Prom 76: Marin Alsop conducts The Last Night of the Proms with Benjamin Grosvenor, Jonas Kaufmann and Danielle de Niese – Puccini Arias, I bought me a cat, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem, Rule Britannia!, Auld Lang Syne

Eleanor Alberga
Arise, Athena! [BBC commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in F, Op.102
Arvo Pärt
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Tosca – Recondita armonia
Manon Lescaut – Donna non vidimai
Turandot – Nessun dorma
James P. Johnson
Victory Stride
Old American Songs – I bought me a cat
Peer Gynt, Op.23 – Morning
Love walked in [arr. Percy Grainger)
Morton Gould
Boogie Woogie Etude
Trois Mélodies – Les filles de Cadix
The Land of Smiles – Dein ist mein ganzes Herz
Richard Rodgers
The Sound of Music [medley, arr. Chris Hazell]
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs – Jack’s the Lad (Hornpipe) & Home, Sweet Home
Rule, Britannia! [arr. Sargent]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D, Op.39/1
Parry, orch. Elgar

The UK National Anthem [arr. Britten]
Auld Lang Syne [arr. Cedric Thorpe Davie]

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)

Danielle de Niese (soprano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 12 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jonas Kaufmann performs Puccini arias with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop at the Last Night of the Proms 2015Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouDedicated to a “just, moderate and peaceful society” – as per Marin Alsop’s second-half speech – the Last Night of the Proms 2015 accentuated a transatlantic flavour that included music by American composers James P. Johnson, George Gershwin and Morton Gould, as well as a BBC commission to start the concert, by Jamaican-born Eleanor Alberga.

Alberga’s three-minute piece is largely tonal and in a soundworld that is more than familiar (‘Daybreak’ from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé springs to mind), the full forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the choruses were used to good effect. Bubbling woodwinds awaken the world before the music becomes more agitated as “humanity calls on Athena to bring wisdom and music to the world.” A brief dally into atonality ensues before quickly returning to the diatonic chromaticism of the start. Enjoyable enough, Arise, Athena! is probably too short and derivative to become an addition to the repertoire.

Benjamin Grosvenor performs Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor with BBC Symphony conducted by Marin Alsop at the Last Night of the Proms 2015Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIn the first of his appearances Benjamin Grosvenor’s thrilling account of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto went a long way to explain why the 23-year-old is in such high demand. A sprightly first movement gave way to a more thoughtful second – delicately accompanied by the strings, with Grosvenor turning his head and listening intently as though he were playing chamber music. Sparkling and brilliant, Grosvenor saw off the finale with virtuosity to end an immaculate performance.

Arvo Pärt’s Credo was given its premiere in 1968 at a time when the Soviet ideologues were stamping down hard on challenges to their rule. Despite the composer’s protestations that the work had no political subtext, Credo was banned for over ten years. It mixes Baroque-style harmonies (largely based upon the C-major Prelude from Book I of J. S. Bach’s The Well-tempered Clavier, Elizabeth Burley at the piano) with choral and orchestral improvisations. Quite different from Pärt’s later oeuvre Credo is a compelling listen. A big ‘thumbs-up’ to the chorus at the end from Alsop said all that needed to be said – awesome!

Marin Alsop conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus at the Last Night of the Proms 2015Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe only piece in the first half to show-off the BBCSO in all its finery, Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks did not disappoint. Apart from an over-eager bass-clarinet, the orchestra didn’t put a foot wrong in a rendition that mixed poise with humour.

Before the interval Jonas Kaufmann offered some Puccini, but the three arias suffered from him being too far forward of Alsop, which meant, at times, that singer and orchestra parted company. Why the BBC did not think to include a camera and video monitor to transmit Alsop’s beat (as in the Sinatra Prom) is hard to fathom.

More than usual, visual stimulus was more of a feature in the second half. In this version for orchestra (arranger unnamed) of James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride, a cue from the small-band original was taken as instrumentalists, including the strings, stood to take solos, and brought Grosvenor back to the stage, not as soloist, but as one of the ensemble.

‘I bought me a cat’ from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs was more a feat of technology than musicality as the RAH chorus and audience first greeted the four park venues before singing the first two verses. Next the BBC Concert Orchestra and the crowd in Hyde Park sang a verse, then, in turn, Swansea, Belfast and Glasgow – the latter, embracing regional differences, bought a “coo” rather than a “cow”. Finally we were back to the RAH – horse, pig, hen, goose, duck and cat all safely home.

After the potential for everything to go horribly wrong was averted, it was a comparatively easy job for Grosvenor to play his Steinway. With the rest of the hall in darkness Grosvenor’s very personal portrayal of the Gershwin classic ‘Love walked in’, as arranged by Percy Grainger, gave the impression that he was playing for his own amusement. A skilfully accomplished performance of Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude followed.

Kaufmann’s return to sing Lehár’s ‘You are My Heart’s Delight’ (to give it its more familiar title) was a triumph. The audience, now in boisterous party mood, was not keen to settle, despite the calming influence of ‘Morning’ from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. Played well, the programming of this solitary movement seemed out of place. Perhaps ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’, including the chorus part, would have been more suitable.

Fresh from Hyde Park, Danielle de Niese was playful and flirtatious in Delibes’s ‘Les filles de Cadix’; more demonstrative that Kaufmann, she did not suffer quite as much with ‘togetherness’ issues.

Music from the movies has proven popular in at the Proms, and to celebrate 50 years since The Sound of Music was released we were invited to a sing-along. The party in full swing, less attention than it deserved was given to Chris Hazell’s medley. The words were printed in the programme and included where the audience should sing and where not – some chose to sing everything. De Niese, taking the part of Maria, was having a ball.

The beginning of the end starts with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March and, at the Proms at least, A. C. Benson’s words, “Land of Hope and Glory”. Alsop turned to conduct the audience as one massive choir. Making a welcome return to the Last Night were the hornpipe (‘Jack’s the Lad’) and ‘Home Sweet Home’ from Henry Wood’s here-truncated Fantasia on British Sea Songs. The BBCSO starting without Alsop’s lead and her mock indignation garnered laughter. Sweet as the name suggests, the oboe melody accompanied by the gentle humming of the audience added a moment of calm before Kaufmann’s return for Rule, Britannia!, who after being thrown a thong in the first half, he returned the compliment by throwing a pair of Union Jack briefs, to the enthusiastic crowd before him.

Prior to Jerusalem, Alsop gave a salute to the artists involved in the 2015 Season. A record amount has been raised for musical charities this year, which she announced was then standing at £107,000. At the 2013 Last Night, Alsop said that she was proud to be the first woman to conduct the event – this time she was proud to be the second first woman. More seriously, Alsop was keen to point out that equality for gender and race was a global problem that needs to be solved. Many share her belief that music might help but could never solve these struggles on its own.

Rounding off, we heard a rousing chorus of Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem to words by William Blake in the orchestration by Elgar, then Britten’s hauntingly beautiful arrangement of the UK National Anthem – and Cedric Thorpe Davie’s arrangement for chorus and orchestra of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the appeal of the latter is that it used to be spontaneous. I don’t feel that it should be scripted and hope that next year it is once again left to the audience.

Prom 76: Marin Alsop conducts The Last Night of the Proms with Benjamin Grosvenor, Jonas Kaufmann and Danielle de Niese – Puccini Arias, I bought me a cat, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem, Rule Britannia!, Auld Lang Syne Read More »

Prom 75: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (2) – Simon Rattle conducts Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius with Toby Spence, Roderick Williams, Magdalena Kožená, and the BBC Proms Youth Choir

The Dream of Gerontius, Op.38

Gerontius – Toby Spence
Priest / Angel of the Agony – Roderick Williams
Angel – Magdalena Kožená

BBC Proms Youth Choir

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 11 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It was not until 1957 that The Dream of Gerontius reached the Proms unabridged, a development associated with the arrival as chief conductor in 1948 of Malcolm Sargent who was widely respected as a choral trainer. He directed six complete renditions between 1957 and 1966, always with Marjorie Thomas as the Angel. Simon Rattle seemed a less likely champion of the piece when he first recorded it in the 1980s, a project sometimes assumed to be motivated primarily by the oratorio’s Birmingham connections. Since that time he has conducted plenty of Wagner, proving himself most pertinently an outstanding interpreter of Parsifal, while the great European orchestras have begun playing Elgar more often. Daniel Barenboim having led the Berlin Philharmonic in The Dream of Gerontius, it was with the Vienna Philharmonic that his old rival here returned to music that clearly means much to him.

The results proved at least as ‘idiomatic’ as Semyon Bychkov’s perplexingly lumpy Brahms the previous night. The rich, dark tone of the Viennese strings cast an immediate spell in the Prelude and while Sir Simon’s recent tendency to micromanage textural substrata was much in evidence so too was his abundant experience with the ceremonial, the mystical and the practical. Observing every detail in the score did not preclude spontaneity; the portamento rarely seemed merely pasted on and the opening of Part Two was exquisite though some will have found its radiance manicured. Rattle’s climactic moments had an operatic as much as devotional intensity. Perhaps we can agree that the overall effect would have been even more potent without an intermission.

What had not changed was Rattle’s rather idiosyncratic choice of soloists. With the CBSO he had three veterans: Janet Baker, John Mitchinson and John Shirley-Quirk. This time his singers were not past their prime but may have sounded more plausible as broadcast. Toby Spence was a Gerontius more youthful and vocally grateful than his predecessor, involving certainly yet short on heft and sometimes strained. Roderick Williams was the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, his glorious baritone less taxed than might have been expected by the lowest notes and with his characteristically superb diction intact. Magdalena Kožená brings a unique intensity to everything she tackles but this was a performance with an edge of hysteria perhaps deliberately recalling Wagner’s mysterious Kundry rather than the Edwardian immovability of Clara Butt. Admirers of Janet Baker will have been the first to note that Kožená took the lower option on the climactic “Alleluia” before Gerontius’s judgment. For those for whom it matters she was a nervy vision in cream.

The BBC Proms Youth Choir, assembled each summer from choruses around the UK, was a less controversial asset, wonderfully clean and accurate and capable of a phenomenal dynamic range as drilled by chorus-director and perennial Rattle collaborator Simon Halsey. The special eloquence was palpable even in the over-spacious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

A full house listened with close attention save for a clutch of mobile-phone users and Rattle’s body-language successfully discouraged premature applause at the close. The anguish and strain of “Take me away” will always be problematic for unbelievers but the music, just as plainly, is masterly. These distinguished performers, who had given the work in Birmingham a few evenings previously, move on to close this year’s Lucerne Festival. What will the well-heeled Swiss make of it? Perhaps it will help that Cardinal Newman’s text – so precisely Catholic and so very English – will not be centre stage. And definitely no popcorn.

Prom 75: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (2) – Simon Rattle conducts Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius with Toby Spence, Roderick Williams, Magdalena Kožená, and the BBC Proms Youth Choir Read More »

Prom 74: Wireless Nights Prom With Jarvis Cocker

“In the last of this year’s Proms collaborations with six of the BBC national radio stations and BBC Music, popular Radio 4 show Wireless Nights descends into an underwater dream with Jarvis Cocker, on a voyage through the night, with songs by The Beatles, Tim Buckley and Echo and the Bunnymen, and music by Bach, Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Wagner.” [BBC Proms website]

Jarvis Cocker (presenter & vocalist) with Richard Hills (organ) & Manchester Chamber Choir (upper voices)
BBC Philharmonic
Maxime Tortelier

Reviewed by: Denise Prentice

Reviewed: 10 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The last in this Season’s late-night Proms collaborations was an ambitious undertaking. Jarvis Cocker’s Radio 4 programme Wireless Nights, featuring the nocturnal habits and musings of the British public, came to the live setting of the Royal Albert Hall.

Themed as a descent into an underwater dream and guided by Cocker’s droll narrative, this production presented a charming and whimsical proposition. The performance started while the audience filled the auditorium, the scene-setting being of an underwater ambience of subdued blue fluorescent lighting and creaking sound-effects resonating through the domed space.

The BBC Philharmonic segued gently into the calming mood, opening with the soft, dreamy strings of John Adams’s Shaker Loops as Cocker made his grand entrance on a bed rising from a pit. And so Cocker began his recitation, a “voyage to the bottom of the sea and to the bottom of ourselves”, analogous to the unconsciousness which we all tap into during the small hours.

This intriguing concept didn’t quite hit the mark. Cocker’s delivery felt a little flat at times, and his humour came across as too rigidly scripted. The main issue which detracted lay in the production’s structure. The weaving of narration, music and pre-recorded stories felt too cobbled together. In themselves each component was inherently sound but failed to blend together as a whole.

The stories were fascinating and the audience was held rapt with the underwater tales, embracing the ability of dreams to morph into nightmares. Sam the diver’s story featured her descending deeper and deeper in a single breath, seduced by the desire to explore greater depths at the risk of delving too deep to resurface. Roger’s tale recounted his near-death experience when trapped in a submersible with his colleague (also called Roger) and running out of air. The third contributor, Clyde spoke of his ongoing underwater expeditions in search of the elusive giant squid.

There were also several surprising musical interludes. The comforting familiarity of Ronald Binge’s Sailing By was an effective way to draw the audience into a somnolent mindset, while John Williams’s Theme for Jaws was dramatically rendered and amusingly deployed at the perilous point of a contributor’s story. Cocker’s spoken rendition of Aqua Marina also drew delighted chuckles.

The BBC Phil’s contribution (including The Flying Dutchman Overture, Debussy’s The Engulfed Cathedral orchestrated by Colin Matthews, and Echo and The Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain) had the strongest impact by far and Richard Hills’s organ solo of The Kraken Awakes was simply thrilling. All in all, despite lacking flexibility, Wireless Nights was an intimate and enjoyable fantasy of bedtime stories for grown-ups, replete with choral lullabies.

Prom 74: Wireless Nights Prom With Jarvis Cocker Read More »

Prom 73: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1) – Semyon Bychkov conducts Symphonies by Brahms and Franz Schmidt

Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Symphony No.2 in E flat

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This first of the Vienna Philharmonic’s Proms was of two Symphonies – the first a staple of the repertoire, the second being still unfamiliar outside of Austria. At the helm was Semyon Bychkov, his advocacy of these works as undoubted as it was unobtrusive.

Putting Brahms’s Third Symphony (1883) in the first half is rarely, if ever, a good move – not least as it reinforces any tendency to the provisional rather than the equivocal. While Bychkov’s take on the opening Allegro did not lack assertiveness or resolve, it was short of the element of con brio needed to carry the music through in a continual span; the exposition repeat having little cumulative intensification, and the development losing impetus before building a little tardily to the tonal fulcrum at the start of the reprise, though the coda’s ebbing away was well-judged. There was a reticence in the slow movement that, if it did not eschew a searching inwardness, made the more demonstrative passages feel a little inhibited. Its successor, the most poised of Brahms’s orchestral intermezzos, avoided this pitfall – its flowing wistfulness fairly catching the breath when the main theme returned after a limpid Trio. Neither energetic nor portentous, the Finale had the requisite vehemence even if the crucial modulation into the reprise went for little, while the coda was denied that airborne eloquence which is a hallmark of any great reading.

After the interval, a welcome hearing for Franz Schmidt’s Second Symphony (1913) – a work two years in the making and itself marking the composer’s transformation from a provincial Viennese figure (whose First Symphony had found critical acclaim and some local success) to a European composer destined to continue the symphonic lineage of Bruckner and Mahler into the mid-twentieth century. How he achieved that, and why it has not been more widely recognised, is central to the fascination of his music in general and to this piece in particular.

One of the most convincing aspects of the present performance was its subtle underlining of the variation procedure that determines the extent of this piece. Thus the seemingly orthodox sonata design of the first movement became only a first stage of continual variation, and one where the blithe theme heard at the outset found contrast with its more ambivalent successor on the way to an eventful and intensely wrought development; afterwards, a discreetly altered reprise prepared ideally for a coda whose sombre opening made its ebullient close the more striking. Bychkov was at his most perceptive here, then steered a secure course through the second movement – a set of 11 variations on a winsome theme which is itself a variation on that heard at the start. Notable was the sustained ardour of the ‘Hungarian’ seventh variation, then a dashing scherzo that, with its wistful trio, is a telling entrée into the Finale. In essence a chorale rondo, this builds from its austere origins to a surging climax where the resplendent chorale is revealed as the definitive version of the theme heard some 45 minutes previously.

With Bychkov securing an enthusiastic response from an expanded Vienna Philharmonic, this was a fine account of a piece the warmth of whose reception may just have brought its wider acceptance closer. Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ (from Enigma Variations) was the eloquent and affecting encore.

Prom 73: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1) – Semyon Bychkov conducts Symphonies by Brahms and Franz Schmidt Read More »

Prom 72: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton – Nielsen’s Springtime on Funen and, with Henning Kraggerud, the Violin Concerto, and Charles Ives’s Symphony No.4

Springtime on Funen, FS96/Op.42
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, FS61/Op.33
Four American Hymns – In the Sweet By and By (Webster); Ye Christian Heralds, go proclaim (Zeuner); Jesus, Lover of My Soul (Marsh); Nearer, My God, to Thee (Mason)*
Symphony No.4*

Malin Christensen (soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor) & Neal Davies (bass-baritone)

Henning Kraggerud (violin)

William Wolfram (piano)*

Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Tiffin Girls’ Choir
BBC Singers
Crouch End Festival Chorus*

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton
Fergus Macleod (second conductor)*

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Nielsen element at this year’s Proms concluded with two pieces still to make a wider impact outside Denmark. With the cantata Springtime on Funen (1921), the range (not size) of its forces has doubtless prevented more frequent hearings – the music being among the composer’s most appealing in its idealised evocation of childhood. Malin Christensen and Ben Johnson had the right ardency, with Neal Davies thoughtful in his portrayal of the blind fiddler, while the Tiffin Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs were not unduly cute in their insouciance.

Its eschewal of overt virtuosity, allied to an unorthodox two-movement format, has doubtless hindered the progress of the Violin Concerto (1911). Henning Kraggerud rendered the first movement’s ‘Praeludium’ with keen control over its initial impetus then the barcarolle-like easefulness into which this turns, while the Allegro lived up to its ‘chivalrous’ marking with an easy swagger in its first theme and restrained lilt to its songful successor. The lengthy cadenza lost a little momentum (intonation, as elsewhere, was not infallible), yet the lead-in to the reprise was incisively taken and the coda hardly wanting in panache. Come the second movement and Kraggerud brought real pathos to its ‘Intermezzo’, Andrew Litton drawing a sombre pensiveness from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then the rondo-like Allegretto had near-ideal balance between its scherzo-like demeanour and its more equivocal episodes; culminating in an angular cadenza from where the soloist effected a spirited transition, via a recall of earlier themes, to a coda in which the more equable aspect was teasingly accorded the upper hand.

Despite reservations, Kraggerud was an inventive exponent of a work whose time has now come. His encore – the Tenth Postlude from Equinox, his set of 24 such pieces (initially for violin and strings) covering the major and minor keys – was unexpected and enjoyable.

Enjoyable is not so obviously applicable to Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony (c.1916), its composer’s climactic statement which has yet enjoyed regular revival at these concerts over the past three decades. Litton assuredly had its measure – shaping the invocatory ‘Prelude’ with a real sense of its questing spirit, aided by a soulful response from the Crouch End Festival Chorus, then steering the ensuing ‘Comedy’ so its eventful and even anarchic-sounding progress yielded an audibly cumulative momentum towards the pulverising climax and sudden dispersal. The ‘Fugue’ that follows (originally the opening movement from Ives’s First String Quartet of 1896) was eloquently shaped, its clear-cut modality not excluding tonal dislocation, while the ‘Finale’ was only marginally less fine – Litton ensuring audible integration between those competing rhythmic strands (not least the percussive continuum) in a cosmic processional whose climax had the requisite transcendence; even if the closing pages, with their haunting vocalise, could have maintained greater expressive breadth as they proceeded into the nirvana of total silence.

Beforehand, Litton directed the CEFC and organist Richard Pearce in four American hymns which feature in the Ives – an instructive exercise. The concert had begun with The National Anthem (arr. Gordon Jacob) in tribute to Queen Elizabeth II having become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.

Prom 72: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton – Nielsen’s Springtime on Funen and, with Henning Kraggerud, the Violin Concerto, and Charles Ives’s Symphony No.4 Read More »

Prom 71 – St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov (2) – The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh & Enigma Variations – Julia Fischer plays Tchaikovsky

The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh – Symphonic Pictures [arr. Maximilian Steinberg; selections]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Julia Fischer (violin)

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 8 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Yuri Temirkanov must be one of the most unpredictable conductors on the international circuit and I am not referring to his unfortunate remarks about the plausibility of women conductors. Unlike the venerable ensembles of the West, his St Petersburg Philharmonic has always had a big contingent of female players and he has collaborated with Julia Fischer in as many as eight concertos. A much bigger problem is his tendency to coast on auto-pilot until halfway through a concert.

Directing without a baton and employing an idiosyncratic technique more akin to Boulez’s traffic cop than Gergiev’s shamanistic shimmer he can appear disengaged, not that a lack of rhythmic definition was ever going to leave these wonderful musicians wholly at sea. On a good night (which this was) their music-making remains a thing of wonder, less scorching than in Soviet days but distinctively Russian. The deep, rich sonority is significant: residually brawny brass, flat-toned woodwinds and emotive, grainy yet febrile strings, with the violin desks traditionally placed antiphonally.

Temirkanov only does three-quarters of the customary Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s visionary opera, a pity given that we hardly ever hear it in the UK. The team excelled in the ‘Paean to the Wilderness’, gloriously scored nature painting from the start of the opera phrased with real affection and feeling, albeit re-jigged to come at the end. In realising the post-Wagnerian murmur of birdsong, the St Petersburg woodwinds displayed unexpectedly refinement: a modest but exquisite opener.

Julia Fischer’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is well-known and highly regarded (she has been playing it since the age of 14) but one wondered whether her relatively small sound would penetrate the recesses of the venue. In fact that wonderfully focused tone and perfect intonation hit home even in the context of a reading more notable for wistful tenderness and half-lit sparkle than flamboyant machismo. The clapping after the first movement seemed motivated by something more potent than unfamiliarity with concert etiquette. Again Temirkanov and his orchestra were remarkable, genial, tactful and perspicacious accompanists throughout, at one with the soloist. Fischer gave a well-deserved encore, Paganini’s Caprice No.17 in E flat, rather than the usual Bach, plus the inevitable mobile phone.

The last few years have seen exponential growth in Elgar’s international reputation. Who could have imagined that his Second Symphony would be in the repertoire of a brace of Petrenkos? Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic recently gave Enigma Variations and Salut d’Amour at Denis Matsuev’s Annecy Classic Festival in the French Alps, currently on YouTube. The treatment of the opening theme, heavily freighted with affection and doubt, suggested that we might be in for something intriguingly dark and nuanced but in fact the rendition proved conventional in matters of tempo, raised to another level by the full-blooded quality of the playing. ‘Nimrod’ was especially beautiful and Temirkanov kept the finale on the move, its closing pages featuring a tummy-wobbling if texturally confusing contribution from the Royal Albert Hall organ.

The first encore was indeed a nostalgic Salut d’Amour, the second a broadly humorous if not noticeably neo-classical rendering of a shard from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (with solo trombone and double bass contributions). The first of these was preceded by a cacophony of falling glassware – not for the first time Temirkanov provoked laughter by vainly searching for the effect in his score. He was obviously surprised that a British audience might clap in the middle of Enigma Variations and turned round to eyeball those responsible but then it was perhaps unwise of him to separate the individual Variations to this extent. Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum and RAH management has a new ruse for filling enduring silences. Popcorn is now offered for sale in the bars so munching has joined slurping as right-on behaviour at the 21st-century Proms. A full house was impressively attentive even so.

Prom 71 – St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov (2) – The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh & Enigma Variations – Julia Fischer plays Tchaikovsky Read More »

PCM8: Benedetti Elschenbroich Grynyuk Trio – Brahms’s Opus 8 & Arlene Sierra’s Butterflies Remember a Mountain

Piano Trio No.1 in B, Op.8 [revised version]
Arlene Sierra
Butterflies Remember a Mountain

Benedetti Elschenbroich Grynyuk Trio: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello) & Alexei Grynyuk (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 7 September, 2015
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

With Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach still ringing majestically in my ears from Saturday night, I did wonder how I’d take to another cellist so soon, especially as the cello takes the lead in the opening movement of Brahms’s B-major Piano Trio. I needn’t have worried with Leonard Elschenbroich and his Matteo Goffriller ‘Leonard Rose’ instrument dating from 1693. His is a refined and sweet tone, ideally suited to Brahms’s expansive romanticism, where Allegro is never pushed too fast.

Elschenbroich was matched with partners of seven years standing, Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk. Curiously the programme announced that the Trio was making its Proms debut, but reference to the Proms Archive confirms a previous appearance Cadogan Hall, on 13 August 2012. Then the musicians played Brahms’s Opus 101 Piano Trio; this afternoon in 2015 they moved both two years later (to 1889, when Brahms made his wholesale revision of Opus 8) and, in essence, some thirty years earlier to 1853/4 when – just into his 20s – Brahms originally conceived the work.

We know what a febrile burst of energy Brahms was at that early age: bursting in on Robert and Clara Schumann and thereby announcing himself to the world. This youthful trio of musicians can match such ardent brio, but also has the maturity of Brahms’s second thoughts. They meld together into a cohesive whole, anchored by Grynyuk’s contained but expressive piano-playing (his facial expressions imply that he’s very much living the work), while Benedetti’s Stradivarius (from 1717) is a fine match for Elschenbroich’s cello.

And if this Piano Trio was not enough Brahms, at the end of the recital – for an encore – we were treated to the Andante from the Opus 101 Trio; an exquisite farewell not only to the concert, but also this year’s Proms Chamber Music lunchtime recitals. Before going live on Radio 3, presenter Petroc Trelawny had referenced Edward Blakeman’s 20 years planning these concerts, first at the V & A Lecture Hall and – for the last decade – at Cadogan. One of the most far-reaching new initiatives in the Proms, it has allowed a focus on chamber and instrumental repertoire that has still been relatively underexplored by the Proms.

Otherwise it was Arlene Sierra’s intriguingly entitled Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013) – taken from a scientific headline about migrating Monarch butterflies still diverting their route over Lake Superior because millennia ago their way was blocked by a mountain. Sierra said she liked the haiku-like brevity of the headline and proceeded to compose – at Elschenbroich’s request – a short three-movement work, where the movements follow the title exactly: Butterflies; Remember; A Mountain.

From the whispering and whirring of the opening, over Ravel-like piano splashes (Sierra acknowledged the influence of this composer) before the violin takes flight, to the more minimalist repetitions of the finale, via the more thoughtful and nostalgic second movement – low cello pitched against high violin – this is a most involving work. This Prom epitomised the scope of the Proms in upholding the musical traditions of the past alongside the presentation of the new.

PCM8: Benedetti Elschenbroich Grynyuk Trio – Brahms’s Opus 8 & Arlene Sierra’s Butterflies Remember a Mountain Read More »

Prom 70 – St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov (1) – Francesca da Rimini & Scheherazade – Nikolai Lugansky plays Rachmaninov

Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op.32
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Yuri Temirkanov

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 7 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The first of the St Petersburg Philharmonic’s two Proms was a sell-out, not surprisingly since it contained two of the most popular works in the repertory, the Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov’s evergreen Scheherazade. In the event, it was very much a curate’s egg with lacklustre performances of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and the Rachmaninov, in the latter with orchestra and soloist seemingly on auto-pilot, followed by what can only be described as a life-enhancing account of Scheherazade.

Francesca was billed in the programme as lasting 18 minutes and having a “slight” cut. Since it normally lasts several minutes longer, the shorter duration would have been an act of butchery. Fortunately “slight” – if at all – was nearer the mark since it took 23, not that it made much difference. This was a dispiriting affair, especially given memories of this orchestra in the same piece with Arvīd Jansons at the Proms back in the 1971 in a concert originally intended to have been conducted by Mravinsky. It opened with some fairly approximate brass chording, Temirkanov apparently at his most disengaged. To say this was low voltage would be an understatement. Things improved thereafter with Andrei Laukin’s poised clarinet solo and delicate string playing but the whole thing flickered into life only fitfully, its shattering ending hardly cataclysmic.

With Nikolai Lugansky as soloist and the St Petersburg Philharmonic as his partners one had hoped for great things in the Rachmaninov. Matters certainly improved – with such a string section they could scarcely fail to – but, taken at a slow tempo, the first movement in particular failed to ignite, its thunderous climax held back and laboured and that moment of magic with the horn solo in its backwash disrupted by the sound of a mobile phone. The Adagio benefited from some rich string-playing and a sensitive first flute, but its glittering central section was pedestrian and the epilogue, though carefully calculated, seemed artful rather than genuinely moving. Things perked up briefly in the Finale which set off purposefully but then relapsed into somnolence. To further mobiles, Lugansky offered an encore, the G-minor Etude-tableau from Rachmaninov’s Opus 33 collection.

After the interval, with Scheherazade, the orchestra finally came into its own, as did Temirkanov. After the stentorian opening brass summons, the orchestra’s leader, Lev Klychkov, and the two harpists immediately evoked that sense of a good ‘once upon a time’ yarn about to be spun, the strings surged and the characterful woodwind solos were a constant delight, Temirkanov intuitively sensing when to allow them to expand and when to rein them in (in fact he allowed a quite unusual degree of latitude).

In a World where woodwind and brass sections tend to be homogenised in sound, one of the particular pleasures of the St Petersburg Philharmonic, especially in this music, is precisely just how distinctive the timbre remains. The second movement, the ‘Tale of the Kalendar Prince’, was notable for distinguished bassoon contributions and some really unanimous playing in the jagged string interjections. The ‘Young Prince and the Young Princess’ is surely one of the great pieces for any string section; at this point those of St Petersburg (with antiphonal violins) truly came into their own. The concluding ‘Festival of Baghdad’ was everything it should be, whipped up to a viscerally exciting climax at the shipwreck and capped by some apocalyptic heroics from the timpanist before the vision receded into the slow fade-out of an epilogue which in its less pretentious way can be just as moving as that of Ein Heldenleben.

There were two encores, first the ‘Pas de deux’ from The Nutcracker, once again allowing us to hear those extraordinary strings in all their glory, and then to send us away with a smile on our faces the slinkiest of transcriptions of a famous Tango by Albéniz orchestrated by Rodion Shchedrin.

Prom 70 – St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov (1) – Francesca da Rimini & Scheherazade – Nikolai Lugansky plays Rachmaninov Read More »

Prom 69: BBC Concert Orchestra/Keith Lockhart with Alison Balsom – Danse macabre, premiere of Guy Barker’s The Lanterne of Light, Carmina Burana

Danse macabre, Op.40
Guy Barker
The Lanterne of Light [BBC commission: world premiere]
Carmina Burana

Charles Mutter (violin)

Alison Balsom (trumpet)

Olena Tokar (soprano), Thomas Walker (tenor) & Benjamin Appl (baritone)

Southend Boys’ Choir
Southend Girls’ Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus
London Philharmonic Choir

BBC Concert Orchestra
Keith Lockhart

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 6 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This eighth Free Prom, opening the gateway to classical music for anyone new to it, was programmatically a triumph even if it was comparatively ordinary when judged against others from this Season. The Lanterne of Light by Guy Barker was sandwiched between two standards, Danse macabre and Carmina Burana – both no doubt intended to sweeten the pill of the new work. Such sweetening was unnecessary.

With a diabolical theme running throughout the programme, Charles Mutter (leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra but here promoted to front-of-stage soloist for what is an obbligato role) served up a technically fine but functional violin solo during the Saint-Saëns. Normally played from the leader’s desk, Mutter standing in front of the orchestra was unwise, giving rise to timing issues and a feeling of disconnection.

If Danse macabre felt like a warm-up act to some better event, Guy Barker’s trumpet concerto was that better event. Barker is a jazz musician and trumpeter who for the past 15 years has spent more time composing and arranging than playing. Last year Barker conducted the Paloma Faith Prom; his piece is more firmly rooted in the classical idiom. In the programme book, Alison Balsom explained how Barker wanted an epic subject, along the lines of Paradise Lost, but the piece became much darker and more about Hell, despair and the Seven Deadly Sins.

The 27-minute Lanterne of Light is in five movements, the first three and the final two played without a break. The trumpet summons the angels at the start with, chief amongst them, the charismatic Lucifer. Violas, followed closely by violins and cellos, join the soloist before a plethora of tuned percussion is added. God, represented by a huge burst of sound from brass and percussion, appears three times in Messiaen-like harmony, the third signifying the Fall of Lucifer.

The second movement (‘Abyss’) portrays the desolation of the place where the souls of the dead went to wither and makes way for a more dissonant soundworld as exotic orchestration, including three alto flutes, provides atmospheric colour to accompany the cries of Lucifer’s trumpet. The third (‘Green-Eyed Monsters’) depicts Beelzebub leading a revolt against Lucifer in a diabolical tango that uses to good effect a variety of percussion and low brass – the increasingly virtuosic trumpet’s flirtatious melody expertly negotiated by Balsom.

She now attached a microphone to her instrument ready for ‘A Very Basic Instinct’ portraying Asmodeus, the Demon of Lust. Here Barker makes effective use of electronic echo effects and reverb combined with a Miles Davis-like ‘wah-wah’ trumpet to suggest the amorality of the demon. Contrabassoon, tuba and double basses introduce Stravinsky-like parallel triadic harmony in a 12-note canon that reminds the listener of the chaos brought about by unbridled gluttony. The finale is led by a side-drum’s dramatic pounding closely trailed by an angular trumpet melody as the soloist argues ceaselessly with the orchestra. In the end Lucifer reasserts his authority as Lord of the Underworld, Satan. The Lucifer theme from the first movement reappears though it is painted in darker hues as it now comes from the place where the Seven Deadly Demons reside.

Keith Lockhart’s clear and unambiguous direction helped this first performance enormously. Balsom, perhaps better known for her more commercial output, left us in no doubt that she is one of the UK’s leading trumpeters.

After the interval children’s and adult choruses were more than a match for Carl Orff’s orchestral forces. The words were always audible even if sheer numbers meant the choirs weren’t as agile as a smaller group might have been. Of the three solo vocal parts, the baritone has the lion’s share, with the tenor appearing in just one delicious and mouth-watering number concerning ‘Olim lacus colueram’, the swan being roasted. Introduced by the note-perfect Sarah Burnett on bassoon, Thomas Walker’s eye-watering command of this challengingly brief setting was remarkable; silent for some forty minutes without uttering word, the tenor then must sing a high A, from cold and in tune.

The soprano solo appears in ‘The Court of Love’ third part. BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, Olena Tokar’s bell-like clarity was awesomely beautiful, most notably in ‘Stetit puella’. And while the pitch of the boys’ and girls’ choirs sagged a bit in ‘Amor volat undique’, the interaction between these young singers (all performing without music), the soloists and the orchestra was commendable.

The weakest link here was Benjamin Appl – another Radio 3 NGA – who’s quite beautiful baritone voice, perfect for Lieder, was too light for much of Orff’s earthily debauched tavern ditties. The more reflective ‘Dies, nox et omnia’, with its airy falsetto and gentler style, suited him better.

Lockhart, in the main, left the BBCCO to its own devices, concentrating his attention upon the choirs. In the orchestra-only dance, ‘Uf dem Anger’ the trumpet wrong-note at the start together with strident trombones left it feeling scrappy; however, on the whole the BBC Concert Orchestra was largely a reliable, if under-appreciated participator.

In a concert designed to attract new audiences it is important to strike a balance between familiar and new music. It was encouraging to see the RAH over three-quarters full and, judging from a very unscientific poll of people sitting near me, many weren’t regular concertgoers. Each person that I spoke to enjoyed the Prom. This was a well-thought-out, well-presented programme with something for everyone.

Prom 69: BBC Concert Orchestra/Keith Lockhart with Alison Balsom – Danse macabre, premiere of Guy Barker’s The Lanterne of Light, Carmina Burana Read More »

Prom 68: Yo-Yo Ma plays Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete Cello Suites

“American cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been a regular Proms soloist for almost 40 years, and now tackles perhaps his boldest performance to date. He performs the complete Bach solo cello suites – over two hours of music – in a single concert: a feat as challenging intellectually as it is physically. Though neglected until the 20th century, the suites represent some of Bach’s greatest musical achievements – music at its purest and most profound. Ma’s relationship with them extends back over many decades and multiple recordings, generating expressive performances distinguished by their depth of emotion.” [BBC Proms website]

The Six Cello Suites:
No.1 in G, BWV1007
No.2 in D minor, BWV1008
No.3 in C, BWV1009
No.4 in E flat, BWV1010
No.5 in C minor, BWV1011
No.6 in D, BWV1012

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 September, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Like the complete cycle of Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos in one Prom earlier in the season, it seemed an eccentric or even dubious idea to present all six of Bach’s Cello Suites in one go. Packaged up and commodified for the completist’s wholesome consumption (if nearly indigestible) the notion might have seemed redolent of a product of Theodor Adorno’s ever more real “Culture Industry” rather than a thoughtful offering of artistic integrity borne of the desire to stimulate reflection upon living works of art.

Fortunately that was to reckon without the lifetime of experience which Yo-Yo Ma brought to bear upon these compositions, enabling him to execute them here with consistent and assured poise as a unified cycle (entirely from memory!). Ma defined a distinct emotional and spiritual world within each Suite, although they evidently also stemmed collectively from an essentially uniform stylistic approach, comprising a calm, collected manner in which the rhythm and characteristics of each dance-form were sublimated (though not effaced) into a more rarefied and serene vision.

Each Suite therefore became a variation on an unstated theme (that of dance and movement itself) and their contrasts were subtly, but unmistakably, emphasised as a result. An individual listener may have his or her own subjective expectations or preferences as to how any particular Suite should sound; under other circumstances I incline towards a more extrovert interpretation of No.3 and a more majestic one of the Fourth. But such views were irrelevant to the compelling sweep of Ma’s interpretation of this collection – from one movement to the next, and from one Suite to its successor – achieved by the steady (rather than strained) focus and cumulative intensity he sustained across the series.

That vision transfixed the capacity audience in the Royal Albert Hall for two and half hours without an interval – itself an extraordinary feat. It would take too long to describe the effect of each of the 36 movements and it does better justice to Ma’s performance to observe that each Suite was uttered as if in one breath, with sections often shaded into each other and following on almost immediately. To take one example, in the First Suite the gentle playfulness of the ‘Allemande’ was taken to a more sprightly level in the ensuing ‘Courante’ until its energy was exhausted and dispelled by the serene ‘Sarabande’, and the succeeding ‘Menuet’ then began wearily out of that, gradually gaining new strength.

It was interesting to compare Ma’s manner with the same dance-forms across the Suites. For instance, some cases of the concluding ‘Gigues’ were earthy and almost rough (in Suites1, 2 and 5) whilst the others were more refined and gallant. The ‘Courantes’ of Suites1 and 2 really did run along in comparatively jaunty fashion, but those of the other Suites were more graceful.

Perhaps the most salient feature of Ma’s art, without which the intelligence of his readings would scarcely have registered otherwise, was his consummate control of the musical line. Two examples stood out: although the widely-spaced arpeggio quavers of No.4’s ‘Prelude’ were quite detached, they were still encompassed within smooth, rather than jagged, overarching phrases; whilst in the mysteriously meandering monodic contour of No.5‘s ‘Sarabande’, this spectre of a fully worked out harmonic sequence took on an embodied aural sense with the pedal notes anchoring the implied harmonies.

No less impressive was the fact that Ma’s mellow tone projected itself warmly and directly into the vast acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, thereby bringing the audience immediately into his intimate rendition of all these Suites, where his playing was rarely loud. Hence he successfully cultivated a bleak, tragic mood for the Fifth Suite (a point made more tellingly still with the pregnant pauses during and after the final ‘Gigue’) and an often preternaturally reserved deportment in the Sixth despite its extrovert D-major key. Far from becoming precious and mannered, a note of unaffected joy was restored in the ‘Gigue’ to conclude the cycle. This was not a violent jolt back down to earth but seemed only to confirm the extraordinary sense of liberty which Bach appears to have achieved in these works with their apparently limited means of expression – as though attaining to Kant’s notion of a radical freedom lying in the noumenal dimension beyond the perceivable world of physical phenomena.

That point was reiterated in Ma’s encore, Pablo Casals’s arrangement of the traditional Catalan piece ‘The Song of the Birds’. The solo line of its cantilena (except for the avian trills at the beginning and end) was a like a religious chant, again directed beyond earthly and physical limitations.

Prom 68: Yo-Yo Ma plays Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete Cello Suites Read More »

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