevitable cooling off caused by the long picnic/dinner interval.
The visual claustrophobia that defined Michael Grandage’s production obviously wasn’t going to figure in Kensington, yet the huge space achieved just as powerful an effect by isolating the main characters, and the large cast of smaller roles was easy to follow. Under the tight direction of Ian Rutherford (who directed this summer’s revival), the scenes flowed easily, and the all-important eighteenth-century British naval hierarchy was made clear by the singers’ costumes.
The stage action was matched in detail and directness by the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s superb playing. In an opera set on board a ship, the sea only figures as an alien, impersonal force; and unlike the ever-present dankness in Peter Grimes, the only significant conditions here is a life-denying fog. The LPO easily caught the atmosphere of cabin-fever confinement and sudden outbursts of activity, and Andrew Davis did full justice to Britten’s extraordinary powers of orchestration, laying out the score with uncanny narrative precision and not once cueing, or drowning, the singers – a tribute to Glyndebourne’s legendary thoroughness of preparation. Davis drew out a special clarity of sound that filled out in the acoustic; to my ears Davis just missed the visionary surge of Vere’s delivery of Billy’s death sentence, the sequence of chords that echoes so poetically in Vere’s ‘Epilogue’ (and which Britten seeds through the opera with such brilliance), but the focus of sound had you straining for every nuance – I doubt I’ve heard the music accompanying Billy’s hanging played with such breath-squeezing realism.
This concentration fed into the performances of the three leads, all of whom were enthralling. Mark Padmore was probably the stillest Captain Vere I’ve seen, so that the break in his composure just before he delivers the court-martial’s verdict – “I who am king of this floating monarchy” – was shocking. One of the trails I read or heard for this Prom described Vere as “spineless”, and BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny wrote (in the Evening Standard of August 27) that Vere is “weak”. But neither applied to Padmore’s powerful, rounded portrayal of the biggest role I’ve seen him in. His engagement with the text and the visceral agony of his singing brought the ambiguity of Vere’s position into stark reality – entirely compromised, certainly, but not spineless.
Padmore’s self-contained Vere matched the even stiller fury that drives the demonic Claggart. Brindley Sherratt doesn’t have the basso resonance often associated with the role, but the sinuous evenness of his voice was just as valid a vehicle for Claggart’s twisted, destructive evil. His bleak loathing of the world seeped out of Sherratt’s every inflection of the words as his singing thickened in his credo “O beauty, O handsomeness”, to spellbinding, repulsive effect. Billy didn’t stand a chance.
Jacques Imbrailo has filled out vocally since he sang the role in the production’s first run in 2010 (which I did see), with radiant, lyrical results. His lithe physicality had an Errol Flynn swagger, and his ‘Billy in the Darbies’ filled the Hall with its quietness.
The smaller roles were all impressive – a fine Novice and Novice’s Friend from Peter Gijsbertsen and Duncan Rock respectively, a robustly sung trio of officers from Stephen Gadd, David Soar and Darren Jeffery, and a powerful Dansker from Jeremy White. The chorus of sailors and marines, as much a part of the action behind the orchestra as the soloists were in front of it, sang magnificently.
For all the vigorous, neatly directed movement, we were left in no doubt about the opera’s emotionally naked blend of ambiguous motive, repression and Christian allegory – and the silence as the old Vere walked wearily off the stage after his ‘Epilogue’ was the longest I’ve experienced, and a thousand times more eloquent than the noisiest ovation.
Coates March, Sound and Vision Sullivan Mikado Memories [arr. Richard Hills] Mayerl Four Aces Suite – Ace of Hearts Waller A Handful of Keys German Nell Gwyn – Country Dance; Pastoral Dance; Merrymakers’ Dance Ireland Miniature Suite – Villanella Quilter A Children’s Overture, Op.17
Richard Hills (Royal Albert Hall organ)
Reviewed by: Chris Caspell
Reviewed: 26 August, 2013 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
No, not a concert played on a Hammond SK1 (the smallest and lightest organ that the company has ever made) but a recital that showcased melody played on the immensely powerful (but rarely heard during a Prom season) Henry Willis/Harrison Royal Albert Hall instrument, which with 147 stops and 9,997 pipes it is the second-largest organ in the UK (since 2007, the Liverpool Cathedral Grand Organ also built by Willis is the largest). The list of stops includes carillon (bells) and bass drum alongside the more traditional.
Each piece of music was knowledgably introduced by Richard Hills who engaged well with the audience. He had spent a lot of time working on his programme – including working through the night at the organ and his attention to detail showed in the variety of colours that he used on this, essentially, orchestral instrument.Eric Coates wrote a number of pieces that were used as television start-up music. Sound and Vision was written in 1955 in answer to a commission by Associated Television (ATV) as a signature tune for the afternoon’s broadcasts and in a similar way Hill’s bright, bustling performance was a signature to this matinee. A recording from the 1930s inspired Hills’s arrangement from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado, a medley of familiar tunes that included comic touches such as bird-like trills in ‘On a Tree by a River (Willow, tit-willow)’.
There followed two pieces that were written for the piano. Billy Mayerl’s Four Aces Suite was one of his best-sellers and was inspired by his interest in card games. ‘Ace of Hearts’ is third in the Suite and the most melodic; the carillon stop added a splash of colour to the gentle off-beat melody. Thomas Wright ‘Fats’ Waller was a talented organist as well as a gifted pianist and by the age of 14 he was playing the organ at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem. A Handful of Keys is a composition in the stride-piano style and technically very demanding. While the use of pedals took away some of the complexity (of left-hand alternating bass-note/chord) Hills’s performance was an impressive showpiece with a swathe of colour.
Nell Gwyn dates from 1900 when Edward German was music director of the Globe Theatre in London. The ‘Dances’ were an immediate hit with Henry Wood giving the first concert performance at a Prom in September that year and no-less-popular as the jolly capers of the ‘Country Dance’ gave way to the more serene ‘Pastoral’ (with bell and bass-drum stops) followed by the nautically effervescent ‘Merrymakers’ Dance’.
The only piece in the concert conceived for organ (the programme was largely silent on who made the arrangements), John Ireland’s Villanella is an early work from 1904. The composer revisited it some 40 years later, adding two other pieces, also from 1904 (‘Intrada’ and ‘Menuetto-Impromptu’) – and re-published it as Miniature Suite. Ireland started out as an organist and this shows through in this well-craft morceau that was given a commendable, hypnotic reading.
The final piece of the afternoon, and possibly the most technically challenging, was Roger Quilter’s A Children’s Overture. A huge variety and complexity of stops were used (Richard Hills told us it took him four hours to set them) in this medley of interwoven children’s nursery rhymes. The work dates (in its orchestral form) from 1919, although it is a re-working of material from 1911. The most substantial piece of the afternoon, it was worth the wait to hear this bubbly presentation of this delightful music – including a fully formed fugue for a wooing frog!
Saving the best until last, as an encore we heard the jazz standard Tiger Rag. Recorded and copyrighted in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band the piece as played here was a joy to all who enjoy the art of improvisation. Richard Hills thrilled with his phenomenal keyboard dexterity and musical wit in this charming performance that included witty touches and a quotation from Widor’s famous ‘Toccata’ (from his Organ Symphony No.5) reminding us of Hill’s day job as Organist of St Mary’s Bourne Street.
Alfred Newman 20th Century Fox Fanfare How to Marry a Millionaire – Street Scene [arr. Edward B. Powell] Bronislau Kaper Forever, Darling – Confetti [arr. Robert Franklyn] David Raksin Laura – Suite Bernard Herrmann Psycho – Suite Citizen Kane – Salammbô’s Aria Erich Wolfgang Korngold The Adventures of Robin Hood – Suite [orch. Hugo Friedhofer] Jerome Moross The Big Country – Main Title Max Steiner Casablanca – Suite [orch. Friedhofer]
Movie Theme Song Medley [arr. John Wilson, Andrew Cottee, Pete King, Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Ray Heindorf, Jeff Alexander, and Frank DeVol]:
Harry Warren An Affair to Remember – Title Song Johnny Mercer Daddy Long Legs – Something’s Gotta Give Johnny Richards Young at Heart – Title Song Jule Styne Romance on the High Seas – It’s Magic James Van Heusen The Tender Trap – Title Song Victor Young My Foolish Heart – Title Song Jule Styne Three Coins in the Fountain Sammy Fain Love is a Many-Splendored Thing – Title Song Harry Warren The Caddy – That’s AmoreJay Livingston The Man Who Knew Too Much – Que sera, sera James Van Heusen The Joker is Wild – All the Way
Franz Waxman A Place in the Sun – Suite Scott Bradley Tom and Jerry at MGM [arr. Pete Morris & John Wilson] Miklós Rózsa Ben-Hur – Suite [orch. Eugene Zador]
Venera Gimadieva (soprano)
Matthew Ford & Jane Monheit (vocalists)
John Wilson Orchestra John Wilson
Reviewed by: Chris Caspell
Reviewed: 26 August, 2013 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
After each sensational concert by John Wilson and his handpicked orchestra you’d be forgiven for asking if there is any great music from Hollywood left to be discovered. Yet back he comes (every year at the Proms since 2009) with another collection of gems that is every bit as good as the last. The 20th Century Fox fanfare is known to filmgoers worldwide. Written in 1933 by Alfred Newman (who later became the head of the studio’s music department), an extended version was first used in 1953 for How to Marry a Millionaire. A similar coupling started proceedings at this Prom.
Such attention to detail runs through the John Wilson Orchestra, which takes the concept of authentic performance into the music of Hollywood. At ease with both the opulence of Bronislau Kaper’s Forever, Darling, and shrieking in the notorious stabbing-in-the-shower scene from Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho (for strings only to match the film being in black and white). If the strings are the foundation for this sort of music, the brass is the muscles – providing a wall of sound that is most evident in Jerome Moross’s The Big Country. Moross is close to a one-hit wonder with this main-title theme from the 1958 film starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston and Burl Ives; the sound is as big as the title suggests.
The JWO forces added up to 108 players here, providing not only volume but colour, as in the charming theme that David Raksin wrote for Otto Preminger’s 1944 movie, Laura. Preminger originally wanted Raksin to use Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady but the composer objected. Alfred Newman convinced Preminger to give Raksin the weekend to come up with something better. Later Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics to the tune, but we heard Raksin’s concert Suite.
Bernard Herrmann is well-known for his collaborations with Hitchcock; however he composed scores for a number of other films including Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. This film was the cinematic debut for men in possibly the best film of all time. The score was a landmark in Hollywood musical practice, replacing the non-stop underscoring with what Herrmann described as “radio scoring” where short musical snippets were inserted to bridge the action. ‘Salammbô’s Aria’ is part of an opera sequence that aims to expose Kane’s protégé Susan Alexander as an amateur. Herrmann put the aria in a key that would stretch the singer, making her reach a top D at the end, which was outside her range. Venera Gimadieva had no such trouble, giving a powerful presentation of this delightful pastiche.
Where other composers copied the Hollywood sound, Erich Wolfgang Korngold created the sound. The Oscar-winning music that he wrote for Warner Bros. 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood was unusually symphonic and in a style that would change the way Hollywood sounded in the future. The orchestration employs instruments that were largely to be found in a symphony orchestra of the time and, together with a wide variety of percussion, gave Korngold the colours he wanted. His three-movement Suite, given a weighty performance here, was a dramatic and fulfilling conclusion to the first half of this Prom.
Max Steiner, commonly referred to as the father of film music, was born in Austria and was taught by Johannes Brahms and Robert Fuchs. He composed over 300 film scores including King Kong, Gone with the Wind, and Casablanca. The Suite from the latter opens with the Warner Bros. fanfare that Steiner wrote in 1937 followed swiftly with variations on the ‘Marseillaise’ and the Deutschlandlied – the German National Anthem. Two timpanists add to a remarkable score that includes probably the best-known song from the film – As Time Goes By – written by Herman Hupfeld for the 1931 Broadway revue. Steiner weaves the music around the piano’s song, played by Matthew Regan, not Sam!
Maybe as an appeasement to Wilson’s song-loving audience, and in recognition of the huge number of famous numbers to come out of Hollywood, he put together a Movie Theme Song Medley. Enjoyable as it was to hear the songs – almost all now standards in the American Songbook – their inclusion was unnecessary. Matthew Ford and Jane Monheit took turns culminating in James (‘Jimmy’) Van Heusen’s ‘All the Way’ as a duet. There was the inevitable disjoint between the sound from the microphones through loudspeakers high above the stage and the orchestra below. Why not place the speakers amongst the orchestra to make the sound more even?
The two vocalists were replaced by the alto saxophone in Franz Waxman’s Suite from A Place in the Sun (1951). The angular melodies together with a restless cadenza were welcome fodder for Howard McGill, who gave the music gravitas in contrast to the big-band style heard earlier. From sublime to the absurd as Wilson and co-conspirator Pete Morris arranged the music that Scott Bradley wrote for MGM’s Tom and Jerry. The score is incredibly difficult to play, coping with extreme changes in speed and tone, here brilliantly side-stepping the revolving doors, anvils and smashed crockery from two errant percussionists.
As a finale, the most epic of scores – Ben-Hur in a Suite by Miklós Rózsa orchestrated by fellow-Hungarian Eugene Zador. Rózsa conducted the recording sessions which lasted over 72 hours, recording more than two-and-a-half hours of music for the hour-longer film – at one time the longest score ever composed for a motion picture. Typically the John Wilson Orchestra gave a commanding performance that included the Royal Albert Hall organ bringing the programmed concert to a climatic conclusion. Never expecting to get away without playing an encore (“It just so happens…”), we heard ‘The Ride of the Cossacks’ from the 1962 film Taras Bulba, starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis. Up-tempo and sparkling this was a magnificent ending to a superlative concert.
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