Prom 75: Andrew Davis conducts The Last Night, with Gerald Finley & Jess Gillam

Neues vom Tage – Overture
Lélio – VI: Fantaisie sur La Tempête de Shakespeare
Roxanna Panufnik
Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light [BBC commission: world premiere]
Songs of the Sea
The Blue Bird
Blest Pair of Sirens
Suite algérienne, Op.60 – IV: Marche militaire française
Scaramouche, Op.165c [composer’s version for saxophone and orchestra]
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Carousel – Soliloquy
World War One Songs: Roses of Picardy; It’s a long way to Tipperary; Keep right on to the end of the road; Keep the home fires burning [arr. Anne Dudley]
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
Rule, Britannia! [arr. Sargent]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D, Op.39/1
Parry, orch. Elgar
The National Anthem [arr. Britten]
Auld lang syne [arr. Paul Campbell]

Gerald Finley (baritone)

Jess Gillam (saxophone)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 8 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The 124th BBC Proms Last Night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, and BBC Singers in the Royal Albert Hall. Soloists Jess Gillam and Gerald Finley perform, in the presence of composer Roxanna PanufnikPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCAnyone counting on programme information from the BBC Proms website might have been surprised that Roxanna Panufnik’s Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light that was due to start the Last Night festivities sounded remarkably like Hindemith’s sparkling Overture to News of the Day. The switch was sensible as the BBCSO bristled along for a high-spirited start.

Panufnik said she was given a brief that the work should be for two independent choirs as well as orchestra with words to acknowledge the centenary of the end of the First World War but look optimistically to the future. As with much choral music that touches upon the subject, Panufnik sets Isaac Rosenberg, who died in April 1918. In the Underworld was written in 1914 and, although originally about unrequited love, Panufnik believes that it may be read as a “prophetic look at the next four years, with the sense that the women left at home cannot begin to comprehend the horrors their men face in the trenches.” The BBC Singers represented Rosenberg with from Ashkenazi Jews. Alongside the Rosenberg sits lines from The Prophet, written by Kahlil Gibran in 1923, softens the fears expressed by Rosenberg. This part, melismatic and approachable, was taken by the BBC Symphony Chorus.

The 124th BBC Proms Last Night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, and BBC Singers in the Royal Albert Hall. Soloists Jess Gillam and Gerald Finley perform, in the presence of composer Roxanna PanufnikPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCBerlioz’s ‘Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest’ (the final part of his six-movement Lélio, intended as a companion to Symphonie fantastique) was a well-judged bit of programming that utilises a chorus attractively. Then to Charles Villiers Stanford’s once-popular Songs of the Sea (1904); sensitively accompanied throughout by the BBCSO, Gerald Finley deftly took command even if the fast tempo of the final ‘The Old Superb’ meant that he and it parted company briefly at the start. Best of all was ‘Homeward Bound’ that oozed with longing for “the home of all our mortal dream”. The Blue Bird (a cappella) showcased the BBC Singers, and despite the solo soprano line being taken by three and making it far too loud, was given a sensitive and reflective rendition. To end the first half, Hubert Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens (1887, setting Milton) was invigorating.

The 124th BBC Proms Last Night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, and BBC Singers in the Royal Albert Hall. Soloists Jess Gillam and Gerald Finley perform, in the presence of composer Roxanna PanufnikPhotograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCA rather pedestrian account of Saint-Saëns’s ‘Marche militaire française’ made way for Darius Milhaud’s delightful arrangement of his two-piano Scaramouche. Jess Gillam (who undoubtedly stole the show) was ably partnered by Andrew Davis and the BBCSO, a breathtaking performance at the start, sumptuously toned in the middle and a fiery ‘Brazileira’ to end. Then Finley returned for a snippet from Carousel, a passion-filled rendition.

Lollipops followed with popular songs from the First World War – with audience participation and out-of-sync videos from the parks around the country (Belfast, Hyde Park, Glasgow and Colwyn Bay this year). The arrangements, by Anne Dudley, were interesting and stylistically worked well as a group (unlike the additional pieces that have hitherto been shoe-horned into Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs); music remembering World War One has continued unabated since 2014 and I look forward to some new focus of musical attention.

Then the usual suspects, music written when Britons really did rule the waves, and the pro-EU supporters were out in force to provide flags and berets, which only serves to exacerbate the divided country that the UK has become since June 2016.

By contrast, Andrew Davis in his speech chose to emphasise the inclusive nature of music – joining together nations and religions. Finally, the National Anthem in Benjamin Britten’s beautiful arrangement, and less welcome was the unnecessary orchestral version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’: as Sir Andrew said, the audiences make the Proms what it is; surely therefore they should be allowed to have the final voice as they have done for many years.

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Prom 74: Handel’s Theodora conducted by Jonathan Cohen, with Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies & Ann Hallenberg

Theodora, HWV68 – Oratorio in three parts to a libretto by Thomas Morell [sung in English]

Theodora – Louise Alder
Didymus – Iestyn Davies
Septimius – Benjamin Hulett
Irene – Ann Hallenberg
Valens – Tareq Nazmi

Arcangelo Chorus

Jonathan Cohen (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 7 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Handel’s penultimate oratorio, about the martyrdom of the saint, Theodora, for Christian beliefs in fourth-century Antioch, provided a serious and sobering offering ahead of the revelries of the Last Night of the Proms. If only for the sake of contrast, that is no bad thing, but despite the beautifully rarefied music given to Theodora, her friend Irene, and their fellow Christians as a group in the choruses, their rather po-faced sentiments and disposition throughout do not make them readily appealing figures in their ascetic abandonment of worldly concerns and comforts. Today’s audiences, whose Christian identity cannot be assumed as it was in Handel’s day, may well struggle to identify with the motivations of a character whose first rhetorical gesture is to bid “fond flatt’ring world, adieu! Thy gaily-smiling pow’r, empty treasures, fleeting pleasures, ne’er shall tempt or charm me more”, despite having tasted well of those delights herself as a descendant of royalty, unless she means to express some Proustian disillusion with those vain fancies.

Edward FitzGerald, the translator of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, and no stranger to the world of the senses, regarded Handel as a “good old Pagan at heart”, and in musical terms it is hard to resist the notion that the composer – ever a man of the theatre – did not mean for his audiences to entertain any sympathies towards the epicurean tendencies of the Romans with their punchy and vibrant numbers as they celebrate the Emperor Diocletian’s birthday.

For all the steady and crisp attention to the music of both sides by Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen, a vivid and dramatic dimension might have argued the case better for the oratorio’s theme of freedom of thought and conscience, whatever one’s own allegiances or commitments. Partly that was a matter of the ensemble’s small forces being unable to do justice fully to the variety of the score in such a large space as the Royal Albert Hall.

Choruses with horns or trumpets came off with vigour, and the precise choral singing made an emphatic effect, but the real emotional drama that is played out within Theodora’s mind and the Christians’ response to the Romans’ persecution passed for relatively little. The Christians’ faith in the triumphant power of their God could, for example, have been elicited with more zeal in the chorus which Handel thought one of his greatest, ‘He saw the lovely youth’. Admittedly, bliss of a mundane sort was attained, at least, by the audience’s refraining from clapping until the end of each part and allowing the music’s pace to unfold naturally.

Louise Alder was dignified and unwavering as the tragic heroine, caught up in the conflict between inward personal integrity and outward loyalty to the legal demands of Roman citizenship. As against that, Ann Hallenberg’s Irene also exuded a quiet but undoubted authority, if less arresting than that of Theodora’s, but neither attained a rapt intensity that might persuade us of the validity or wisdom of their cause at either a cerebral or emotional level.

Iestyn Davies’s Didymus was controlled, direct and thoughtful, though perhaps avoiding much ecstatic engagement with the character’s certain faith in both his religion and relationship with Theodora.

Benjamin Hulett account of the Roman officer, Septimius, was dependable as well as revealing the character’s sympathetic side in the seamless, sonorous expression of some of the most calmly confident music in the score, and it was a pity that two of his airs were omitted. Tareq Nazmi achieved both a nimble and solid account as Valens, the Roman president of Antioch, but he should have given more menace and fury in his threats to the Christians, particularly in ‘Racks, gibbets, sword and fire’.

In our age of extreme voices in public discourse, fake news, and the cynical propensity of social-media to give a platform to demagoguery and political opportunism, this is a work that can only rise in stature and resonance. Full productions by Peter Sellars, and Stephen Langridge more recently in Paris, have demonstrated the potential impact of a music-drama which explores the sincere and principled adherence of its central role to a particular set of beliefs as well as devotion to another human being (by way of Theodora’s chaste love for Didymus). But to do that successfully a performance – especially in simple concert format – needs to set out the conflict both boldly and with nuance. Certainly there was subtlety and the technical execution was virtually faultless, but the clearly drawn action and colour which are needed to turn that into a cogent drama, and to appeal to heart as well as mind, were frequently missing. Handelians know this to be one of the composer’s greatest works, but those less familiar with it may not have been convinced.

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Prom 73: Before the Ending of the Day – Tallis Scholars & Peter Phillips

“Before the fanfares and celebrations of the Last Night of the Proms comes a late-night moment of contemplation led by Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. Recreating the Christian office of Compline, the final service of the church day, they weave together a sung meditation spanning over 1,000 years of sacred music. The delicate tracery of Renaissance polyphony by Padilla and Gallus gives way to the 21st-century ‘Spiritual’ Minimalism of Arvo Pärt, and at the centre of it all sits Allegri’s exquisite Miserere.” [BBC Proms website]

Hildegard von Bingen
Ordo virtutum – In principio omnes
Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla
Deus in adiutorium
Jacobus Gallus
Pater noster
Gregorio Allegri
Thomas Tallis
Te lucis ante terminum
Arvo Pärt
Nunc dimittis
John Browne
O Maria salvatoris

Interspersed with Chants & Antiphons

Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 6 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Appositely – after Britten’s invocation to “Let us sleep now” in War Requiem heard in the evening’s first Prom – the final late-night concert this season was a seamless musical exploration of Compline – the Catholic final prayers “before the ending of the day”. With music ranging over 850 years – from Hildegard of Bingen, sung as the fourteen ladies and sixteen gentlemen of the Tallis Scholars processed through the middle of the Arena to the stage, to Arvo Pärt’s Nunc Dimittis (2001) – the seven main items were interspersed, as in a liturgical setting, with chant and antiphons provided by two groups each of four female voices situated behind Henry Wood’s bust in the organ loft, directed by countertenor Patrick Craig.

It was Craig who had led the processional through the Prommers, with Peter Phillips at the rear. With the two stations of singers in place, Phillips in the centre of a semicircle of singers, the sequence of pieces flowed like an aural balm. For Allegri’s Miserere a third station of singers was placed high in the Gallery, reaching the top-Cs that are a nineteenth-century anachronism.

The repertoire was also notable for its wide geographical range, from Mexico (Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla), Italy (Allegri), Germany (Hildegard of Bingen), Slovenia (Jacobus Gallus), Estonia (Pärt) and – from England – Thomas Tallis and John Browne, the latter opening the Eton Choir Book.

The highlights were the perhaps to be expected – the Allegri properly soared, while the Pärt was notable for its sudden climax in the major for the word “lumen”. Browne’s Marian prayer to end was the most musically intertwined, with the full complement of the Tallis Scholars.

But, forgive me. Two factors compromised this being more than the sum of its constituent parts. Understandably the lights were low, but it meant that it was almost impossible to read the texts and translations, robbing the works of their meaning. Secondly, there was little contrast – especially in the chants, with passage and answer swapped back and forth. I was soothed but, for much, left found wanting. On the plus side, the concert finished slightly early, relieving worries of the journey home and, I’m glad to report, I slept very well, so – perhaps – job done.

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Prom 72: Peter Oundjian conducts Britten’s War Requiem

War Requiem, Op.66

Erin Wall (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor) & Russell Braun (baritone)

Huddersfield Choral Society
RSNO Chorus & Junior Chorus

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Peter Oundjian

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 6 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The centenary of the end of the First World War has been a constant presence in this year’s Proms, with three major Requiem settings and much other specifically war-related music besides. Britten’s War Requiem, last mounted at the Proms in 2014 to mark the start of the First World War, is the biggest of these choral juggernauts, and this performance also marked the centenary of the death of Wilfred Owen, killed aged twenty-five two months before the Armistice, whose poems Britten uses so magnificently to both leaven and illuminate the imagery of the liturgical Requiem text. Although the Owen settings often seem to stand apart, it is impossible to separate them from their context, and this playing out of a drama-within-a-drama is one of Britten’s finest achievements. Moreover, however time- and date-specific this 1962 work seemed in terms of cultural and political baggage, it never sounds dated, parochial or nostalgic; and, despite its size, the finesse of Britten’s ambition constantly takes you unawares.

This was Peter Oundjian’s final concert as the RSNO’s music director – he is succeeded by Thomas Sondergård – and his forces filled the Albert Hall stage, with the large (fifty predominantly girls’ voices) RSNO Junior Chorus and their uncredited organist adding a fine angelic perspective high up in the Gallery. In general, Oundjian’s approach was detached and restrained rather than overtly theatrical, and his tempos kept in touch with Britten’s specifications, bringing the work in at roughly eighty-five minutes (making allowances for some long pauses between movements). The brass fanfares that open the ‘Dies irae’ sequence movingly evoked the perfunctory bustle of the war machine getting into gear, and throughout brass and wind sections were on trenchant and characterful form.

The 250-strong chorus matched Oundjian’s objectivity in some focused, disembodied quiet singing, but given the numbers, were oddly underpowered in the ‘Tuba mirum’, when the music explodes, but singers and players rose to the occasion for the stupendous G-minor black-hole of the ‘Libera me’, out of which emerged a particularly shell-shocked ‘Strange meeting’. Wisely Oundjian did little more than keep an eye on the chamber ensemble of twelve, letting Allan Clayton and Russell Braun as the English and German soldiers set their own pace, and this element of the War Requiem, a lone figure bearing the full impact of conflagration, came across very strongly.

Clayton’s voice had plenty of Peter Pears-like lyrical ache and sweetness, although I’ve heard the bitterness of ‘What passing bells’ or ‘Out there’ expressed more savagely, but there was no doubting his identification with the role. Braun had the same sort of direct connection, and the odd misplaced note apart, he was magnificent in the terrifying vision of ‘Be slowly lifted up’. Both singers clinched the work’s destination in the superbly hushed and haunted arioso of ‘Strange meeting’, but all the settings were beautifully sung, matched by the chamber group’s excellence. Erin Wall was a vocal reincarnation of Galina Vishnevskaya as she took charge of the gleaming swoops and leaps in the ‘Sanctus’, and if it’s possible to be ferocious and tender, Wall was both in an arresting ‘Lachrymosa’, like a guardian angel to Clayton’s ‘Move him into the sun’. Oundjian guided the combined (for the first time) choirs, soloists and orchestra in a suitably ecstatic ‘In paradisum’, which momentarily carried a hint of Vaughan Williams-style transcendence. Britten was rather dismissive of VW; perhaps I imagined it.

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Prom 71: John Eliot Gardiner conducts Berlioz with Joyce DiDonato and Antoine Tamestit

Overture, Le Corsaire, Op.21
La mort de Cléopâtre
Les Troyens – Royal Hunt and Storm; Dido’s death scene
Harold in Italy – Symphony in four parts with solo viola, Op.16

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)

Antoine Tamestit (viola)

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 5 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A teacher of long ago wrote off Berlioz as a “frightful vulgarian who confused gesture and content”. I think she would have both gone into orbit and, I hope, reconsidered her stance with this Berlioz Prom from John Eliot Gardiner and his nineteenth-century ‘period’ Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in two big scenes for two tragic queens, two vivid blockbusters and a Symphony with a viola-player on walk-about.

I suspect many listeners have come to this emphatically expressive and original music via Colin Davis, who perfected a style based on a string sound of tremulous, addictive longing. The ORR strings don’t have that swoon and bloom, but their energy and bite alongside some astonishing ‘natural’ wind- and brass-playing, replete with four sonorous saxhorns and two rasping ophicleides, harnessed the composer’s free spirit with characteristically ‘authentic’ attack and volatility.

The Corsaire opened at a tempo that left scorch marks, and all the players who could stood to get deeper into the music’s swashbuckling groove – it’s quite a sight, the wind and brass contingent swaying to the rhythm like big-band jazz players. The slower sections provided some thumbnail sketches of various soloists, but boiling seas and tumbling skies dominated: more Errol Flynn than La mer.

The ORR sat for The Death of Cleopatra, Berlioz’s third failed attempt at winning the coveted Prix de Rome – hardly surprising for an uncompromising, high-voltage monodrama masquerading as a classical cantata. Both in this and Dido’s equally extravagant death scene from The Trojans, Joyce DiDonato brought to life the tragic ends of two queens of antiquity with her inimitable brand of generosity, insight and theatricality. Her singing encompasses the idiomatic drama and conversational directness of the recitative passages and she has at her command a huge range of shade, nuance and weight, unfussily deployed and always hitting the emotional bull’s-eye. Her exquisite portamento-dips into her lower voice are charged with eroticism, Gardiner’s direction of Cleopatra, bitten by the snake, fading out of life was very affecting, and pleasure would be complete if DiDonato’s voice was just a bit more luxurious. In between came the ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ interlude from The Trojans, with some powerful Nature music, birdsong, and hunting calls from an impressive quartet of saxhorns moving around the stage, not forgetting an unseen wordless chorus.

Such moves set up Sir John Eliot’s more-developed tableau for Harold in Italy, commissioned by Paganini to show off his new Stradivarius viola but which he never played because it wasn’t a display Concerto. It’s a Symphony, of sorts, with an unmissable idée fixe and an obbligato viola part, which has little to do in the Finale.

Based on Childe Harold, it’s one of those totems of romanticism, and became a sort of extended musical selfie for the Byron-besotted Berlioz. In Gardiner’s staging, Antoine Tamestit wandered lonely as a cloud through the Italian mountains on to the Albert Hall stage during the opening, the epitome of the beautiful dreamer, lingering awhile with Gwyneth Wentink and her harp, then dallying with Anneke Scott’s horn and the second movement’s pilgrims, whom he watches, shading his eyes with his hand, as they disappear out of Berlioz’s landscape, and there was more of the same manœuvring in the ‘Serenade’.

The idea nailed Harold’s/Byron’s/Berlioz’s epic self-absorption with touching naivety, and only held its ground because it was generally so characterful and thrilling. Tamestit’s marvellously judged role turned effortlessly from melancholic introspection to a modicum of outgoing engagement, and his sound is very beautiful and innig, entirely in the spirit of the piece. Tamestit was of course silent for most of the ‘Brigands’ Orgy’ (the ORR standing again), but he crept to the back of the platform to make up a distant string quartet to deliver Berlioz’s vision back to the blue yonder. I wonder if the roving viola registers on the radio; it was not being filmed.

DiDonato returned, with Tamestit, for an encore, Marguerite’s ‘Le Roi de Thule’ from The Damnation of Faust.

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Prom 70: Tango

“A celebration of the heady, sexually charged Latin American tango, from its origins in the bars of 1880s Buenos Aires, through to Ástor Piazzolla’s Nuevo Tango that emerged in the 1950s. The story also embraces the Finnish tango tradition of the early 20th century – steeped in the themes of love, sorrow and nature – and comes bang up to date with some of the latest tango music. Showcasing Grammy Award-winning pianist Pablo Ziegler along with leading singers, dancers and instrumentalists from Europe, the USA and Argentina, the raw and earthy vitality of the tango is explored, from the sultry intimacy of the bandoneon to the big-band orchestral forces of the Britten Sinfonia.” [BBC Proms website]

Helena Juntunen (soprano) & Nahuel di Pierro (bass)

Pablo Ziegler (piano), Matías González, Lysandre Donoso & Hector Del Curto (bandoneóns),Claudio Ragazzi (guitar), Pedro Giraudo (double bass), Franco Pinna (drums)

Seppo Kantonen (piano), Veli Kujala (accordion), Lauri Porra (bass guitar) & Anssi Nykänen (drums & percussion)

Vincent Simone & Flavia Cacace (dancers)

Britten Sinfonia
Clark Rundell

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Jones

Reviewed: 4 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was the Proms first foray into Tango and was launched by Katie Derham rocking a voluminous androgynous black-and-white Pierrot satin trouser suit – the antithesis of Tango attire. An ominous start! She informed us, second-guessing (or trying to influence) our own opinions, that this would be a “real feast”.

First up was ‘Sur’, all swooning strings and staccato beats performed by the silver fox Nahuel di Pierro whose lustrous bass comfortably (if amplified) filled the cavern. Then ‘Mano a Mano’, a sonorous glide of lavish solemnity, and ‘El Motivo’ starred the ballroom dancers Vincent and Flavia, the latter glittering in crimson-red sequins as she draped herself about the stage as Nahuel crooned in a bordello Dean Martin style.

And then the composer we had all waited for, Piazzolla, ‘La Mufa’ arranged in a John Adams-Sergio Leone manner, with trademark beat and a cinematic quality!

After the master Piazzolla came ‘Valse triste Tango’ (owing to Sibelius) with a huge brass section, electric guitar, a bombastic Tijuana sound and a soprano outburst from Helena Juntunen, Finland’s Dusty Springfield/Eva Peron, who segued into a slew of Finnish songs. She delivered a punchier, more carnal, Tango feel. Odd! The standout was ‘Satumaa’ because of the accordionist Veli Kujala’s jaw-dropping contribution. Discordant Finnish Tango continued – slow, slow, quick, slow – Helena spun jazz Cleo Laine-style followed by fierce Ginger Baker drumming from Anssi Nykanen.

Vincent and Flavia wrapped in iron-grey sequins strutted back centre-stage for David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ tangoed up, and the platform was under the glare of very bright lighting. Piazzolla must have been spinning in his grave!

At last, Piazzolla’s ‘Libertango’ swept before us, as did the dancers again, Flavia now in a royal-blue skirt and sequined top, Tango immaculately performed and followed by Piazzolla’s pianist Pablo Ziegler’s arrangements if ending with a rather anaemic version of ‘La Cumparsita’.

Tango is sexy and muscular but its pulsing heartbeat and nostalgie de la boue was smoothed-out here in these flat-lining arrangements set in too grand a venue.

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Prom 69: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons II – Shostakovich 4 – Baiba Skride plays Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade

Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’
Symphony No.4 in C-minor, Op.43

Baiba Skride (violin)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 3 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Long marketed as “The Aristocrat of Orchestras”, today’s Boston Symphony Orchestra is a magnificent ensemble, buffed to perfection in short order by a super-competent maestro. And yet, after the Berliners’ individualistic display under Kirill Petrenko, this was something of a ‘business as usual’ Prom. However high the technical standards, everyone had something to sell. The soloist was in the throes of releasing a recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade in the context of a two-disc Orfeo set of so-called American Concertos, taking in the West Side Story Symphonic Dances alongside slightly more plausible suspects by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Miklós Rózsa. Meanwhile conductor and orchestra have issued a yellow-label Shostakovich Fourth, capriciously tied to the Eleventh in physical format. No doubt it made sense to someone in promotion.

Back at the Royal Albert Hall, the absence of an overture meant that the opening, unaccompanied measures of the Serenade were always likely to be obscured by bronchial explosions and cascading plastic tumblers. So it proved. The work itself is a carefully wrought concert piece which, without the benefit of this year’s Bernstein centenary, has been quietly establishing itself as one of the major post-War concertos. While everyone under a certain age plays it now, few do so with the rapt commitment and composure of Baiba Skride. Like most, she was occasionally taxed by the awkwardness of the writing but followed Anne-Sophie Mutter and dedicatee Isaac Stern in taking the key ‘Agathon’ movement at a tempo slow enough to plumb its lyrical, post-Prokofiev depths. Her sound is not huge and Nelsons had scaled down the strings and percussion accompaniment to suit. Such sensitivity had its downsides however. The Finale lacked swing even if, on the evidence of Skride’s recording, she prefers it that way. And in truth the subdued dynamics were not right for the big barn. The near-capacity crowd took an age to settle.

With serried ranks of participants including a string section about one third larger, Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony looked a better fit. So why was I was never convinced that the BSO had found the right sound for this music? In what can seem Shostakovich’s most terrifying (and terrified) work, Soviet-era interpreters and their orchestras managed to posit ‘individualistic’ alternatives: the extreme Dadaist spaciousness of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky on the one hand and Kirill Kondrashin’s angry, hell-for-leather neurosis on the other.

Andris Nelsons was closer to Kondrashin in matters of tempo, especially in the first movement, yet left us with a brilliant, rather cinematic concerto for orchestra as distinct from a personal manifesto. It would be churlish to deny that there were substantial rewards. Even so, an air of contrivance hung over the pacing of the final collapse. Holding the silence for as long as Nelsons did at its end, the conductor hunched over at an uncomfortable-looking angle, the doubts returned. Was the extended stasis a response to the content of the music itself, a bid to pre-empt premature applause or merely a self-aggrandising stunt? The delayed roar from the Promenaders may or may not have justified the gesture but I missed the honesty of a self-deprecating shrug in the manner of André Previn, let alone the overwhelming darkness and intensity of Valery Gergiev’s 2002 performance. It’s a familiar problem with what were once forbidding or forbidden utterances. The Fourth was not heard at all at the Royal Albert Hall between 1963 and 1977. These days it’s been commodified into something sleek and well-scrubbed.

Prom 69: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons II – Shostakovich 4 – Baiba Skride plays Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade Read More »

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 8/Proms Chamber Music – Soloists of the Berliner Philharmoniker with Alasdair Beatson

Lili Boulanger
Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp
Nina Šenk
Baca [BBC commission: world premiere]
Lili Boulanger
Trois morceaux
Introduction and Allegro

Soloists of the Berliner Philharmoniker [Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Wenzel Fuchs (clarinet), Maja Avramovič & Daishin Kashimoto (violins), Amihai Grosz (viola), Bruno Delepelaire (cello) & Marie-Pierre Langlamet (harp)] with Alasdair Beatson (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 September, 2018
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

This last of the weekly Proms Chamber Music recitals also featured its final new commission in the guise of Baca (2018) by the Slovenian composer Nina Šenk. The title – Latin for ‘bead’ – referring to the process of making glass, by extension to the concept of breaking the glass ceiling, this eight-minute piece demonstrated a sure sense of how to extract full variety from its diverse septet; the music building from fragmented beginnings to a sonorous climax, before a rapid dispersal then an even more hectic regrouping toward its conclusion. If not evincing an overly distinctive personality, it nonetheless emerged as one of the stronger new works from this series, not least when the Berlin Philharmonic soloists evidently relished its coursing and tensile virtuosity.

It was an astute move to juxtapose this piece with two works by Lili Boulanger, the centenary of whose death (when just twenty-four) fell earlier this year. Although neither does more than hint at her formidable potential as a composer, the Nocturne (1911) yields a ruminative eloquence not unlike that found in late Fauré, while the Trois morceaux (1914) are no less fruitfully indebted to the music of her mentors. Maja Avramovič and Alasdair Beatson rendered the former with absolute finesse, then Beatson was no less attentive to the modest charms of those latter pieces; whether in the poise ‘Of an Old Garden’, lithe elegance ‘Of a Bright Garden’, or the insouciance of ‘Cortège’ – the latter piece already familiar as an encore, which status is deserving of this set as a whole.

Musically, it was the other two items within this recital that offered the greatest rewards. The second of his late (and sadly unfinished) sequence of chamber works, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915) can prove a difficult piece to programme, yet it fitted effortlessly into the present selection – the ethereal strains of its opening ‘Pastorale’ complemented by the taciturn charms of its central ‘Interlude’, before the ‘Finale’ injects a degree of agitation into an ultimately resolute discourse. Problems of balance and intonation abound in this music, but these were scarcely an issue given the excellence of the playing – as Emmanuel Pahud, Amihai Grosz and Marie-Pierre Langlamet brought out its myriad subtleties in gratifyingly full measure.

The programme closed by reassembling the seven soloists, from an orchestra on impressive form across its weekend brace of Proms, for Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro (1905). Whatever the vicissitudes which surrounded its creation, the piece long ago became a mainstay of the repertoire for mixed ensemble (what, during earlier times, might have been referred to as a ‘broken consort’), and the present performance had the measure of its alternately wistful and (surprisingly?) combative discourse. A further reminder of how Ravel was often as his most creative when confronted by an assignment with few, if any, precedents; and of the degree to which these lunchtime recitals are an essential adjunct to the main series of Promenade concerts.

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 8/Proms Chamber Music – Soloists of the Berliner Philharmoniker with Alasdair Beatson Read More »

Prom 68: Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko II – Richard Strauss & Beethoven

Don Juan, Op.20
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Berliner Philharmoniker
Kirill Petrenko

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 2 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There is a story – it may just be an urban myth – that the BBC once turned down a proffered Proms visitation by the Bavarian State Orchestra and Kirill Petrenko, possibly on the grounds that his unrelated Wirral-based namesake had cornered the domestic market in Petrenkos. Kirill and his Bavarians did finally appear at the Barbican Hall this June for a breathtaking, controversially quick-fire Mahler Seventh. Be that as it may, the conductor’s 2018 Proms dates with the Berlin Philharmonic were yet more eagerly awaited. He does not formally take over as chief conductor until next season but the relationship is blossoming already, a liaison all the more remarkable for being so plainly grounded in musical values rather than obvious marketing potential.

Having eased themselves in with twentieth-century fare, this second concert, replicating one already given in Berlin, Lucerne and Salzburg, inevitably attracted comparisons with the orchestra’s glory days as conventionally defined. While Petrenko seats his violins antiphonally, conducts with his eyes open and never dawdles, the programme looked and sometimes even sounded like one of Herbert von Karajan’s. Eliciting beautifully manicured but natural-sounding string entries, richer-than-Rattle sonorities and absolute certainty of line, Petrenko’s hyperactive podium presence proved capable of inspiring stillness as well as fire, giving the impression that he trusts the players to do their own thing. No matter that he mimes the bigger picture as Leonard Bernstein once did, though some will no doubt resist the ultra-demonstrative manner which takes in the odd passage when he chooses not to conduct!

Given the choreography, the occasional suspicion of emotional reserve or discontinuity was a puzzle albeit one that may eventually resolve itself. Certainly there was some welcome old-world space and time in Petrenko’s Don Juan, more than one remembered from Claudio Abbado, the opening challenge every bit as precise, woodwind solos predictably glorious. More crispness and sinew than some will have liked maybe, a certain lightness in the bass but an extended dynamic range and warmth too. For good or ill, Death and Transfiguration maintained a certain feeling of abstraction, the sound a little hard, never quite freeing itself from earthly cares. I’m not sure how realistic it is to look for higher spirituality in 2018 when the sense of an ensemble renewed and unified is already bringing its own rewards.

There have been times when I have despaired of hearing a Beethoven Seventh as satisfying as this one in the concert hall. An orchestra of sensible size (six double basses), repeats in place, meaningful vibrato too, the argument driven forward without too much impression of a straitjacket. Only the Allegretto proceeded at a tempo markedly different from that of Carlos Kleiber. It was fast, too fast for the pace to be maintained consistently in the fugato towards the end so that the denouement felt a little unsettled, the last bars played arco (rather than pizzicato in the Kleiber tradition). This instability may have been deliberate as there were similar dips in the otherwise implacable Finale, momentarily disrupting its unstoppable “Bacchic fury”. Set against an unimpeachable Scherzo, the Trio – at a Toscanini tempo – felt less assured, Petrenko seemingly at pains to underline the bizarre fruitiness of the horn contribution. Or was that an acoustic distortion? If the maestro sometimes placed wit and a certain sly Viennese lilt ahead of blood and thunder, the players were right with him, achieving marvels of articulation at speed.

How to sum up? While some orchestra members may miss Sir Simon’s determined advocacy of the new, this was a promising beginning for a different approach, reconnecting with older priorities. That there was only one pause in the Beethoven, between movements two and three, reinforced the more immediate sense of continuity. No encores despite an enthusiastic reception. Perhaps Petrenko doesn’t like them.

Prom 68: Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko II – Richard Strauss & Beethoven Read More »

Prom 67: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons I – Mahler 3 with Susan Graham

Symphony No.3 in D-minor

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)

CBSO Chorus (female voices) & CBSO Youth Chorus

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 2 September, 2018
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mahler may have turned away from the chain-of-creation programme in the original titles for the six movements of his Symphony No.3, but having been planted their imagery will never go away. Indeed, in a performance such as this from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons, the meaning behind the titles positively thrived.

Mahler’s mystical, insanely ambitious arc from Nature’s neutral, terrifying will-to-live to man’s full consciousness was launched in a thrilling account of the long (here about thirty-five minutes) first movement. Nelsons laid down its polarities with irresistible force – the horns barging in like a rugby scrum, their weight undermined by superbly characterised trombone and trumpet solos from respectively Toby Oft and Thomas Rolfs expressing blank, unfeeling Nature, which cast a long, shape-giving shadow over the whole Symphony. Nelsons gave each elements due prominence, which kept us guessing about the music’s direction, a brilliantly lit ambiguity that you feel would have pleased Mahler greatly. His sustaining a sense of shape and coherence among all the almost dysfunctional collisions of material was inspirational, nothing less, and the long pause was vital to let the impact of this extraordinary struggle for supremacy sink in. Tamara Smirnova’s violin solo played a major part in clinching the argument, and prepared the way for s compellingly played, ultra-evanescent account of the second ‘flowers’ movement, with the orchestra’s limpid playing just about keeping a purchase on its minuet identity.

There were two, perhaps two-and-half disappointments in the next three movements. Thomas Rolfs’s remote posthorn solo aside (on a real posthorn, with a couple of sob-like cracks adding to its haunting authenticity), Nelsons rather undersold the third movement’s eruption of the Pan/Nature music – surely it’s one of the Symphony’s defining moments, if not its pivot point? – and Susan Graham (whose entrance to a dribble of clapping could easily have been averted) favoured over-characterised warmth for Erda-like stillness. She was spot-on for the fifth movement’s angels’ chorus (which reunited Nelsons with an element of his CBSO years). The all-girl CBSO Youth Chorus was fine, but reinforced my preference for boys here, with potential for a raw, unruly sound; the women from the CBSO Chorus brought light and delight to the heavenly party.

Listeners with synaesthetic tendencies will have been saturated in endless shades of blue in the concluding slow movement. The nine double basses, impressively nimble when they needed to be, eloquently built up the music’s long perspectives, the three Pan-music crises somehow became more distant and irrelevant as they became more desperate, and Elizabeth Rowe’s immaculate flute solo heralded a peerless release from earthly cares. Nelsons’s conducting style seems to have become a bit less demonstrative, but he is still incredibly energising and expansive, with every gesture galvanising his players into further refinements of response and triumphs of ensemble. With two Berlin Philharmonic Proms in the same weekend, the Boston players could have been superstar overload, but with playing and conducting of this quality and integrity, who cares?

Prom 67: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons I – Mahler 3 with Susan Graham Read More »

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