Year: 2014

Prom 76: The Last Night of the Proms – Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Janine Jansen, Elizabeth Watts, John Daszak, Roderick Williams & Ruthie Henshall – Velocity, Song for Athene, Sabre Dance, Ol’ Man River, Mary Poppins, Jerusalem

Gavin Higgins
Velocity [BBC commission: world premiere]
Malcolm Arnold
Overture, ‘Peterloo’ [“new choral version with lyrics by Sir Tim Rice”: world premiere]
Walton
Façade: Suite No.2 – V: Popular Song
Chausson
Poème
John Tavener
Song for Athene
Strauss
Taillefer, Op.52
Khachaturian
Gayaneh – Sabre Dance
Ravel
Tzigane
Traditional
Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho [arr. Roderick Williams]
Jerome Kern
Show Boat – Ol’ Man River [arr. Williams]
Richard M. & Robert B. Sherman
Mary Poppins – medley [arr. Anne Dudley; world premiere]
John Ansell
Plymouth Hoe (A Nautical Overture)
Arne
Rule, Britannia! [arr. Sargent]
Elgar
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D, Op.39/1
Parry, orch. Elgar
Jerusalem

The National Anthem [arr. Britten]

Janine Jansen (violin)

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), John Daszak (tenor) & Roderick Williams (baritone)

Ruthie Henshall (vocalist)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo


Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 13 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouFeeling like it has been only a short time since the opening Prom, this concert saw the culmination of eight packed weeks of music-making that included musicians from around the world, playing musical styles as diverse as they possibly could be. This Prom also marked Sakari Oramo’s first Last Night and, sporting a waistcoat emblazoned with a Union flag, the amiable Finn bounded onto the rostrum to conduct the world premiere of Gloucester-born Gavin Higgins’s Velocity. His second BBC commission for the Proms, Velocity is a fanfare-type piece designed to open the Last Night festivities in celebratory style. A six-note motif, repeated in various guises throughout the five-minute work, is presented by the brass at the start before the music quickly moves into a lively allegro. The piece is not about speed but rather “forward momentum, drive and energy”. Higgins’s use of varied colours is remarkably skilful; his writing accomplished, stylish and gifted – little surprise that he has recently been appointed as Rambert Dance Company’s inaugural Musician-in-Residence.

Malcolm Arnold wrote Peterloo in 1967 as a commission for the Trades Union Congress to mark its centenary. The piece vividly portrays the massacre of 15 pro-democracy reformers in 1819 by armed cavalry. The version here, following a request by Faber Music and The Arnold Estate, adds a choral part (arranged by Ben Parry) to Arnold’s original scoring with lyrics by Sir Tim Rice. The choir starts almost straight away, adding words to Arnold’s chorale tune until the advancing cavalry is heard, growing louder until the chorale subsumed. The music is as shocking as the event it portrays. Arnold captures the horror of the attack through discordant and terrifying music for brass and percussion – depicting the moment that the cavalry arrives, percussion pounding the same hypnotic rhythm. However, the BBCSO seemed reserved – the woodwinds not shrill enough; the brass not snarling enough. The chorus, clear of diction and perfectly attuned with what was required, brought this new version to life. Peterloo is not performed nearly as much as some of the composer’s other works and this version may make it attractive to choral societies – it is a fantastic piece.

Conductor Sakari Oramo picks up his violin to join Janine Jansen in a duet version of La Cucaracha at the Last Night of the Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouFor the second time this week, Walton’s ‘Popular Song’ from Façade has been heard at the Proms (in PCM8 it was performed at Cadogan Hall as originally conceived with Edith Sitwell’s poems). This sprightly performance shone – a jocular woodwind section (including an alto-saxophone as heard in the original) bringing the music to life.

In the first of two appearances at this Last Night, Janine Jansen opened Ernest Chausson’s Poème with a whispering solo that was spellbinding. Sensitively accompanied, this was a beautiful performance of a piece that was commonly heard at the Proms in the first half of the twentieth-century but not since 1982. John Tavener died in November last year and, by way of homage to him, we heard his one of best-known works, Song for Athene. Inspired by the death of a friend, Athene Hariades, who died in a cycling accident in 1993, the piece came to prominence in 1997 when the choristers of Westminster Abbey sang it to accompany the pall-bearers as they carried the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales. Absolute silence fell as the basses of the BBC Singers, the stage and hall in darkness intoned the Byzantine ‘Ison’ – a drone note – above which the upper voices sang Tavener’s beguiling melody. The final stanza, “Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you” was uplifting and refreshing – the perfect palette cleaner.

To end the first half of the concert, Richard Strauss’s Taillefer – written to celebrate the honorary doctorate that the composer was awarded by Heidelberg University. The work requires huge forces including choir and three vocal soloists, but lasting only eighteen or so minutes, it is unsurprising that it is rarely performed. Taillefer largely draws upon the composer’s earlier compositions, including Ein Heldenleben, and while it is interesting to hear something rare from a great composer it is understandable why a New York Times critic described the piece as “bottom-drawer Strauss … a waste of everyone’s time”. Despite the piece’s shortcomings, Oramo handled the massed-forces with aplomb.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThe second half began with an energetic performance of ‘Sabre Dance’ from Khachaturian’s score for the 1942 ballet, Gayaneh. The BBCSO’s regular timpanist, dynamic and speedy from the off, received special recognition at the end from the conductor that was followed by a chant from the Arena: “John Chimes – thank you for the timps.” After nearly forty years in the BBCSO, this was Mr Chimes’s farewell appearance.

Next came Jansen’s second appearance, and a change of dress; she was just as beguiling in Ravel’s Tzigane. Jansen’s impressive technique made light work of this showpiece for violin that was originally intended to be accompanied by a luthéal (a piano-like instrument equipped with stops like an organ). However due to the rapidity at which the instrument fell out of use, Ravel revised the piece for piano and also made an arrangement for orchestra. By way of an encore we heard an arrangement of La Cucaracha (Spanish for The Cockroach) played on two violins as Oramo, an accomplished violinist and formerly leader of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, joined Jansen in a delightful piece of musical comedy (and reprising their appearance in PCM4). Oramo appeared to be really enjoying the Last Night occasion, endearing himself to the audience, and no doubt to the millions of listeners and viewers.

Roderick Williams returned next to sing two spirituals that he has arranged. This version of ‘Ol’ Man River’ grew out of an arrangement that Jerome Kern made for voice, clarinet and piano – the clarinet obbligato remains a prominent feature in Williams’s orchestration.

Ruthie Henshall joins Sakari Oramo, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus to perform a medley of songs from Mary Poppins specially arranged by Anne Dudley at the Last Night of the Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouIt would almost be impossible to imagine a Last Night without a show-tune or two. While the Kern whetted the appetite, a little magic was needed – with the help of a medley of some of the best-loved tunes from Mary Poppins. Ruthie Henshall used a hand-held microphone; however the sound was projected from speakers at either side of the stage. Hallelujah! The balance was perfect, the sound coming from the vicinity of the soloist and not high above in the gantry. If amplification must be utilised, this was sensible use of it. This stylish arrangement (by Anne Dudley) included ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ and ‘Let’s go fly a kite’, and ended with ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. Mindful of the key-changes (Oramo warned us beforehand and promised to help point them out) the words found in the programme “with audience participation” were taken at face value as the Sherman brothers’ music and lyrics rang out loudly, fifty years after the film was released.

In place of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs, John Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe (1914) proved a worthy alternative. Beautifully crafted, Ansell’s music begins with the sailor’s hornpipe (‘Jack’s the Lad’) – a tune that Wood also used. There were plenty of opportunities for the orchestra’s soloists to shine, most notably for clarinettist Richard Hosford. The piece ends with a flourish of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ – the perfect introduction to the ‘beginning of the end’ starting with the Arne in Malcolm Sargent’s full-on version, Roderick Williams returning who had changed out of the ‘farm worker’ dungarees he had donned earlier.

Between the Arne and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, Sakari Oramo gave his address. This must be the scariest part of the Last Night for any conductor. Oramo, in excellent and idiomatic English, appeared to take the whole thing in his stride and saluted the conductors and performers heard during this season, and the audiences. After announcing that a staggering £89,700 has so far been raised by Promenaders for musical charities, Oramo self-mockingly said that he had been told to say something that was personal to him, “However, I am Finnish and we don’t talk very much”. Taking off his jacket, he revealed the full extent of the Union flag on his shirt and then turned around to reveal the Finnish flag on the back! This was an auspicious Last Night for Oramo.

A final flurry of Elgar and then Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem, the now-regular Benjamin Britten arrangement of the National Anthem and the 121st Season of BBC Proms was over – the next starts on Friday July 17. As ‘Auld Lang Syne’ rang around the Royal Albert Hall, it was a good time to remember Roger Wright who relinquished his tenure as Director of the BBC Proms on the opening night, at the same time leaving us with many memorable concerts. His shoes will be hard to fill; thank you Roger and we wish you well in your new role as Chief Executive of Aldeburgh Music.

Prom 75: Alan Gilbert conducts Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony & Friedrich Cerha’s Paraphrase

Friedrich Cerha
Paraphrase über den Anfang 9.Symphonie von Beethoven
Beethoven
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Christina Landshamer (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano), Steve Davislim (tenor) & Dmitry Belosselsky (bass)

Members of Leipzig Opera Chorus
Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir
Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Chorus
London Symphony Chorus

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Alan Gilbert


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 12 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Alan Gilbert conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir, Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir, Leipzig Opera Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and soloists in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, ‘Choral’, at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouWith Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony in its traditional Proms place, perhaps all will be well with the world – it certainly deserves to be, given the integrity of Alan Gilbert and the Leipzig Gewandhaus’s performance. The penultimate-night Prom, though, opened with the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha’s 12-minute Paraphrase on the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 (2011), UK-premiered in London when the currently indisposed Riccardo Chailly included it in his Barbican Centre/Gewandhaus Beethoven cycle in November 2011, then, as here, with the ‘Choral’.

Cerha (born 1926) has managed to fly both the Second Viennese School and more conservative flags during his long career and took on the daunting, prolonged task of finishing Alban Berg’s Lulu. Rather like the way Beethoven in his late variation style often strips his theme back to its basic DNA, so Cerha in his Paraphrase romantically seems to take the brief opening chaos of the ‘Choral’ back into Big Bang territory, replete with random chimes flecking the surface with points of light. There’s an element, too, of Stockhausen, in the way that Cerha gives us a hint of a Beethovenian contour, just enough to get our bearings. Stellar drifts of string harmonics meditate on the Symphony’s initial instability, and in one of the two climaxes, I fancied I heard a germ of the work’s most famous melody. Gilbert and the Leipzig players illuminated the music’s slowly rotating layers and returned it to its elemental remoteness in a beautifully refined dissipation of sound.

Soprano Christina Landshamer, mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger, tenor Steve Davislim, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, ‘Choral’, at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThere was the same risk-taking with dynamics in Beethoven’s outer movements, the eventual statement of the finale’s ‘Ode to Joy’ tune subliminal rather than audible. Gilbert favoured light textures and accommodating speeds and, with a sure overview of the music’s process of handing the baton of expression from music to words, the moment of exchange was as right and inevitable as I’ve heard it. In the first movement he kept the dynamic range down, to give its taut structure greater articulation – there wasn’t an inch of fat in the Leipzigers’ playing, in what turned out to be a challenging hire-wire act, taken to extremes in the scherzo (with a full clutch of repeats). How the strings kept any sort of purchase on such a gleaming surface at that velocity is anyone’s guess, but it certainly showed off the intricate rhythmic games going on in the woodwind and the all-important timpani.

In the Adagio’s variations, and to time-suspending effect, Gilbert managed Beethoven’s double-act of increasing activity yielding ever-greater stillness with a sure hand, and how the music’s dips in and out of triple-time heightens the sensation. In Gilbert’s context, the martial eruptions became a wake-up call to the finale, Mahlerian in its prescience. For the finale itself, the quartet of vocal soloists were placed with the four choirs, but as far as Dmitry Belosselsky was concerned, he might just have well been in the Arena with the Prommers, such was the footlight-crossing directness of his singing. Gilbert had built to this moment, as radically theatrical as, say, the trumpet calls in Fidelio, with an unerring sense of focus, and the result was thrilling. Ditto, Steve Davislim’s “Froh, froh, wie seine Sonnen” solo, with inimitable Bierfest support from the orchestra. Building on her considerable contribution in Mahler 3 the previous evening, Gerhild Romberger united the ensemble, and Christina Landshamer sailed with ease into the vocal stratosphere. The choirs, all four singing from memory and with incredible attack and a heartfelt engagement with Beethoven’s message, crowned this magnificent performance – the ‘Choral’ as it should be.

Prom 73: Alan Gilbert conducts Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra & Gerhild Romberger in Mahler 3

Mahler
Symphony No.3

Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano)

Leipzig Opera and Gewandhaus Choir (women’s voices)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Alan Gilbert


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 11 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Alan Gilbert conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Children’s Choir, and female voices of the Choir and Opera Chorus in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThe Third did not get a Proms hearing in whole or in part until the Mahler boom of the 1960s. (In 1962 Norman Del Mar was on the podium with Helen Watts the mezzo soloist.) Today the problems are not so much technical as emotional, the work’s familiarity bringing problems of its own. That old sense of occasion is not easily recaptured.

In John Drummond’s gossipy but essential memoir, Tainted by Experience (Faber), he writes of the risks involved in asking any ensemble to play Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Proms in the wake of Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. I approached this concert with vaguely similar qualms. Having been present at Claudio Abbado’s remarkable 2007 rendition of Mahler’s Third, perhaps the ultimate expression of his own super-refined way with the composer, I no doubt unfairly gave Donald Runnicles’s 2010 concert a miss. Riccardo Chailly, originally scheduled to conduct in 2014, seemed to promise a more radical alternative, brighter, more muscular. (Having dumped the Mengelberg tradition which obsessed him in Amsterdam, he now favours faster tempos, cleaner textures and a certain technocratic rigidity – the package generally deemed ‘authentic’ in Beethoven and Brahms.)

In the event, Chailly having broken his arm, Alan Gilbert was the surprise man on the rostrum. Not that he is any stranger to Mahler. He was at the helm of his own orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, for a unique performance of Mahler’s previous, ‘Resurrection’ Symphony which, in remembrance and renewal, marked the tenth anniversary of the events of ‘9/11’. I had not realised that he began his first New York subscription season with performances of No.3. He knows the music well enough to dispense with the printed copy. But does he have a vision of his own?

Mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger performs Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor with conductor Alan Gilbert, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Children’s Choir, and female voices of the Choir and Opera Chorus at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThis was a beautifully enunciated but oddly lightweight account of a work which if not a paragon of organic growth still needs to come across – somehow – as all of a piece. Taking only 33 minutes over the first movement, Gilbert made it sound more than usually random and rather jolly, more like a divertissement than a symphonic opener. Still there were many felicities on offer. With violins antiphonally placed and a warm core of violas and cellos, the sound was satisfyingly coherent, the winds characterful, the pianissimos real. It was by no means merely brisk and business-like. In his way Gilbert was a deft pilot, bringing out subtler textures often lost in the melee. The second movement was at times rather self-consciously moulded but who wants a po-faced treatment of the ‘flowers of the meadow’?

The third movement was again predominantly brisk – Chailly might have approved – but with more attempt at Bernstein-style flexibility and menace. The excellent posthorn solos seemed to come from somewhere offstage right. In the fourth Gerhild Romberger was superb, more firmly focused than Christiane Stotijn in Daniel Harding’s ‘Resurrection’ (Prom 57), less the aloof, old-style contralto. Following Simon Rattle, Abbado and others, Gilbert may have ruffled a few feathers with his literal reading of Mahler’s ‘hinaufziehen’ (pulled up glissando) marking, making more specific – and uglifying – the allusions to bird-cries on oboe and cor anglais. In context, the squeaky-clean choral work in the fifth came as no surprise. The finale too was beautifully articulated, not as ‘spiritual’ as it might have been, more an apt showcase for the wonderful Leipzig strings. Again, rapture came a little too easily without much sense of a man in torment struggling towards inner harmony. Gilbert was much brasher than Abbado in those overloaded final bars, giving the timpani full reign (Abbado took the liberty of bringing them right down).

The full house was appropriately enthusiastic and, in the main, attentive for all that there were at least three different ring-tones peppering the opening movement and another to preface the ardent hymn-like theme for strings which launches the finale. Applause too in places where one could have done without it. The orchestra, not quite immaculate, sounded terrific.

Prom 74: Late Night with … Rufus Wainwright, Deborah Voigt, Britten Sinfonia & Johannes Debus

“Songs to include: Poses, Going to a Town, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, Over the Rainbow, Dinner at Eight, Me and Liza. He has already taken over the Royal Opera House and staged his first opera; now charismatic singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright comes to the Proms. Joined by the instrumentalists of the Britten Sinfonia, the Canadian-American Grammy nominee performs a spectacular set, filling the Royal Albert Hall with his own brand of ‘baroque pop’ that references everything from opera to ragtime, Lieder to jazz.” [BBC Proms website]

Rufus Wainwright (singer) & Deborah Voigt (soprano)
Britten Sinfonia
Johannes Debus


Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 11 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Rufus Wainwright makes his BBC Proms debut in a Late Night Prom with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Johannes Debus. Photograph: Mark AllanRufus Wainwright proved a natural choice for the last late-night Prom of the 2014 season. The Canadian-American singer grew up with music as his life, his parents being folk-singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and his sister Martha is also a singer-songwriter. All four have been prolific artists, though McGarrigle tragically died of sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, at the age of 53. She introduced the young Rufus to opera, from which grew a love of Puccini and an appreciation that has informed even his most-popular composing.

Wainwright has tended to write for larger performing forces, with elements of the stage ever-present in his delivery, so it came as no surprise to report the easy transfer of his music to arrangements by Max Moston for voice and orchestra, Wainwright here renewing his acquaintance with Britten Sinfonia. That Wainwright is blessed with an unusually probing voice helps enormously, providing the balance is right. The first song, ‘April Fools’, was not such a case, the orchestra amplified too much: Wainwright could only just be heard and he stumbled over some of his lyrics. This shaky start was rectified by the rather beautiful ‘Sometimes You Need’, the voice complemented by glassy vibraphone and strings that shimmered in the half-light. Moston’s imaginative orchestration added Broadway sheen and glamour, and while occasionally too fussy, gurgling marimbas confidently led-off a wistful account of ‘The Art Teacher’ before offering a soft clarinet and bassoon for ‘Friendship’, a new song that appeared to be a work in progress but was subtly moving all the same.

Soprano Deborah Voigt and Rufus Wainwright perform If I Loved You from the musical Carousel with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Johannes Debus at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Mark AllanWainwright has written an opera, Prima Donna, and is working on a second, Hadrian. From the first work we heard two arias, for which Deborah Voigt lent her full tones, after an expansive introduction from the host. Regret hung over the distinctive motif of ‘Quand J’étais jeune étudiante’, a lament exaggerated by the singer’s wide vibrato, before the sizeable orchestra was overpowered by ‘Les Feux d’artifice t’appellent’, Voigt channelling the spirit of Brünnhilde.

The singers then realised their unexpected chemistry in a duet, ‘If I Loved You’, from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Unfortunately while their stage-play was amusing the music was scrappily dealt with and also out of tune, and Wainwright’s lightly outrageous asides detracted.

Order was restored as Wainwright turned to the piano for a much more meaningful selection of his finest songs, again with the Britten Sinfonia in tow under the watchful eye of Johannes Debus. ‘Going to a Town’ made its stark and brave soul-searching of America over nicely pointed nocturnal murmurs, then ‘I Don’t Know What It Is’ found Wainwright blossoming from intimate asides to piercing clarity, while ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk’ was more confessional, its nub a hook that refuses to go away once heard. Wainwright then interrupted the start of ‘Poses’ to insert a dedication to Neil Tennant – the Pet Shop Boys he cites as a lasting influence – before the final ‘Oh What A World’, the song that introduced him in the UK, sung with a pure tone to the rasps of tuba and trombone, added vulgarity to the proceedings. Finally, as an encore, we heard Arlen and Harburg’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz, sung slowly but with affection and commendable poise, Wainwright lost in his own thoughts.

Prom 72: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton with Lise Berthaud – Greensleeves, Exody, Walton’s Viola Concerto, Vaughan Williams 4; Harrison Birtwistle Composer Portrait

Composer Portrait
Harrison Birtwistle
Settings of Lorine Niedecker [selections: Nos.5, 8 & 9]
5 Distances for 5 Instruments
Musicians from the Royal Academy of Music [Alice Rose Privett (soprano) & Charles Hervet (cello); Notus Winds: Charlotte Ashton (flute), Eleanor Tinlin (oboe), Jordan Black (clarinet), Jonathan Davies (bassoon), Carys Evans (horn)]
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Prom 72
Vaughan Williams, arr. Ralph Greaves
Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’
Harrison Birtwistle
Exody
Walton
Viola Concerto [revised version]
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.4 in F minor

Lise Berthaud (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Andrew Litton. Photograph: imgartists.comThe Proms season’s coverage of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s music in his 80th-birthday year came to a head with this revival of Exody (1997), heard within a programme of English composers (each born some three decades apart) such as made for a provocative and stimulating context.

Despite a high-profile launch by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – who duly gave the UK premiere at the Proms in 1998 – and revival by James MacMillan in 2005 with the BBC Philharmonic, Exody has fared less well than other of Birtwistle’s major orchestral works and is the only one (the early Chorales notwithstanding) yet to be commercially recorded. During the pre-concert event (of which more below), the composer went so far as to state that the piece “didn’t quite work as intended” – while refusing to elaborate upon an issue which is likely to be of concern to him alone.

What, then, is the problem with Exody? Essentially this would seem to be one of continuity – this work lacking the overall inevitability of The Triumph of Time, the cumulative contrasts of Earth Dances, or the seamless intensity of the ‘Night’ diptych. The whole might therefore be no more (even less?) than the sum of its best parts, though at its best it is vintage Birtwistle in all respects. Certainly the opening phase, in its amassing of activity between the extreme Cs of sepulchral doubles basses and stratospheric violins, is as arresting as any in the post-war orchestral literature; with the final stage, its maelstrom of activity gradually condensing into a sombre melodic line, as masterful though bleak a resolution as any that Birtwistle has undertaken. If what comes in-between seems more memorable for its oases of calm than for its larger stretches of activity, this was hardly the fault of the present performance – Andrew Litton steering the potentially sprawling structure with assurance and obtaining a focussed response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra; woodwind and brass, in particular, excelling themselves.

Lise Berthaud. Photograph: Neda NavaeeThen again, perhaps the work’s ‘failure’ is more a conceptual one – Birtwistle’s premonitions being more relevant to the economic meltdown eight years hence than the (mostly) vacuous celebrations around the new millennium. Not that the composer touched on that issue in what was a relaxed and engaging pre-concert chat with Andrew McGregor – this last-of-the-season Proms Composer Portraits also featuring superb renditions of three from the Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (2000, for soprano and cello) – epigrammatic revelations as enshrined in, rather than set to, music – and Five Distances for Five Instruments (1993). The latter account saw members of Notus Winds distributed around the Amaryllis Fleming auditorium, endowing a spatial dimension to what must be the most capricious music yet written for this most ‘broken’ of instrumental consorts.

After the main-concert interval, Lise Berthaud (a BBC New Generation Artist) was heard to advantage in William Walton’s Viola Concerto (1929/61). This is undoubtedly the finest of Walton’s string concertos (though many doubtless prefer either of its successors for violin and for cello), and the present reading pointed up the antecedents in Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto – not least the way the first movement’s bursts of energy are firmly integrated into its subdued reticence, with the second-movement scherzo maintaining an underlying poise for all its recalcitrance. The lengthy finale was ideally paced through to its finely wrought climax, the soloist’s response eloquently alluding to earlier themes on the way to a resigned close. Astute accompanying by Litton ensured the revised (1961) orchestration provided a telling context for Berthaud’s warmly confiding tone.

Framing these works were two from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ (1934) was an ideal entrée: however the composer and Ralph Greaves apportioned the arrangement from the opera Sir John in Love, its wistful charms seemed tangible in this elegant account.

Coming at the opposite end of the VW scale, the Fourth Symphony (1934) proved rather less satisfying. Litton had the measure of the Allegro’s implacability, though his inflection of its initial discord latterly became too much of a good thing, with the music’s assaultive energy rarely taking flight prior to a coda that was enervated rather than reposeful. The Andante was sensibly paced with some limpid woodwind playing (solo flute in particular), even if its twin climaxes were insufficiently ominous, while the scherzo suffered from shaky articulation in its contrapuntal outer sections – with the trio curiously gauche. After a staid rendering of the transition to the finale, the latter movement lacked panache and, at its hushed centre, transcendence: nor did the ‘epilogo fugato’ clinch matters with the decisiveness needed – Litton rushing the music just before the seismic return of the opening motif and the deadly emphatic final chord. As with the Third Symphony (‘Pastoral’), and as Vaughan Williams directed for the Sixth, this is a work best treated as a continuous whole, something of which conductor (and, as also in the Walton, the clapping part of the audience) seemed wholly unaware.

  • Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
  • BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms
  • Andrew Litton conducts the opening concert of the BBCSO’s 2014-15 Barbican Hall Season on September 21 and includes Charles Ives’s Symphony No.4

Prom 71: BBC Concert Orchestra/Keith Lockhart – Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, Quiet City, Appalachian Spring – Dave and Chris Brubeck, Time for Three

“It’s American Night at the Proms, courtesy of the BBC Concert Orchestra and its New York State-born Principal Conductor Keith Lockhart. Toes will be tapping in a concert that starts with folk songs and dances – joyously orchestrated and reworked by Aaron Copland – and ends in Chris Brubeck’s distinctive blend of classical, jazz, blues and country music. Take an exhilarating musical journey with the UK premiere of 
his Travels in Time for Three – a thrill-ride concerto composed for virtuoso string trio and orchestra.” [BBC Proms website]

Copland
Rodeo – Four Dance Episodes
Quiet City
Appalachian Spring – Suite
Dave Brubeck
Blue Rondo à la Turk [arr. Chris Brubeck; UK premiere]
Chris Brubeck
Travels in Time for Three [UK premiere]

Time for Three [Zachary De Pue & Nicholas Kendall (violins) and Ranaan Meyer (double bass)] with Matt Scarano (drums)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Keith Lockhart


Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 9 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Keith Lockhart. Photograph: Stu RosnerThis Prom celebrated American music through three works dating from the wartime period – a highly productive time for Aaron Copland – in the first half, and then with music from Dave and Chris Brubeck (father and son).

A ‘slow burn’ affair, the BBC Concert Orchestra under its principal conductor Keith Lockhart seemed on autopilot for much of the first half. The printed order reversed (which made better sense), Rodeo opened the concert. The incisive rhythmic liveliness that this music demands was rarely present and the final ‘Hoe-Down’ failed to excite. Quiet City suited the sleepy BBC Concert Orchestra better; the strings’ delicate and sympathetic accompaniment to the solos of Victoria Walpole (cor anglais) and Catherine Moore (trumpet) gave a Steinbeckian midsummer haze. In Appalachian Spring BBCCO finally seemed to mean business. Copland’s dreamily wide-spaced orchestration at the start, conjuring an image of the vast open spaces encountered by pioneer settlers in the early-19th-century, was portrayed with clarity. ‘Simple Gifts’ at the close radiated optimism leading to a touchingly sincere conclusion.

The concert’s second half began with a homage to Dave Brubeck, who passed away in December 2012. ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ was inspired by street musicians that he heard playing a complex rhythm while he was in Istanbul in the 1950s, a fast 9/8 subdivided in different ways over a four-bar cycle. To reflect this moment of discovery, Chris Brubeck’s arrangement opens with the orchestra clapping the rhythm alongside some percussion. In this version, prompted by Lockhart who wants to keep Dave Brubeck’s music in the public’s ears, the inclusion of a jazz quartet (in a previous arrangement by another of Dave’s sons – Darius) has been dropped. The improvisatory nature of the original removed, this adaptation has kept much of the original’s soul to produce a thrilling new piece that includes a superb brass contribution.

Dave Brubeck. Photograph: www.davebrubeck.comEight orchestras and/or groups commissioned Travels in Time for Three including the eponymous trio to which Matt Scarano joined as kit-drummer. The piece’s main theme was conceived on a train in 2009 while Chris Brubeck was travelling to Connecticut to visit Ranaan Meyer. Over the following three days, he and his colleagues improvised (and were recorded by Brubeck) on this ‘train’ theme, the stimuli for the work now heard.

In four movements, Travels in Time for Three is a fusion of jazz, classical and rock elements. The first movement – ‘Thematic Ride’ – culminates in a baroque-styled fugato that is tossed back and forth between the two violins and the orchestra. The writing is not far removed from that of Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia – a style not lost on the eclectic tastes of Time for Three, its members all being music graduates of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. There follows ‘Irish Folk, Odd Times’, a delightful mixture, including blues, utilising a variety of changing time-signatures and cross-rhythms (hence ‘Odd Times’). The orchestral strings (later with wind instruments added) dominate the slow movement, ‘Suspended Bliss’. Brubeck says the emphasis is upon harmonic exploration; at the same time it shows off his skill to create music that is beautiful, tranquil and awash with colour – hinting at Delius. The finale – ‘Clouseau’s Mardi Gras, Laissex les bons temps rouler’ – is Henry Mancini-influenced and opens with ‘soft shoe’ swing. Brass-players clapping and a vocal “yeah” from orchestra and conductor placed it firmly in the cool school. Cadenzas for the three soloists offered scope for extemporisation – most notably an impressive improvisation high in the register on the double bass. A 7/8 version of the ‘train’ theme drove the music to a magnificent close.

Two encores closed the concert. First an exciting and musically astute arrangement (that included the orchestra) of Mumford & Sons ‘Little Lion Man’ from their BRIT-award-winning debut album, which included some vocal work, not all the words, mind, just the clean ones. Then a poignant arrangement of the Lennon & McCartney standard ‘Norwegian Wood’ (with an opening reference to Chopin’s F major Ballade), the members of Time for Three now on their own and a real delight.

PCM8: Shostakovich Waltzes and Walton’s Façade – Ian Bostridge, Felicity Palmer, Nash Ensemble/John Wilson

Shostakovich, arr. Levon Atovmyan
Four Waltzes [Michurin – Spring Waltz; The Bolt – Waltz-Scherzo; The Return of Maxim – Waltz; The Gadfly – Barrel-Organ Waltz]
Walton
Façade: An Entertainment

Ian Bostridge & Dame Felicity Palmer (reciters)

Members of the Nash Ensemble [Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford (clarinet), Howard McGill (alto saxophone), Alan Thomas (trumpet), Bjørg Lewis (cello), Richard Benjafield (percussion) & Ian Brown (piano)
John Wilson [Walton]


Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 8 September, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The full Nash Ensemble. Photograph: © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPALIn the final Proms Chamber Music recital of this season a capacity audience at Cadogan Hall greeted the Nash Ensemble (in its 50th-anniversary year) together with Ian Bostridge, Felicity Palmer and John Wilson in a sparkling lunchtime concert.

By way of an entrée, four Waltzes taken from Shostakovich’s film music, miniatures arranged for flute, clarinet and piano, which received a sunny and smiling outing, from the spiralling clarinet in ‘Spring Waltz’ to the better-known ‘Barrel Organ Waltz’ from the 1955 film, The Gadfly.

While the stage was being re-set, Petroc Trelawny spoke to Wilson about Façade. Why use megaphones at the first performance? He is convinced that the volume of the instruments would have played a big part – the megaphone allowed Edith Sitwell (author of the poems) to be heard, though this isn’t the only reason. In the first public performance in June 1923 at the Aeolian Hall (there had been a private one at the Sitwells’ London home in January the previous year), she recited her verse through a megaphone projecting through a decorated screen – in the twenty-first-century the megaphone has been replaced by the microphone which, while achieving the object of allowing the narrators to be heard, detracted from the original notion that the they are a part of the ensemble rather than soloists.

Too loud in places – distracting us from Walton’s wonderful parodies of ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ (‘Tango Pasodoble’) and the Overture to Rossini’s William Tell (‘Swiss Jodelling Song’) – Bostridge and Palmer deftly tripped through Sitwell’s tongue-twisting verse. The times when the words were not fully audible were few and less important than the theatricality of the verse that was dealt in spades. Palmer, with a stage presence honed from an operatic career spanning four decades, slipped easily from character to character: a yokel accent in ‘Country Dance’ and, predictably if particularly good, a Scottish brogue for ‘Scotch Rhapsody’.

At the first performance, the instrumentalists hated the work – the clarinettist asking the composer if a colleague had ever done him an injury. Not so today, for the required members of the Nash Ensemble, if a little upstaged by Bostridge and Palmer, delighted in Walton’s quirky writing conducted with intelligence and wit by Wilson.

Prom 69: Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst – Brahms & Jörg Widmann (2)

Brahms
Tragic Overture, Op.81
Jörg Widmann
Teufel Amor – symphonic hymn after Schiller [UK premiere]
Brahms
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Franz Welser-Möst. Photograph: Carl Juste/Iris CollectiveMaybe two Cleveland Orchestra programmes of Brahms and Jörg Widmann conducted by music director Franz Welser-Möst was one too much, for the Royal Albert Hall was half-full/half-empty, although the Arena was reasonably well-attended (sadly with several selfish people leaving their mobiles on, their plastic playthings, to distract others, and with texting occurring while the music was being played!; at least they had left before the second half) but with many seats unoccupied.

As for programming, well, America has some terrific symphonists – Peter Mennin, Walter Piston, Christopher Rouse and William Schuman, to name but four – so a shame not to have something home-grown from the Clevelanders, although this is a hindsight remark in the light of the disappointing Teufel Amor.

Brahms’s Tragic Overture opened the Prom in ‘take it or leave it’ fashion, hardly arresting. Lucid and refined is to be welcomed, although the too-loud edgy-sounding trumpets rather upset things at times, and the violas (still led by Robert Vernon, since 1976) were curiously undernourished in terms of tone, yet for all the sterling musical values on display there was little combustion to take us to the soul of this great piece. Such efficiency also informed the first movement of Brahms 2, flowing initially and then getting faster, very business-like if with some beguiling woodwind detail, although that came across as no more than luxury decoration. Classically concise is one thing, straight-jacketing the music is another. For all that the repeat of the exposition is important (IMHO) its absence here was a blessing, although it still seemed parsimonious.

By contrast – and now something transformative happened – the slow movement was given with grace, sheen and pathos, and the third was elegance and neatness personified … then straight into the finale (clappers now given no chance to butt in), performed with joy and fire, the musicians and the conductor now well into their stride. There were though a few slippages in the playing in both Brahms pieces, more than one might expect from an orchestra of this vintage and status, but one of those things on the night. As an extra, the ubiquitously-encored Hungarian Dance No.1 (one of only three that Brahms himself orchestrated), was sleekly given.

Meanwhile, earlier on, Teufel Amor by Jörg Widmann (born 1973) had rather trudged its way through to nearly 30 minutes. This “symphonic hymn after Schiller” (2009/11) has attracted some top-name conductors – Pappano (the premiere), Barenboim, Harding – yet for all the skill of the composer and the appeal that a large orchestra offers, there was little to distinguish this canvas from numerous others that rely on static low notes from trombones, tuba and contrabassoon, or the hallucinatory effect of a gaggle of tuned gongs, or the nothingness of bowed cymbals… and so ‘Devil Cupid’ went on, with plenty of sound but little that could be called substantive or distinctive as the piece formed (meanderingly) and was then deconstructed. The best music came between these states, with heightened emotions suggesting post-Mahlerian angst, and clearly relating to Alban Berg and, to a lesser extent, Richard Strauss. The problem is that as a one-off Teufel Amor worked well enough, but so many of these timbres and gestures have become commonplace in ‘new’ music and Widmann seemed content to here join the crowd and seek little that could be considered original and personal.

Prom 70: Peter Maxwell Davies at 80 – Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Ben Gernon with Dimitri Ashkenazy & Robert Jordan – Ebb of Winter, Strathclyde Concerto 4, An Orkney Wedding

Peter Maxwell Davies
Concert Overture, ‘Ebb of Winter’ [London premiere]
Strathclyde Concerto No.4
An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise

Dimitri Ashkenazy (clarinet)

Robert Jordan (bagpipes)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Ben Gernon


Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 8 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies watches the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon perform a selection of his works at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouLife begins at 80, and on this day, for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. ‘Max’, as he is affectionately known, suffered a severe bout of leukaemia only last year, during which he was told he had six weeks to live. Yet now, sat in an armchair on the corner of the Royal Albert Hall stage, wearing a bespoke waistcoat made from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra tartan, he was well enough to reflect with good humour and insight on his career as a composer, in the company of Tom Service.

Max’s role as the Composer Laureate of the SCO has yielded numerous works, not least the ten Strathclyde Concertos written for the section leaders. He chose the Fourth – for clarinet – for this concert, but opted to begin with a newer work, the first London performance of Ebb of Winter (2013). Written to depict the end of a particularly severe Orcadian winter, this substantial three-part, 17-minute Concert Overture is centred round the hope offered by the imminence of Spring, but also includes those days where winter rears its ugly head once more, an uncanny parallel for the composer and the onset of his illness. Prior to the performance the composer declared: “the music knew something that I didn’t … it was somehow in the air”. These moments were striking in their immediacy, a shadow falling over the music as its mortality was questioned, the strings slowed almost to a resigned standstill. Elsewhere hope was offered through the bright clarion fanfares of brass, clearly rendered by trumpets and horns, which ultimately won through to an affirmative finish – though even in the final blaze of F sharp a troublesome tritone could still be heard.

Robert Jordan plays the bagpipes in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouStrathclyde Concerto No.4 also ends in that tonal realm, the culmination of half-an-hour of discourse and meditation. Written for Lewis Morrison, the piece was played here by Dimitri Ashkenazy, who sat throughout, aiding the meditative process through his relative lack of motion, while also realising the virtuoso demands. Maxwell Davies’s assertion that the piece is “in search of something” is borne out by the cloudy depths in which the strings begin, which gradually lead to music from a more energetic source.

Ben Gernon, a fine conductor recently graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, kept a very close eye on the SCO at the crucial cadenza point, where just four elongated chords from the strings support a myriad of thoughts from the soloist. This section is arguably too long, the subject carried away by his own musing, yet it was soon followed by the jewel of the work, its coda – the clarinet circling like a lone bird in the evening sun – creating a timeless period during which the Royal Albert Hall audience was as quiet as I’ve heard all season, a wonderful moment of reflection.

By complete contrast, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise was a riot, swaggering into view with celebratory gusto, the composer celebrating the wedding of two close friends and the many and frequent dances and toasts that went with it! The SCO was wonderfully idiomatic in their folksy melodies, and their dance-steps were nimble until the imbibing became, shall we say, more prolific – whereupon the music literally stumbled around the stage, with ‘wrong’ notes aplenty. Glasses of whisky were proffered for leader Charlotte Scott, Gernon, Max and his host – and were duly raised with the arrival from the mists of bagpiper Robert Jordan and the sunrise. The pipes were a raucous intrusion, the bright light of day (and possibly a headache!) arriving with their less-than-uniform tuning, but the effect caps one of this composer’s finest pieces of musical ceremony.

As a lovely send-off, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra added an extra with violist Steve King’s arrangement of “Happy Birthday”, beginning with an outrageous volley of timpani that had Max – and us – in stitches. Beneath it, though, was deep-seated affection and admiration for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

Prom 67: Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra/Han-Na Chang with Denis Matsuev – Ranjbaran, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky

Behzad Ranjbaran
Seemorgh – The Sunrise [European premiere]
Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Denis Matsuev (piano)

Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra
Han-Na Chang


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 September, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Han-Na Chang conducts the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra in its debut at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThe Qatar Philharmonic was formed in 2007, funded by the Qatar Foundation, and is currently in its first season under the South Korean cellist/conductor Han-Na Chang as music director. In such a short time she has done a remarkable job, and must have had a very clear idea of the sort of orchestra she wanted, considering that many of the predominantly young players look as though they have only recently come out of their conservatoires, and the list of instrumentalists boasts as many nationalities as, say, a FIFA World Cup tournament.

Their Proms debut, a matinee, opened with ‘The Sunrise’, the last piece of the Persian Trilogy, Seemorgh, by the Iranian/American composer Behzad Ranjbaran. Seemorgh was a fabulous bird of ancient Persian myth, and the music comes suitably saturated in primary-colour orchestration, brilliantly laid out by Ranjbaran, who builds his tone-poem to a colossal, visionary climax. The ear inevitably referenced the Russian colourists – as in The Firebird, Scheherazade, et al – with dips into Holst at his most Vedic and Bernstein at his most Broadway. There was a hint of Arabic chant at work to remind us of the score’s Persian provenance, and the end result was a ferociously rhythmic orgy of sound, delivered with a will by the QPO players.

Denis Matsuev performs Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Han-Na Chang and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra in its debut at the BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThe Siberian pianist Denis Matsuev, currently known as much for his Putin sympathies as for his barnstorming virtuosity, was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, and there were many moments when you could imagine Putin as soloist, probably shirtless, wrestling the piano into submission, such was the testosterone level of Matsuev’s playing. This was a brutal encounter with a work that sits uneasily in the warhorse category – and given some of the speeds of the two outer movements, it was also briefer than usual. But the opening chords, in which Matsuev preferred his own lugubrious largo to the composer’s moderato, gave a clue to the broad-brush emotionalism that does this familiar pieces few favours. Engagement with the orchestra was perfunctory at best, with some willful tugs at ensemble – a shame, because there were some impressive details and a feel for Rachmaninov’s heroic melancholy toiling away in the orchestra out of the limelight, considerations that were not at the top of Matsuev’s agenda. The slow movement gave a nod or two to the notion of concerto give-and-take, with the flute and clarinet duet properly haunting and romantic. But the abiding memory is of a hard-driven, pumped-up soloist on the rampage, an impression of blatant Russian supremacy confirmed by Matsuev’s caricature-macho encore, Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude (Opus 23/5), which I imagine is still in intensive care after such a thrashing.

Happily, things came together for a fine performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. The rapport between conductor and orchestra was palpable, and, apart from looseness in the slow introduction, ensemble was tight, impressively so in the very fast finale. Chang had a firm grasp on the Symphony’s trajectory from doubt to life-affirming optimism in an unashamedly heart-on-sleeve performance that irradiated all four movements. The strings’ sound was radiant without sounding upholstered, and their retreats into their accompanying role engineered with great finesse. The Andante cantabile’s horn solo was ravishingly played by Peter Davida, a passage enhanced even more by the clarinet’s subtle contribution – and this was only one example of some exceptional wind- and brass-playing. With her intensely dynamic conducting style, Chang was faithful to the emotional panache of the score, summed up in the thrilling conclusion, and capped by the most visceral timpani-playing I’ve experienced in a while.

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