Prom 75: Sakari Oramo conducts The Last Night of the Proms with Juan Diego Flórez

Tom Harrold
Raze [BBC commission: world premiere]*
The Banks of Green Willow
Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
La Cenerentola – Si, ritrovarla io giuro
L’elisir d’amore – Una furtiva lagrima
La belle Hélène – Au mont Ida
Britten, after Rossini
Matinées musicales
Jonathan Dove
Our revels now are ended [revised version; first performance]**
Michael Torke
Vaughan Williams
Serenade to Music***
La fille du régiment – Ah! Mes amis
arr. Anne Dudley
Fiesta Caribena! [first performance]
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
Rule, Britannia! [arr. Clifford Bartlett]
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

Juan Diego Flórez (tenor)

Duncan Rock (baritone)**

Francesca Chiejina, Eve Daniell, Lauren Fagan & Alison Rose (sopranos), Claire Barnett-Jones, Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Anna Harvey & Katie Stevenson (mezzo-sopranos), Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, Oliver Johnston, Joshua Owen Mills & James Way (tenors) and Bragi Jónsson, Benjamin Lewis, James Newby & Bradley Travis (baritones/basses)***

BBC Proms Youth Ensemble*

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 10 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble in Tom Harold’s Raze at the Last Night of the Proms 2016.Photograph: BBC/ChristodoulouWith “Remain” campaigners handing out EU flags and hoping to hijack the Last Night celebrations on one side, and 10,000 Union-flags freely distributed by “Brexiteers” on the other – for the street-traders, who usually sell flags for the event, this Last Night of the 122nd season of Proms was a disaster and more of a washout than for those attending an unusually wet Hyde Park Proms event across the road.

But inside the Royal Albert Hall, despite what had become known as “flag-gate”, it was a vista of decorations from many countries, including Peru, in honour of Juan Diego Flórez, though there remained a predominance of red, white and blue.

A project to bring young musicians from around the UK to perform at the Last Night got a deserved ‘thumbs up’ for the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble (augmented by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra) that dispatched Tom Harrold’s rhythmically challenging Raze with aplomb. Harold’s eminently approachable piece, “a collage of angular musical moments” – to clear the way, overthrow or knock down – was just what the five-minute piece did; a carnival-like overture that promised much from the start and delivered right up to the very last bar.

Tenor Juan Diego Flórez performs with the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo at the Last Night of the Proms 2016Photograph: BBC/ChristodoulouAfter a longer than usual pause to allow the demob of one group and the deployment of the BBCSO, the plaintive clarinet opening to World War One-killed George Butterworth’s swansong The Banks of Green Willow emanated from hushed depths. In a performance that covered all the bases in terms of the notes yet failed to set the emotions racing, the BBCSO took time to find its musical feet. Not so for Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, sometimes at such a breakneck speed that chorus and orchestra alike did well to hold on. Despite a few frayed edges (tambourine and trombones in the second section) this was an exhilarating account.

Humour is never far away at a Last Night and Britten’s Matinées musicales gave Sakari Oramo the opportunity to show his innate comic timing in a reading that was stylish and delicious in equal measure. The ‘Nocturne’, inspired by Rossini’s La pesca, received some spontaneous and justifiable applause for celesta soloist Elizabeth Burley. It was quickly followed by a waltz that oozed Viennese opulence.

Jonathan Dove’s Our revels now are ended – the first of two pieces this evening to commemorate Shakespeare 400, a feature of Proms 2016 – is a chorally idiomatic composition heard here in the composer’s new arrangement with many more voices and a larger orchestra than the original. It sets Prospero’s final words from The Tempest. A hushed baritone, here Duncan Rock, opens the piece, evoking “spirits melting into air” before the chorus repeats Prospero’s lines in Italian, French and German.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers at the Last Night of the Proms 2016Photograph: BBC/ChristodoulouThe other setting of Shakespeare comes from The Merchant of Venice. Vaughan Williams wrote Serenade to Music in 1938 to celebrate fifty years since Henry Wood’s first concert. Wood had the idea of a piece involving sixteen singers with whom he had a long-standing relationship. With today’s sixteen student soloists standing behind the orchestra the voices seemed remote; however Oramo, ever-attentive, never allowed the orchestra to dominate.

Adding to the sometimes surreal comedy that has infected Last Nights, Flórez sang the love-song ‘Piel Canelato’ (in Anne Dudley’s arrangement) holding a Prommer-donated Paddington Bear and took deadly revenge upon a balloon in Donizetti’s ‘Ah! Mes amis’ and then dressed as Manco Capac (founder of the Inca civilisation) to perform ‘Rule Britannia!’ – but that was all in the second half, when things are generally a little kooky. First-half performances were however sublime, the Offenbach in particular, showcasing this tenor’s flawless lyrical qualities.

The usual trio of Henry Wood’s Sea-Songs, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March (‘Land of Hope and Glory’) and Parry’s Jerusalem brought proceedings to a glorious end. In the Hall we had the addition of footage streamed from around the various Proms in the Parks.

£112,000 has been raised for musical charities this year, more than 300,000 people attended this Season, and there was much activity on Social Media. In his speech, Sakari Oramo pleaded that we should celebrate the way that music unites us. Was this aimed at campaigners for and against the UK leaving the EU? Perhaps; however it does draw a line in the sand to say that the Proms festival is much bigger that any provincial squabble. Proms 2017 starts on Friday July 14.

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Prom 74: Marin Alsop conducts Verdi’s Requiem

Messa da Requiem

Tamara Wilson (soprano), Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano), Dimitri Pittas (tenor) & Morris Robinson (bass)

BBC Proms Youth Choir

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 9 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

I see that Zurich Opera is putting on a dance version of Verdi’s Requiem later this year – imagine the opportunities offered by the ‘Dies irae’ – and at least I hope the show has a conductor as singer-friendly, as tuned into matters of ensemble, an organic approach to pace and rubato, and the all-important layering and intensifying of expression that animates and shapes this multi-section setting as Marin Alsop.

Alsop was conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – which was sporting a cimbasso and three bass drums – and the strings’ pale glow suited the opening’s hush and distance perfectly. Thereafter, though, the strings’ sound was contained rather than opening out, and too often the vibrato-light sound was too neutral, isolating rather than flattering Verdi’s woodwind writing – it was fine in the bassoon’s ultra-bleak solo in the ‘Quid sum miser’, less so in the exposed flutes in the ‘Domine Jesu’ – and while ensemble between orchestra and choir was for the most part reliable, the balance was very much to the BBC Proms Youth Choir’s advantage. The brass was superb, though, and the trumpets ranged round the Gallery played their significant part in an awesome ‘Tuba mirum’. But in the end you felt the OAE was being too supportive; you craved something fuller and more assertive, especially with a choir and vocal soloists so completely in tune with Verdi’s theatre of liturgy.

In spite of initial tightness from Dimitri Pittas (replacing Michael Fabiano), all four solo singers built on their calling-card entries in the ‘Kyrie eleison’, a sort of vocal beauty contest that can anticipate the character of the performance. Tamara Wilson and Alisa Kolosova were notably more sacred and reserved than the more secular, effusive and Italianate Pittas and Morris Robinson.

Wilson – who rose spectacularly to the challenges of Calixto Bieito’s staging of The Force of Destiny at ENO last November – is an accomplished Verdi singer, but her control of tone, volume and expression still grabs you with its candour and astonishing subtlety. Her seraphic soaring line in the ‘Lachrymosa’ was as beautifully crafted as her magnificent approach to the top C in the ‘Libera’ me, followed by the exhausted prayer that closes the Requiem. What a fine artist she is, serenely complemented by Kolosova’s refined singing. She managed the double-act of seeming to commune with herself while projecting even the most withdrawn pianissimo into the furthest reaches of the Royal Albert Hall. She was marvellously Sibyll-like in the ‘Liber scriptus’, inflected the ensembles with all manner of shadings, and was particularly effective in her ‘Agnus dei’ duet with Wilson.

Like an Alfredo who’s discovered God, Pittas melted fears of eternal damnation with a sweet, ardent ‘Ingemisco’ and, like Kolosova, was pitch-perfect in the ensembles. Robinson took the Requiem’s operatic provenance to much further extremes in his confrontational style, and his bass lacks nothing in penetration. Pitch was sometimes wayward in his middle voice, but he was a superb anchor. If basses bite, Robinson certainly did in a splendidly malign ‘Confutatis maledictis’, along with much eye-flashing and operatic arm signalling.

The 260-strong Youth Choir sang the opening from memory – similarly in the closing section – and it had the wonderful effect of focusing our attention. These young singers come from choruses all over the UK, and, as with the soloists, there was a real sense of attack and commitment; you couldn’t fault their togetherness and vocal athleticism in a thrilling ‘Sanctus’.

Prom 74: Marin Alsop conducts Verdi’s Requiem Read More »

Prom 73: Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr – Handel’s Coronation Anthems, Muffat, and Bach’s Air & Purcell’s Dido’s Lament arranged by Stokowski

Zadok the Priest
My heart is inditing
Armonico tributo – Sonata in G
Let thy hand be strengthened
Bach, arr. Leopold Stokowski
Orchestral Suite No.3 in D, BWV1068 – Air
Purcell, arr. Stokowski
Dido and Aeneas – When I am laid in earth [Dido’s Lament]
The king shall rejoice

Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Egarr

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

First, the curiosity. What does it mean for a ‘period’-performance ensemble to programme two Baroque pieces in arrangements by Leopold Stokowski designed precisely to exploit their latent musical possibilities through the medium of 20th-century musical resources? Was some subtle dialectical engagement with different performing traditions at play, or was it just some modish post-modern joke aimed at subverting or belittling a past frame of musical mind? Whatever the motivation, the result in the Bach and Purcell was not displeasing with the muffled, ghostly sound of the Academy of Ancient Music’s strings, but it was rather one-dimensional compared with the richer character that Stokowski had in mind, and despite the bizarre attempt by the AAM to ape the Romantic style with the use of vibrato and portamento.

The brisk accounts of Handel’s four Coronation Anthems during this late-night Prom suggested an attempt to ironise the regal ceremonial to which these compositions give voice so eloquently. The greater prominence of the throbbing oboes over the swift but subdued arpeggios of the violins at the opening of Zadok the Priest, the diminuendo before the sudden choral outburst, and the unduly emphasised upper note on the trill of “ever” in the melody for “May the King live for ever” all made the Anthem seem a caricature of itself rather than evoking the majestic.

On occasion the choral lies in the other Anthems developed a jauntiness which tended to make them sound a little craggy, but otherwise the polyphonic textures accrued a momentum of their own, to attain something of a dignified aspect, such as in the relatively broad “Alleluia” of ‘Let thy hand be strengthened’ and the last two sections of ‘The King shall rejoice’. The playing of the AAM provided spirited support if not always stirring, though happily the trumpets’ contribution was accurate and resplendent.

Richard Egarr directed a reading of more consistent composure in the G-major Sonata from Georg Muffat’s Armonico tributo (c.1682). It is a Concerto grosso in all but name, predating Corelli’s perfection of a form which integrates Italianate textures and musical style, though Muffat’s example adopts a French sensitivity too in availing itself of an ‘Allemande’. There was a nervous edge to the widely spaced and well-filled-in chordal interjections from Egarr on the harpsichord that punctuate the central ‘Fuga’, but otherwise the AAM exuded an attractively smooth timbre in engaging music which deserves further exploration. A curious programme, then, but it provoked thought and reflection.

Prom 73: Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr – Handel’s Coronation Anthems, Muffat, and Bach’s Air & Purcell’s Dido’s Lament arranged by Stokowski Read More »

Prom 72: Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann (2) – Max Reger’s Mozart Variations & Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel – Nikolaj Znaider plays Beethoven

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op.132
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In their second Proms appearance this season, Christian Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden demonstrated again a characteristic authority and assurance in their native repertoire, whether familiar or not.

Beethoven’s is one of the most established of Violin Concertos, but this was no routine interpretation from them or Nikolaj Znaider, even though he’d played it just a few months ago with the LSO. Rather than straining to grab attention for its own sake or express anything outlandish and provocative, they performed this ubiquitous work with freshness and clarity of texture, underlined by quiet confidence in the shaping of the phrases and balanced sonorities.

Znaider sounded better integrated with the orchestra than when I heard him with (once again) the LSO in this Concerto in December 2013. Not having to concentrate on directing as well this time freed him up to deliver a more focussed but relaxed account of the solo part. Indeed the graceful and playful manner he sustained for much of the first movement recalled Beethoven’s earlier two Romances, with the fireworks saved for Fritz Kreisler’s cadenzas (in the first movement and in the Finale).

From the opening Znaider and Thielemann forged a close engagement in their execution of this music which brought out its lyricism beautifully and which was raised a level higher in intensity with the beguiling manner of the slow movement. Equal honours for their sensitive contributions go to the clarinettist and bassoonist (presumably Wolfgang Grosse and Joachim Hands respectively). The Finale was characterised by purposeful levity, followed through consistently. Znaider adhered to well-trodden territory for his encore, offering a refined rendition of the Largo from J. S. Bach’s C-major Sonata (BWV1005).

The items in the concert’s second half demonstrated two different responses to the formidable German musical tradition in the late-Romantic era. This rare airing of Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart (1914) to commemorate the centenary of the composer’s death, revealed his thorough grounding in the harmonic and contrapuntal procedures of composition going back through Mozart and ultimately to Reger’s revered Bach. However, whereas Reger is often disregarded for the overwrought web of Romantically-inflected Bachian harmony in his work, Thielemann showed how vividly and fastidiously scored the piece is, certainly when contrasted with the turgid manner which the other such comparable composition, Brahms’s Haydn Variations, can take on in some hands.

A child-like innocence radiated from the orchestra in the Theme (taken from the first movement of the Piano Sonata in A, K331) and the first Variation. Thielemann paced the subsequent sequence with a fine accumulation of dynamism. Sadly the magical and lucid atmosphere of half-lights and shadows in the lush harmonies of the final two (somewhere between Debussian Impressionism and Straussian chromatic ripeness) were disrupted before the gossamer outline of the Fugue’s theme could continue by inane clapping from a considerable section of the audience, seemingly unable to count the number of Variations which had elapsed and to comprehend what a Fugue is and its function in this composition. Fortunately the orchestra was undeterred in its irrefutable course through the latter’s contrapuntal labyrinth.

Richard Strauss developed the heritage of German music not so much through a strict application of abstract technique and theory per se, but through a brilliantly theatrical and imaginative ability to depict characters and situations by way of brilliant orchestration founded upon impeccable harmonic logic.

Despite Thielemann’s symphonic sweep through Till Eulenspiegel, the virtuosic contributions of various instrumentalists dramatically realised the narrative, if not quite extracting the last ounce of wit from the score. Nevertheless this was a compelling end to the concert, capped by an energetic account of the Prelude to Act Three of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Prom 72: Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann (2) – Max Reger’s Mozart Variations & Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel – Nikolaj Znaider plays Beethoven Read More »

Prom 71: Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann (1) – Bruckner 3 – Daniil Trifonov plays Mozart K467

Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Symphony No.3 in D minor [1877/78 version, edited Nowak]

Daniil Trifonov (piano)

Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 7 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For the third successive evening the Proms programmed a Mozart Piano Concerto against a Bruckner Symphony. Apart from the Austrian heritage of the two composers the connection is not obvious, but it does give an opportunity for an orchestra to show its paces in two different styles of music.

From the outset, the venerable Staatskapelle Dresden showed that sensitivity is a strong element in its playing. Reduced to an appropriate chamber-size for the Mozart the introduction to K467 revealed much subtlety of phrasing and delicacy, and Daniil Trifonov expounded the themes with a similarly thoughtful expression. Clearly there had been thorough rehearsal and Christian Thielemann, a conductor of strong personality, complemented the pianist.

Trifonov favoured gentility in the lyrical moments and often hushed his tone considerably. The cadenzas were his own (Mozart’s are lost) and the lead into the first-movement’s was untidy. Rushing notes in the right-hand with the melodies being restated weightily in the left with a hesitant quiet moment in the middle was the pattern of this solo episode: artistic feeling of the 20th-century rather than the 18th.

It was pleasing to hear the lovely ideas of the Andante played so coolly although Trifonov responded to the orchestra’s intimate playing of the opening by repeating the theme at a slower tempo. Individuality was also evident in the Finale, taken very rapidly, but although a little decorative addition before the piano states the main tune would not be out of style, Trifonov’s wild rushing about went beyond the limits of a momentary improvisation. It cannot be denied that the hot pace added excitement but Trifonov’s cadenza then went even further.

Trifonov gave an encore: the ‘Gavotte’ from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, as transcribed by the composer, its slightly grotesque nature enhanced by Trifonov’s deliberately hesitant manner.

As so often, the matter of the version used for a Bruckner Symphony is pertinent. The Third was composed in 1873, but in 1877 he completed a revision, a genuine reconsideration without the unwarranted interference of others. There is a further score from 1889-90. In 1950 Fritz Oeser published an excellent edition which respected the original but incorporated 1877. Thielemann chose Leopold Nowak’s issue of the 1877 text, incorporating a coda to the Scherzo written by Bruckner in 1878 which the composer requested should not be printed. It’s an obvious and brassy summing up of the movement, not worthy: no wonder Bruckner rejected it.

Symphony 3’s tense opening leads to a trumpet theme which appears leitmotif-like throughout. Here and on its reappearances it was not the usual brazen solo but a main feature over a detailed accompaniment. Detail was a feature of Thielemann’s interpretation. The Symphony’s structure, though tauter in this version, is not Bruckner’s strongest. Thielemann was willing to risk cohesion and sculpted every melody with great care.

The sound of the orchestra, with trumpets and trombones ranked centrally at the back, was suitably sonorous but during the climaxes the strings were not overpowered. The crescendos towards these climactic moments were often rousing – particularly the one near the first movement’s close.

The Andante, to which Bruckner gave an intriguing direction for it to be both solemn and agitated, found Thielemann less inclined to linger; it pressed calmly on but the climaxes, though fewer, were no less monumental. The Scherzo was both dramatic and swift and it was good to hear the secondary theme on strings moving eagerly forward. Having been persuaded by Thielemann’s freedom of tempo elsewhere, I was disappointed that the Trio slackened in pace even though the rhythm remained sturdy. Bruckner sometimes asked for a slower Trio, but not here.

The Finale is somewhat fragmentary although 1877 considerably tightens it. Thielemann did not seek to alleviate the problem and was not afraid to interpret each episode with firm expressiveness. After the fanfare-like opening, Bruckner writes a quaint polka, and here, for the first time, the brass was allowed to overpower the strings – the dance itself became subsidiary. I wonder if Thielemann sees this as a weak moment and deliberately played-down the melody.

Overall this was devoted reading and Thielemann clearly feels the music deeply. At times there was a lack of continuity but somehow there remained a clear view. The moment which convinced me that a subjective approach can enhance this music was the lead-up to the ultimate coda – the tempo was held back enormously and rarely in the concert hall have I known such a moment of tension – it was thrilling.

Prom 71: Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann (1) – Bruckner 3 – Daniil Trifonov plays Mozart K467 Read More »

Prom 70: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (2) – Mozart’s Coronation Concerto and Bruckner 6

Piano Concerto No.26 in D, K537 (Coronation)
Symphony No.6 in A [edition used not stated]

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 6 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Despite the ceremonial which might be implied by the nickname ‘Coronation’ for Mozart’s penultimate piano concerto (attributed to the fact that the composer played it as part of the festivities for the enthronement of Emperor Leopold II rather than expressly written for that occasion). Daniel Barenboim embraced the simplicity of Mozart’s music in this fairly late composition (1788) anticipating the further paring down of his style in the works following the final three Symphonies from that year.

From the introduction of the first movement there was a consistent charm and contentment in this performance, brought out by Staatskapelle Berlin with quiet but effusive joy and in particular the fresh-sounding woodwinds. Barenboim made no attention-seeking gestures in the solo part, least of all in the Finale which retained the amiable and poised mood of the whole Concerto.

That honest approach might be compared with the performing practice of Maria João Pires or Clifford Curzon, amongst notable Mozarteans. Therefore it was interesting that Barenboim opted for a cadenza by Wanda Landowska in the first movement – not wildly different in style from what Mozart might have provided – which he executed with a delicate, insouciant spring in his attack on the keyboard as though playing a harpsichord. Taken as a whole, Barenboim demonstrated the truth of Schnabel’s often-cited comment about Mozart’s music being too difficult for adults: by daring to play the artful ease of such music undemonstratively but with confidence, the music told all the more profoundly in its straightforwardness.

Like K537, Bruckner’s Sixth is a particular work which, though in the form of a staple genre within its composer’s output, has been somewhat overlooked in favour of its counterparts. In the case of the Symphony that is odd given that it is the tersest and arguably most approachable of Bruckner’s set. It was also strange that, in this most seamlessly constructed of his Symphonies, Barenboim changed course in terms of tempo without apparent reason a number of times – in the first movement especially – as though trying to sculpt the clearly delineated edifices of sound which pertain to the other Symphonies but less so to this one.

He did not otherwise want to give the impression of a “cathedral in sound”, as this was a fairly understated account with the brass contributions by no means over-dramatised; indeed at the very opening these musicians sounded a little uncertain, and the two horns in the Scherzo’s Trio were conspicuously inaccurate.

Instead the strings took on a more prominent role, with some earthy playing of the lower parts in the first movement pounding out the driving rhythm which impels it (aided by the position of the eight double basses at the back of the orchestra); some rich timbres in the Adagio; a woodland rustle in the Scherzo recalling the equivalent sequence in the previous evening’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony; and some almost frivolous trills and decorations around the recapitulation of the Finale.

The somewhat less projected interpretation of this Symphony expressed itself – notably in the Adagio – with a sort of Elgarian nobilmente and reserve, rather than with surging passion, and the long descending scale at the climax of that movement was treated with little consequence; likewise the brass perorations over the glorious shifting harmonies come the coda of the first movement came across as something less than its Majestoso marking. But even so, Barenboim’s reading was such that it was still imbued with character and purpose – unmistakably that of an idiosyncratic if seasoned and sympathetic Bruckner interpreter.

Prom 70: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (2) – Mozart’s Coronation Concerto and Bruckner 6 Read More »

Prom 69: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (1) – Mozart K491 and Bruckner 4

Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1878 score, edited Leopold Nowak, with 1880 Finale]

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin kicked off the final week of this year’s Proms with the first of three pairings of Mozart and Bruckner (two by them, and the third by Staatskapelle Dresden).

Although this is a natural and satisfying ploy for concert programming, it particularly seemed like the continuation of unfinished business for these performers, having given three concerts of similar repertoire at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012.

Back then Barenboim placed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 alongside Bruckner’s Symphony 7 but its coupling with the Fourth on this occasion made better sense, both in terms of key, and its shadowy colours marrying up with the dream-like invocations of the medieval age suggested by the Symphony dubbed the ‘Romantic’. Barenboim’s account of the Concerto here expressed weariness with the sullen hues of the woodwind in the first movement, his wintry first appearance on the piano, and the detached manner of the orchestra here and in the next movement.

If weariness was the prevailing mood, then the main theme of the Larghetto intimated the nostalgia of age and experience, rather than the childlike innocence usually associated with the divine simplicity of Mozart’s later slow movements. Soloist and orchestra did warm up for the music’s contrasting episodes – particularly those in the major key of the first movement which were more robust and muscular, though still contained within the overall balance of this reading. It was Barenboim’s cadenza for the first movement that rather jolted with its heavy repetitions of the rocking semitonal figure from the main subject, before reviewing the movement’s other themes more soberly. The Finale broke the spell of an experience recollected in tranquillity as a livelier statement than the foregoing movements and, although Barenboim drew back for an intimate, mysterious episode a little before the end with a section accompanied only by solo strings as he did four years ago, the coda itself cut a dramatic and impetuous dash.

That presaged the mood for a purposeful reading of Bruckner’s Fourth in which Barenboim moulded the music’s paragraphs flexibly and fluently. They were long-breathed and relatively brisk, tending not to emphasise their monumental and majestic character, at least not until the Finale. Up to then there was something of the facility and ease with this music which Barenboim’s revered Wilhelm Furtwängler achieved in it.

The Finale unleashed a more imperious grandeur after the eddying strings of its opening, with the huge weight of the main theme given in unison. It was also telling that with the tremolando crotchets of the coda Barenboim brought in Sergiu Celibidache’s effect of a ticking clock, albeit at a rather more hasty tempo, though barely less coruscating.

Along the way Barenboim elicited a wealth of detail from Staatskapelle Berlin which one does not often hear in this or any other Bruckner symphony, particularly from the woodwinds. The Andante convincingly combined rhythmic alacrity (reminding us that this could be a pilgrims’ march) with a soulful and long-drawn melody, and later turning into an elegant Viennese dance. There was some playful interaction among the brass in the Scherzo after its initial accumulation of momentum, and in the graceful Trio section the chattering woodwind evoked the rustle of leaves and birdsong deep in the woods, anticipating the nature music of Mahler.

It is a mark of Barenboim’s stature as a musician that he realised such detail over a wide canvas which he held together cogently in an compelling interpretation of a colossal score which, even in one of its revisions, Bruckner does not quite resolve the incongruities thrown up by his symphonic vision.

Prom 69: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (1) – Mozart K491 and Bruckner 4 Read More »

Proms Chamber Music 8: Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies & Joseph Middleton

“Two cherished British singers round off 2016’s Proms Chamber Music series with a joint recital at Cadogan Hall, celebrating English song with an extended stopover in Germany for songs and duets by Felix Mendelssohn. Either side, Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton present Benjamin Britten’s touching ‘realisations’ of songs by the composer’s theatrical predecessor Henry Purcell, and works by the doyen of English song, Roger Quilter. Songs by Purcell (arr. Britten), Mendelssohn and Quilter, including settings of Shakespeare.” [BBC Proms website]

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor) & Joseph Middleton (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 5 September, 2016
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

And so the end draws nigh, this was the last of the 2016 Proms Chamber Music concerts at Cadogan Hall. Even the weather seemed to be mourning the last week of the Proms. Gone was the Italianate sun shining through for Louis Lortie’s Naples and Venice recital, replaced here by a constant drizzle and a grey opaqueness behind the Hall’s stained glass. And despite the sparkling voices on display – courtesy of Caroline Sampson and Iestyn Davies – this was a song programme with a thoughtful demeanour.

Two collections of English repertoire – starting with Britten’s imaginative response to Purcell and ending with a clutch of settings by Roger Quilter – framed a central section of settings by Mendelssohn who – as Petroc Trelawny wittily remarked – is probably the only composer who is best known for his songs without words than those with.

Compared with the Britten arrangements, Mendelssohn’s duets (the opening ‘Ich wollt’ meine Lieb’ ergosse sich’ – I want to declare my love to you – and the three Opus 77 duets), are cast more in unison, but these and the two solos (Davies singing ‘Scheidend’, and Sampson the magical forest-song, ‘Neue Liebe’) argued persuasively that Mendelssohn as a song composer should definitely have more of a presence.

More involving though, perhaps mainly because of being set in English, was the wit and variety of the Purcell realisations by Britten. From the soaring, ringing overlapping lines of ‘Sound the trumpet’ to the amorous “if you kiss me I won’t tell” lyrics of the youngsters from Aphra Benn’s Oroonoko (‘Celemene, pray tell me’) that topped and tailed the selection, Joseph Middleton supported the singers with a dexterity that matched the joy he had in his playing, a broad smile almost constantly visible. In the solo numbers both vocalists showed their mettle: clear diction and clean attack; in the duets their voices matched pleasingly.

There was a slight Shakespeare link running through the programme – although there was only one song that used Shakespeare’s words (Purcell/Britten’s ‘If music by the food of love’ uses text by Henry Heveningham, not the opening lines from Twelfth Night): Roger Quilter’s ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from As You Like It, which opened the final set. Two Quilter duets ended the recital, both with an amorous intent: Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy and – from Quilter’s only opera (a flop), Rosmé – the lovely ‘Love Calls Through the Summer Night’.

There was room for an encore – another Quilter setting of, as Davies remarked, “that prolific 16th-century author, Anon” – ‘Weep ye no more sad fountains’, its nostalgic mood perfectly matching the poignancy of the end of the Proms.

Proms Chamber Music 8: Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies & Joseph Middleton Read More »

Prom 68 – Rossini’s Semiramide – Albina Shagimuratova, Daniela Barcellona, Mirco Palazzi, Barry Banks – conducted by Mark Elder with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Opera Rara Chorus

Semiramide – Tragic melodrama in two Acts to a libretto by Gaetano Rossi based on Voltaire’s Sémiramis [sung in Italian; text and translation included in programme]

Semiramide – Albina Shagimuratova
Arsace – Daniela Barcellona
Assur – Mirco Palazzi
Idreno – Barry Banks
Oroe – Gianluca Buratto
Azema – Susana Gaspar
Mitrane – David Butt Philip
Nino’s Ghost – James Platt

Opera Rara Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 4 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Performances of Rossini’s Semiramide do not grow on trees although, perhaps owing to its Overture, the name of the opera is not unknown to classical music enthusiasts. Semiramide is generally given in concert form with singers able to dazzle in the fearsomely tricky roles. Most opera buffs will have first encountered the music via the Decca recording conducted by Richard Bonynge featuring Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne.

This Proms account, following a recording made for Opera Rara during the last week, demonstrated that Semiramide deserves more frequent outings – the more so since there are now many more singers able to do full justice to its demands.

It was a long evening, four hours including a short interval, even with cuts. This meant that the sub-plot involving Princess Azema and King Idreno was largely unrealised, apart from the latter’s showcase aria of the second Act. One hopes that these sections will be included in the recording! This rather put the focus on the difficult relationships between Semiramide, Arsace and Assur.

In a nutshell the plot concentrates on Queen Semiramide’s responsibility to name a successor to her dead husband, Nino, murdered by her ex-lover Assur who wishes now to usurp the throne. Semiramide has fallen for the young nobleman Arsace, later revealed to be her long-lost son. He, along with Idreno, is in love with Princess Azema. Such political machinations do not end happily, and – as usual – the soprano heroine meets an untimely end.

It is one of THE dramatic bel canto operas in terms of opportunities for characterised and showy singing. In the title role was Albina Shagimuratova demonstrating that for sheer technique she has few rivals in this repertoire. The voice is rich yet bright over a huge range, and she has all the coloratura dazzle needed for the role’s fireworks allied to an ability to draw the listener in for the more reflective passages. She blended beautifully in duet with the equally gifted Daniela Barcellona, whose impressive abilities shone in two big solo moments. Barcellona showed a strong middle and powerful mellow lower-chest registers. In duet she rightly matched but did not compete with Shagimuratova. The Act One ‘Alle più care immagini’ was an instance; and their more emotionally laden Act Two encounter the absolute highlight.

No less impressive was Mirco Palazzi as Assur. He has all the agility and assurance needed for this tricky role and with a rich yet incisive tone to match, and was very impressive in his Act Two scene with Shagimuratova. The character is a bit of a stock villain – but he made as much of it as is possible. There were equally stylish contributions from Gianluca Buratto as the priest Oroe and from James Platt as the Ghost of Nino (good amplification effects!).

The ever-reliable Barry Banks gave a notable rendition of what remained of the strenuous and demanding role of Idreno, culminating in a sterling account of ‘La speranza più soave’ and its fiendishly showy finish. As Azema, poor Susana Gaspar was not left with much material.

The gentlemen of the Opera Rara Chorus were a nicely forthright bunch; the ladies sounded rather tentative.

The warm tones of the OAE instruments sounded well in the Royal Albert Hall, which could be thought too cavernous an acoustic for a score that requires precision. In this regard Mark Elder’s tempos were cleverly chosen to allow Rossini’s dazzling colours and effects to make their impact. There was punchy brass and some stupendous playing from flutes and oboe. The dramatic percussion was spectacularly realised. Also impressive was the sheer size and gusto of the banda players.

Semiramide really deserves a full staging – it certainly has the musical material to merit such, and we clearly have the singers! Just wish this Prom could have started earlier as there was much distraction from audience-members leaving before the end in order to get home.

Prom 68 – Rossini’s Semiramide – Albina Shagimuratova, Daniela Barcellona, Mirco Palazzi, Barry Banks – conducted by Mark Elder with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Opera Rara Chorus Read More »

Prom 67: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel – Desenne’s Hipnosis mariposa, Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas brasileiras No.2, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and La valse

Paul Desenne
Hipnosis mariposa [UK premiere]
Bachianas brasileiras No.2
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2
La valse – poème chorégraphique

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 4 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of VenezuelaPhotograph:  © Nohely OliverosWho’ll forget that hot August night back in 2007 when the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra stormed into London? A history-defining debut of breathtaking brilliance, thirst for music, and show-stopping chemistry. No longer a youth outfit but with a healthy ‘new blood’ philosophy, fielding as large a force as ever (166 maximum strength, including 83 strings) albeit seemingly with fewer women in the ranks, it hasn’t been back to the Proms since Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony in 2011.

From Gustavo Dudamel one has come to expect exciting things. He has a great rapport and camaraderie with this super-charged orchestra that gives him a dream-palette of colours, sonorities and dança inflections. For ensemble, attack and rhythmic finesse, this mid-afternoon concert could scarcely be faulted. The discipline was phenomenal (the brass and percussion, precision all the way, couldn’t have thrilled more). The strings (especially second violins, to the right of Dudamel) were of a suave seductiveness to exceed the best European traditions.

Yet, somehow, something was missing. Dudamel, economic in body language, only fleetingly animated in La valse, appeared lacklustre, cheerful with his players yet going through the motions without much apparent appetite. What he offered us, with all the clarity, discipline and bright lights of a studio production, was a professional gig rather than any personally-committed crusade. Sometimes one can be just too perfect, too calculating. He did what he had to do but the voltage was never set to electrify or overwhelm.

Gustavo DudamelPhotograph:  © Nohely OliverosThe first half played to the SBSO’s Latin strengths, the second tested its virtuosity in seasoned French repertory. Commissioned by Dudamel in memory of the “bucolic” Venezuelan singer-songwriter Simón Díaz, Paul Desenne’s Hipnosis mariposa (2014) is described by its composer as an “orchestral reverie” and a “symphonic tableau”. Relatively gentle and expressively crafted, it’s based on one of Díaz’s popular songs, ‘El becerrito’. Its mosaic style of quotation, interjection and mutation is nothing new, but it works well, the short span neither understating nor outstaying the diatonic material. Ebulliently present at this performance, Desenne was a founding member of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra. He studied cello and composition at the Paris Conservatoire, and has developed an eclectic musical language embracing anything and everything from the Renaissance to Frank Zappa and the “urban Venezuelan avant-garde”, combining intellectual curiosity and rigour with a belief that the listening experience should be about fun, passion and dance.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) gets less progammed these days than he deserves. He had a mission – to put the sounds, rhythms and psyche of Brazil on the musical map. And an impregnable faith that Bach’s music came from the “astral infinite to infiltrate itself in the earth as folk music.” Premiered by Mitropoulos in Venice in 1934, Bachianas brasileiras No.2 is as intriguing and intoxicating as anything as Villa-Lobos wrote – a panoply of aphoristic impressions and moods, crossing the deep and the delightful. Maybe (taking a cue from Kenneth Schermerhorn’s persuasively muscular recording) Dudamel could have done more to generate vibrancy and vitality – one sensed a journey predominantly through occluding dusts, rainy sunsets and strange night-lands – but his full-voiced principals (cello, saxophone, trombone) and the corporate line and bite of the strings generally lent distinction to the proceedings. The second movement’s marcia benefitted from a particularly incisive piano obbligato from Vilma Sánchez, while the closing ‘Little Train of the Caipira’ creaked and chugged along with every determination but no pretension.

Of the two Ravel offerings, Daphnis and Chloe succeeded best – a plush, glowingly filmic realisation, expansive in its deep-sprung Panavision climaxes. The dynamic range was courageous, the murmuring ‘Sunrise’ taking concert quietness to an extreme. La valse found Dudamel glimpsing the edgier side of post-1918 Vienna. He seemed to want to convey as much a conception-to-consummation scenario as the “death and destruction” drama suggested in Roger Nichols’s programme-note. Sonically, the reading was on the hard side, occasionally a little ordinary (the dividing line between the miraculous and the mundane has always been a fine one), and the solos more self-effacing than characterful. Rewarding but unexpected, at Figures 36-39, was the Beethoven-Ninth Scherzo allusion, emphasised with a Bernstein-like accent (if not quite his voluptuous abandon).

The single encore – Pedro Elías Gutiérrez’s Alma Llanera, Venezuela’s unofficial second national anthem, from a zarzuela written in 1914 – was polite. Mirroring the tenor of the day’s music-making, it ought to have caught alight, complete with front of stage maracas, yet didn’t. Dudamel’s account at the Paris Philharmonie last year was of another class, his costumed extravaganza at the 2007 Proms in another league.

Prom 67: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel – Desenne’s Hipnosis mariposa, Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas brasileiras No.2, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and La valse Read More »

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