Proms in the Park – London leg, Hyde Park – hosted by Michael Ball and including Barry Manilow and Aida Garifullina

Proms in the Park, London

Barry Manilow, Chrissie Hynde, Jack Savoretti, Kingdom Choir, Bonnie Tyler, Lighthouse Family, BBC Big Band, Gabrielle, The Cardinals, Les Misérables / Hamilton casts, Aida Garifullina, Rock Choir, Aled Jones & Russell Watson

BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Richard Balcombe

Hosted by Michael Ball

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 14 September, 2019
Venue: Hyde Park, London

BBC Proms 2019's Prom In The ParkBarry ManilowPhotograph: James Watkins / BBCIn September 2007 I asked how Proms in the Park fitted the strap-line of “The World’s greatest classical music festival”; twelve years later that connection, tenuous at the time, has been broken. This was nevertheless a fabulous concert packed with stars from the world of popular music and stage-shows that rocked the sun-drenched corner of Hyde Park for about seven hours hosted by Michael Ball, who also took his turn as a performer – most notably, and excellently, singing Stars from Les Misérables accompanied at the piano by the composer, Claude-Michel Schönberg.

Rock Choir, at full strength numbering 30,000 members of the public – by comparison we only had a handful – lived up to its name and rocked the 40,000-strong audience with favourites such as Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Bohemian Rhapsody. Aled Jones and Russell Watson have been friends for years. Traffic held up Jones’s arrival, a few minutes before he raced onto the platform with little time to warm up. This was not the best I have heard the Welsh baritone though a smile was raised when a quick-witted audience member quipped that rather than driving he should be “walking in the air”.

The brief nod to classical music was fulfilled by Russian soprano Aida Garifullina who launched almost without taking a breath, into Guonod’s ‘Je veux vivre’ from Romeo and Juliet. Nothing was spared in this command performance that showed off both her agile coloratura and acting ability, followed by a plaintive ‘O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

BBC Proms 2019's Prom In The ParkHamilton's King George IIIPhotograph: James Watkins / BBCAs the light started to fade over Hyde Park – many commented on the beautiful sunset – the first of the artists from the world of pop took to the stage. Gabrielle, who recently turned fifty, has a voice still as compelling as it was in 1993. In 2018 she recorded her first album in eleven years – Under my Skin; Shine, from it, joined hits from the 1990s.

A brief interlude by the BBC Big Band made way for the Lighthouse Family. This duo of Paul Tucker (keyboards) and Tunde Baiyewu (vocals) has been largely silent since their heyday in the late-1990s. It took until July this for their new album to be released. Who’s Gonna Save me Now is a great song.

Bonnie Tyler performed from a swaying scissor-lift high up next to the stage. What could go wrong? Whoever came up with that idea is possibly the most creatively bonkers person in the production team. There were problems with the microphone which meant at times she was inaudible against the recorded backing and her voice is not as strong as it once was. However she still has more energy and enthusiasm than many artists half her age (sixty-eight). Her two hits, both penned by Jim Steinman – Total Eclipse of the Heart and Holding Out for a Hero – were heard here; the latter was largely shouted.

Karen Gibson’s Kingdom Choir came to attention following its show-stopping performance of Stand By Me at the Royal Wedding in 2018. Opening with The Aretha Franklin Medley, this showcased some strong and included such classics as Think and Natural Woman.

BBC Proms 2019's Prom In The ParkMichael BallPhotograph: James Watkins / BBCJack Savoretti’s performance of Catapult on Graham Norton’s show in 2015 literally catapulted the record up the charts. Of tonight’s set of six songs, four were taken from his new album. Opening with the hit-single Candlelight this luscious arrangement was well suited to the strings of the BBC Concert Orchestra, which never faltered. By his own admission “filling time” as the stage was reset, Michael Ball took the microphone for We’ll Meet Again and ‘Anthem’ from Chess. Ball played Anatoly Sergievsky in the 2018 ENO production of the musical and a better performance of this song would be difficult to find.

Chrissie Hynde is best-known for her work with The Pretenders. Two of her biggest hits from the post-punk and new-wave era – Brass in Pocket and I’ll Stand by You – were performed here with outstanding orchestra-backed arrangements, and later included a sultry and soulful rendition of the Jimmy Williams and Larry Harrison standard How Glad I am and Billie Holiday’s I’m a Fool To Want You – itself a classic that Hynde has rightly claimed as her own.

There was never any doubt that the global superstar that is Barry Manilow would ever be anything but the main attraction. Chopin’s C-minor Prelude (XX from Opus 28) inspired Could It Be Magic together with the unforgettable Randy Edelman classic Weekend in New England saw Manilow take to the piano while others such as Ready to Take a Chance Again and Copacabana found him standing. Frank Sinatra summed up Manilow when he said in the 1970s, “he’s next”. What followed in Hyde Park seemed a bit of an irrelevance.

Aida Garifullina returned for Rule Britannia!; however it was a truncated version of Henry Wood Sea Songs. The National Anthem and Auld Lang Syne rounded things off followed by fireworks and a Scots-piper playing Amazing Grace from the scissor-lift formerly occupied by Bonnie Tyler.

Twelve years on, Proms in the Park has taken on its own identity that is a long way removed from its classical roots, as enjoyable as this event was.

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Prom 75: Sakari Oramo conducts The Last Night of the Proms, with Jamie Barton, BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus & Symphony Orchestra

Daniel Kidane
Woke [BBC commission: world premiere]
The Three-Cornered Hat – Suite No.2
Laura Mvula
Sing to the Moon
Proud Thames
Sospiri, Op.70
Carmen – L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera)
Samson et Dalila, Op.47 – Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix
Don Carlos – O don fatale
Aida – Triumphal March
Orpheus in the Underworld – Overture
Marching Song of Democracy
The Wizard of Oz – Over the Rainbow
Girl Crazy – I Got Rhythm
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]

Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Singers & BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

And so to the Last Night of the Proms. From one of the best new commissions as an opener, via a surprising wordless paean to democracy and a vocal soloist who nailed bisexual politics to the mast in her final outfit, this year’s repertoire seemed quietly seditious. But the musical choices were more satisfying than usual, especially in the first half. There was a nod to Sir Henry Wood’s 150th-birthday, music he introduced, here Elgar’s heartfelt Sospiri acting as the fulcrum of the first half, first heard on the eve of the First World War. That had been immediately preceded by two women composers – a thread also expertly knitted through the season – in an a cappella (BBC Singers) version of Laura Mvula’s Sing to the Moon, beautifully rendered, and the belated (by fifty-six years) Proms premiere of a lovely musical travelogue by Elizabeth Maconchy, Proud Thames.

If the Spanish flavour of the first half seemed a little arbitrary, who could complain when Sakari Oramo and especially his percussion department suffused the Falla with irresistible rhythms, and Jaime Barton proffered her chocolaty, velvety mezzo to the selected arias. The first half ended with additional trumpets for the ‘Triumphal March’ from Verdi’s Aida.

At the opening of the second half there was a late and far too small nod to a bicentenary, that of Jacques Offenbach, his Orpheus in the Underworld Overture. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, it’s only the second performance of this piece in the Proms’ 125-year history, its first outing in 1990 under Rozhdestvensky. I wonder why, when it’s so enjoyable, encompassing some beautiful woodwind solos (Richard Hosford’s clarinet, Tom Bloomfield’s oboe) then one for leader Igor Yuzefovich. The climax – the Can Can – had Oramo occasionally kick (though not high).

The next item must rank as one of the weirdest entries onto the Last Night roster – Percy Grainger’s vocalise Marching Song of Democracy; a seven-minute collision of singers intoning “Ta rar dira dira” and “Dum pum pum pum” against each other, building to a climax that would have deafened even the most robust Parliamentary debate. It was like an encapsulation of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony though with only some dim memory of Goethe’s text.

In a second black dress, Barton returned, this time with head microphone, for a Judy Garland classic, ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ and Gershwin’s ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’. There was no surprise that Barton was equally as successful in musical numbers as operatic ones (not every opera singer can make the switch), and the Gershwin proved that Barton and the BBC Symphony (with its additional saxophones for this one selection) might have rhythm, but most seated audience members who tried to clap along certainly don’t.

That fact was reinforced in the ‘Hornpipe’ of Wood’s (here foreshortened) Fantasia on British Sea Songs and also in the lamentably disrupting horn blasts at the end of ‘The Saucy Arethusa’, ‘Tom Bowling’ and the ‘Home Sweet Home’; the music is much more enjoyable without percussive embellishment. And while I have no objection of filleting-in of songs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, surely there is now a case for finding an alternative to Danny Boy.

To cap the Fantasia it was Malcolm Sargent’s version of Arne’s Rule Britannia!, Barton now swathed in a dress including bisexual colours (blue and magenta) in a wraparound flap and an enormous half ruff, producing a rainbow Pride flag for the final chorus.

Oramo’s speech was a heartfelt plea for our collective support for live performances, building on Sir Henry’s proselytising zeal. As is traditional the remainder of the concert ran to form. But I end at the beginning, with Daniel Kidane’s Woke, the title reminding us to be constantly aware of racism, but the music is inherently interesting in itself, kick-started by a wood-block (like a woodpecker) and teeming into life with long-held strings and chattering parts underneath, eventually coming to a unanimous halt before more rat-a-tat-tat pulses reigniting the music, before eventually building to a ringing climax, though not before the modern plastic equivalent of the ancient bullroarer made air. Electrifying and energising.

Perhaps one reason why this Last Night seemed a mite less lively – amidst the fewer balloons and flags – was the absence of shouted repartee from the Prommers. There was one such highlight, but that came from the tenors of the BBC Symphony Chorus who followed the charity advice (£115,000 before the collection after the concert), with an endorsement of their own, appealing for “tenners”.

Prom 75: Sakari Oramo conducts The Last Night of the Proms, with Jamie Barton, BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus & Symphony Orchestra Read More »

Prom 74: Beethoven Night – NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Andrew Manze, with Elizabeth Watts – Fidelio, Ah! Perfido & Symphony 5 … Handel Fireworks, Bach/Elgar

Music for the Royal Fireworks [arr. Andrew Manze]
Ah! Perfido, Op.65
Bach, orch. Elgar
Fantasia and Fugue in C-minor, BWV537/Op.86
Fidelio, Op.72 – Overture; Abscheulicher! … Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern
Symphony No.5 in C-minor, Op.67

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)

NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover
Andrew Manze

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 13 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It was commercial necessity that dictated the original Proms mix of classical favourites, contemporary ‘novelties’ and popular ballads. In much the same way the local tradition of composer-themed nights had less to do with aesthetic preference than a desire to maximise royalties. It was only when William Glock was installed as Proms supremo that such old-style composer-themed evenings lost out permanently mixed scheduling. On 3 August 1962, for example, Glock juxtaposed a traditional first half under Basil Cameron (Beethoven – Fidelio Overture, the First Piano Concerto, with Lamar Crowson, and the Fourth Symphony) with John Carewe’s pioneering stab at (parts of) Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître and Debussy’s Ibéria.

Reviving the long-abandoned formula for several 2019 dates was meant as a tribute to Henry Wood in his anniversary year and the present concert was ingeniously put together and imaginatively executed even if the mix of works, broadly reflecting Wood’s preferences, fell well short of the length (heavenly or otherwise) of his own programmes. Or Glock’s for that matter.

The requisitioning of a Friday slot to serve as Beethoven Night is authentic. Less so Andrew Manze’s conducting. Or at least not in any narrow sense. He has become one of our most inventive conductors however difficult it is for those of us of a certain age to stop thinking of him as a Baroque violinist who windmills with a stick. His Beethoven proved predictably lithe and anti-rhetorical but, with Romantic and subjective impulses embraced too, there was no question of streamlined uniformity. This was most striking in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony where the exposition repeat brought a more sotto voce reading of the second theme with carefully terraced dynamics. All roads led to the outsize coda, given with traditional weight and power, very much the focal point notwithstanding some unaccustomed gentility en route. Vibrato was rationed rather than eliminated, its presence arising naturally from the expressivity of the line and the sensibility of the players. No pompous executive fiat.

Manze has spoken of Beethoven’s world as becoming much more “untidy”, the composer not rejecting the past but effectively redrafting the rules for the future. Here, the slow movement could scarcely have sounded less like Mozart, the third was full of wit, the transition to the Finale evidently super-refined in rehearsal. It was in this fourth that doubts resurfaced for all the incidental successes (a wonderfully characterful piccolo). It all felt a bit too easy, rhythmic definition (and perhaps an implied call to the barricades) sacrificed in the interests of a gentler musicality at breezy tempos.

The evening began with thoughtful, sober Handel. And even here the violins were bunched on the conductor’s left as I believe they would have been for the bulk of Henry Wood’s time. Manze’s take was surprisingly homogeneous with the strings almost equal partners with the winds, his preference for long phases rather than brazen rhetoric. At the very end of the concert, Manze returned to this world with the ‘Lentement’ and ‘Bourée’ from the G-major Water Music Suite. The BBC tweeted this French-sounding fare as being arranged by Hamilton Harty but I’m not convinced that is correct.

Elizabeth Watts was the excellent soloist on either side of the interval. The stock showpiece gestures of Ah! Perfido were never likely to quell the bronchial tendencies of a restless capacity crowd but the item was beautifully sung. A popular inclusion in Wood’s time, albeit in less than authentic garb, it went on to attract the advocacy of such luminaries as the late Heather Harper. That it has rather slipped from view is unsurprising. Watts wore a lovely gown of light imperial red, outdoing the diminishing red of the Royal Albert Hall’s upholstery. After the interval she re-emerged in a dusky teal number for what was once a ubiquitous ‘bleeding chunk’. Beethoven’s Leonore she is not (or not yet, remembering what Gundula Janowitz made of the role). Manze and his Hanover band accompanied sympathetically but the sequence sounded like something written for Marzeline before the ‘watershed’ of the Act One Quartet. Fine, as far as it went. The preceding Fidelio Overture was similarly low-key, not without the odd scruffy corner (unless that was the effect of the acoustic) while perfectly credible as an operatic opener. Was that perhaps Manze’s point? More players came onto the platform for the Fifth.

For me at least the highlight came earlier with Elgar’s Bach transmogrification, the arranger’s signature gloriously obvious almost from the start. Manze made sure every line was audible, including the tuned percussion only vaguely etched in on those ancient LPs. Likewise the alternation of timpani and bass drum and the subtle presence of harp. The oboist whose eloquent line frames the Fantasia and inevitably recalls the slow movement of the Second Symphony deserves to be named, Kerstin Ingwersen. Her colleagues excelled in spots: especially notable was the crisp delineation of the basses to launch ‘Abscheulicher!’. Elsewhere there was a tendency to default to a lower setting.

Meanwhile the audience switched unpredictably from rapt attention to anti-social antics of various kinds. Filming with mobile phones held flagrantly aloft is now reaching epidemic proportions as, apparently, is pertussis and the dropping of large barrels of ale. At least there was no clapping between movements!

Prom 74: Beethoven Night – NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Andrew Manze, with Elizabeth Watts – Fidelio, Ah! Perfido & Symphony 5 … Handel Fireworks, Bach/Elgar Read More »

Prom 73: Symphonie fantastique/orchestral theatre staging – Baynton/Aurora/Collon [2/2]

“Waltz through a glittering ball, enter a feverish dream, march to your own execution, and spin into dark delirium at a witches’ sabbath. Take on the opium-infused visions of a tortured artist haunted by unrequited passion.” [BBC Proms website]

Symphonie fantastique, Op.14 [“orchestral theatre staging”]

Mathew Baynton (actor); Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon

Jane Mitchell & James Bonas – Directors
Kate Wicks – Designer
Will Reynolds – consultant designer
Cydney Uffindell-Phillips – movement consultant

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 12 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A bare stage – save for percussion on the top riser (with six covered mystery items), a couple of harps stage-right and risers with chairs obviously for cellos and basses – was the unlikely start to this reprise Prom of the one that had gone immediately before. Nicholas Collon entered alone to set the scene, introducing actor Mathew Baynton and, by reading Hiller’s description of the composer in question, metamorphosed the actor into Berlioz. Baynton then quickly reprised what happened exactly 192 years and a day ago (11 September 1827) when Berlioz first saw Harriet Smithson, to the accompaniment of a small group of strings, harp and clarinet who had silently taken their place for some soirée music (presumably Berlioz, but not immediately recognisable). Silently the rest of the Aurora Orchestra brought on white models of tall apartment buildings and windmills, lit from within to create 1820s Paris, before taking them up to the back of the stage.

With Smithson the inspiration behind Symphonie fantastique Collon then explained the idea behind Berlioz’s idée fixe with the help of Aurora’s first-violin section filing on to the stage, with the full forty-bar theme displayed on the digital display band directly below Sir Henry Wood’s bust. More players came on to illustrate how the theme is transmuted through each movement, before Baynton recited Berlioz’s programmatic story behind the first movement and we were off.

With all but cellos and basses standing and – Aurora’s calling card – playing from memory this was a typically invigorating performance with some daring pianissimos (sometimes so quiet they were almost inaudible) and with a nod to period practice. Most notable was the choreography that memorising the music allows. At least one practice was Berlioz’s original intention, bringing harps to the front for the second movement ball scene: not just two, but four, the stage change neatly covered by Baynton reciting Berlioz’s ideas about why harps should be given more prominence. The ball scene (with the cornet part) was topped, just at the end, with the non-playing percussionists unveiling the mystery objects – six glitterballs added to the one suspended high above the Arena – to bathe the whole of the auditorium, briefly and deliriously, in circling lights. The effect was magical.

After Baynton had taken us back to when Berlioz was sixteen and first realising how lonely you could feel in the country, Patrick Flanagan appeared at the front of the stage with his cor anglais to call across the (rather empty) Arena to oboist John Roberts, standing on the steps at the back of the Hall, to start the slow movement. Tenor drums, slung to their percussionists’ sides, stood patiently at the side of the stage for the ‘March to the Scaffold’ which also saw the four bassoonists come forward to circle Collon for their menacing chugging theme that permeates the movement. Finally – while Baynton had ended Berlioz’s by-now opium-induced tale with the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ – the whole orchestra donned eerie white masks – those in the treble range looked like cat skulls; bass ranges in strings and wind wore deer skulls with antlers; brass looked as if they donned long-eared bat masks, with a phalanx of percussionists with ram skulls. I can’t vouch for the masks (if any) the bells’ players wore, as they were up in the Gallery (and perhaps – given they represent the church’s tolling bells – it would have been wrong for them to wear any such thing), but I did wonder if Collon should not also have worn one: he was, after all, demonic convener incarnate – a very Beelzebub in fact.

Visually and aurally, this was an audacious expansion of Aurora’s memory performances. Baynton was likeable as Berlioz and managed to project clearly in the few moments early on when his microphone cut out. The performance had been well run in, having already been to Aldeburgh, Rheingau and – with Baynton – Saffron Walden, with a further performance to close the Bremen Festival on September 14 (without the dramatisation), and was a fitting final commemoration of the composer’s 150th-death anniversary.

Prom 73: Symphonie fantastique/orchestral theatre staging – Baynton/Aurora/Collon [2/2] Read More »

Prom 72: Symphonie fantastique/orchestral theatre staging – Baynton/Aurora/Collon [1/2]

“Waltz through a glittering ball, enter a feverish dream, march to your own execution, and spin into dark delirium at a witches’ sabbath. Take on the opium-infused visions of a tortured artist haunted by unrequited passion.” [BBC Proms website]

Symphonie fantastique, Op.14 [“orchestral theatre staging”]

Mathew Baynton (actor); Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon

Jane Mitchell & James Bonas – Directors
Kate Wicks – Designer
Will Reynolds – consultant designer
Cydney Uffindell-Phillips – movement consultant

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 12 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

When did you last see a symphony orchestra playing from memory and wearing sinister masks? This specially devised and family-friendly presentation vividly brought to life Berlioz’s ground-breaking Symphonie fantastique. Its preliminary ‘Ant & Dec’-style preamble, shared between Nicholas Collon and Mathew Baynton, outlined in the composer’s own words the stimulus behind the work, accompanied by Iain Farrington’s arrangement of Berlioz’s La belle voyageuse. In addition, the musicians demonstrated the transformative progress of the Symphony’s idée fixe across its five movements. During this twenty-minute ‘chat show’ introduction a banner displaying this recurring motif stretched across the rear of the stage which then began to fill with an assortment of light-filled shoeboxes (apartments and windmills) intended to evoke Parisian night-life in the 1820s. From the organ console there hung the French tricolour.

As a visual enhancement of the Symphony’s autobiographical element, this staging brought striking intensity to its emotional and dramatic power. A glitterball at the end of the waltz second movement transformed the Royal Albert Hall to an episode of ‘Strictly’, two military side-drums on either side of the stage brought us slightly closer to Berlioz’s fevered imagination in the ‘March to the Scaffold’, yet it was the sight of multiple masks (somewhere between goats heads and sheep skulls) for the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ that made a lasting impression.

While the razzmatazz made its own conspicuous impact, the performance was riveting throughout, with Collon drawing playing of cinematic intensity. The hallucinations of the first-movement’s ‘Réveries’ were nicely caught with accents and dynamics scrupulously observed; the latter occasionally savagely rendered in ‘Passions’ (timpani erupting from the texture) or disappearing from view but building to a compelling climax.

A break between each movement to allow for stage changes drew from Baynton a brief discourse for “thoughts on harps” as four of them (rather than the usual two) were placed at the front of the stage for a very stylish ball scene, augmented by the ad libcornet.

Of greater visual impact was the darkening of the stage for ‘Scène aux champs’, the orchestra gradually spot-lit from within with its companionable shepherds movingly conveyed by Patrick Flanagan’s cor anglais and John Roberts’s oboe, their individual and collective musicianship outstanding. Menacing horns initiated a fast-paced ‘March to the Scaffold’ (with four bassoons up front encircling the podium) where the brass brayed for blood.

For the Witches’ movement gaudy red lights fielded the stage and were capped with a red moon. As if playing from memory wasn’t enough the violin section had choreography, the players turning on given cues to face the audience, their masks suddenly more-disturbing. Off-stage bells added to the clamour as did shrieking clarinets, flatulent brass and demonic strings.

This was an account in which phantasmagoria was fully realised, Berlioz’s visions brilliantly conveyed; a wonderful spectacle.

Prom 72: Symphonie fantastique/orchestral theatre staging – Baynton/Aurora/Collon [1/2] Read More »

Prom 71: Bach Night – Dunedin Consort & John Butt – J. S. Bach’s Four Orchestral Suites (BWV1066-1069) and four commissions: Muhly, Wishart, Robertson, MacRae

Orchestral Suites – in D, BWV1069; in C, BWV1066; in B-minor, BWV1067; in D, BWV1068
interspersed with…
Nico Muhly
Stevie Wishart
The Last Dance?*
Ailie Robertson
Stuart MacRae

*[BBC co-commission with Dunedin Consort: world premiere]

Dunedin Consort
John Butt (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Andrew Neill

Reviewed: 11 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

I must confess to still enjoying recordings of Bach’s orchestral music recorded decades ago, such as by Boyd Neel (with piano!) and Britten of the Brandenburg Concertos. I was therefore somewhat surprised to read in the Proms programme the following: “The revolution of the past 50 years in the performance of Baroque music means that modern audiences prefer their Bach sleeker and more dynamic played on instruments that approximate those of the first half of the 18th century – a practice in which John Butt and his Dunedin Consort are firmly at the forefront.”

Well I need not have been concerned. The Consort, with a strength for the Royal Albert Hall of over forty, provided a glorious, rounded, sound without compromising leanness. Hearing this ensemble in a cavernous acoustic was not entirely helpful and John Butt’s harpsichord disappeared (in fact there were two, the other played by Stephen Farr) – at least for me.

I missed the 2017 Prom performance of Bach’s St John Passion by the same forces but have enjoyed the Consort’s Bach recordings. It is also good to see that the Consort is committed to the commission of works by contemporary composers. Indeed, four BBC co-commissions (ostensibly each of two minutes length) were added to this programme. I thought Nico Muhly’s and Stevie Wishart’s the most effective. Wishart’s tango, developing Bach’s chord sequences, added the call of the “critically endangered” Argentine hooded grebe which echoed rather wonderfully around the Hall, its pitch altered to A=415. Argentina did not exist in Bach’s time. This was a poignant reminder of what we have done to our planet in the near 270 years since his death!

Bach’s Leipzig years, surely some of the richest in music, were the cradle for these Suites. Each is composed for different forces thereby investing great tonal variety when all Four Suites are performed together. The numbering of the Suites has nothing to do with the order in which they were written.

I felt the Consort took a few bars to settle during the opening of Suite Four but very soon the three valveless trumpets provided a superb cushion of sound. In the two ‘Bourées’ the brilliant playing of four oboes ensured the rhythm of the dance was sustained throughout. In the First Suite, the brass now absent, the glorious string sound propelled the music along.

The B-minor Suite, the most intimate of the four and ending with the famous ‘Badinerie’ had three flutes (rather than one) at the front of the stage providing a richness of tone and virtuosity which I found compelling. I must mention Katy Bircher’s playing in the ‘Polonaise’ which was enchanting and seductive. Bach’s contemporaries must have been astonished at what Lindsay Kemp calls Bach’s “typically high level of compositional science.” There was, however, nothing scientific in the joy this music brought to the audience who learnt quickly NOT to clap after each movement!

Finally, it was ‘joy’ again when the Third Suite began, Butt’s tempos catching the spirit of the music but allowing the necessary clarity which the Albert Hall challenged. Trumpets had returned and the burnished timbre of the Dunedin Consort brought glory to the celebrated ‘Air’ before the final ‘Gigue’. Even if the tones of this fine music-making were far removed from that offered by Sir Henry Wood in 1901 when this Suite was first included in a Promenade Concert, it is likely he would have embraced the changes demonstrated by the Dunedin players.

Prom 71: Bach Night – Dunedin Consort & John Butt – J. S. Bach’s Four Orchestral Suites (BWV1066-1069) and four commissions: Muhly, Wishart, Robertson, MacRae Read More »

Prom 70: Jonny Greenwood, premiere of Horror vacui

Mystery (Rosary) Sonata XVI – Passacaglia in G-minor
Sinfonietta for Strings – II: Vivace
Jonny Greenwood
Three Miniatures from Water – No.3
88 (No.1)
Steve Reich
Horror vacui – for solo violin and 68 strings [BBC commission: world premiere]

Daniel Pioro (violin); Katherine Tinker (piano); Jonny Greenwood (bass guitar & tanpura); Nicolas Magriel (tanpura); BBC Proms Youth Ensemble; BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Hugh Brunt

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 10 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There has been something of a nostalgic throwback this week to contemporary music concerts of yesteryear, always overrunning with stage-changes and the unpredictability of how long new works are. It was fifteen minutes beyond schedule for PCM8 (a Tribute to Oliver Knussen) and now thirty for this current Prom. In the event only a few of the audience (including a notably packed Arena) felt they could tear themselves away as the clock ticked towards midnight.

Curated by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, this concert grew organically from Daniel Pioro’s violin in the last of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas to him being accompanied by massed strings of the conjoined BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Proms Youth Ensemble in Horror vacui.

The twists and turns of the Biber were mesmeric from Pioro; the repeated falling four-note Lament Bass of the concluding ‘Passacaglia’ underpinning the freewheeling embellishments and variations. It segued into the Baroque-inspired Finale of Penderecki’s Sinfonietta, delivered with hair-raising exactitude. The combination of Biber and Penderecki – annulling the three centuries or so between the two pieces – worked very well, as did the ensuing pair of Greenwood works. Greenwood played one of tanpuras, with Pioro accompanying Katherine Tinker in the third of Greenwood’s miniatures from Water, an expanded piano sketch for a piece based on Philip Larkin’s poem commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, a subtly evocative piece that, as violin and tanpuras fell silent, melted into 88 (No.1) – eighty-eight referring to the number of keys on a piano – and part homage to Glenn Gould (with optional moaning). There was a sense of evolution here too, from the Baroque feel to the quasi fugue of the opening to the evermore energetic assault on the keyboard, ending with Tinker’s donning of long gloves as she slammed forearms onto the keyboard in an assault of note-clusters.

Steve Reich’s Pulse belies expectations in its soft use of the bass guitar (Greenwood again); its gentle beat underpinning a folksy movement for an ensemble of twelve, here arrayed symmetrically with the two violins (Pioro and BBCNOW’s leader, Lesley Hatfield) facing each other, each supported by a flute and clarinet and pairs of violins and violas. Reich instructs the bass guitar not to be played with a plectrum and, with the piano, to be almost muted; Pulse should officially be filed in the category of gorgeousness.

Greenwood’s Penderecki-inspired Horror vacui (the fear of empty space) follows his Polish hero’s move from electronics to being able to make similar sounds and effects live with stringed instruments. Horror vacui is listed as being in seven sections, each titled and with a bracketed explanation of the facet of electronics Greenwood is exploring to replicate. Pioro, standing at the orchestra’s extreme on the conductor’s left, acted as musical generator; the strings an echo-chamber or reactor. Hugh Brunt used a conducting technique with rigid outstretched arm moving across the assembled strings each joining the swelling sound as the baton passed them (a musical Mexican Wave, if you will). In later sections, instruments (even cellos) were lifted to mouths and blown upon; double basses were sonorously slapped. The result did sound amazingly electronic, although the only electronic item was Pioro’s iPad score.

At points I was reminded of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and The Protecting Veil. Horror vacui managed to fill every vacuum for over thirty-five minutes, gradually dying away so only Piori was left. Both in conception and execution this proved to be a major commission and will, I’m sure, repay many re-hearings to re-live or discover the wondrous complexity and imagination of the piece.

Prom 70: Jonny Greenwood, premiere of Horror vacui Read More »

Prom 69: Czech Philharmonic – Semyon Bychkov conducts The Bartered Bride & Shostakovich 8 – Elena Stikhina sings Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin

The Bartered Bride – Overture; Polka; Furiant; Dance of the Comedians
Eugene Onegin, Op.24 – Tatiana’s Letter Scene
Symphony No.8 in C-minor, Op.65

Elena Stikhina (soprano)

Czech Philharmonic
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 10 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Joining the end-of-Proms beauty parade of visiting orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic and its Chief Conductor of barely one year, Semyon Bychkov, arrived not so much as an international brand as a bottomless well of instantly discernible national character, style, strength and delicacy that breaks boundaries. Shostakovich, for whom irony was a protective veil, would have appreciated the programming – zesty Czech humour and one of the further extremes of intensely Russian emotionalism heading towards one of the darkest stars in the symphonic universe.

In terms of anticipating mischief and sharp wit, Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride is up there with Mozart’s for The Marriage of Figaro, and the Czech players delivered it with incomparable high spirits, affection and panache, before further kicking up their heels in the three Dances Smetana added later. The playing and unmistakable Czech sound were so infectious that the Prom could have stayed in that vein for the whole evening.

However, there were quite a few opera-movers and -shakers in evidence for the UK debut of Elena Stikhina, and I hope they were pinching themselves over what they heard. Perhaps Tatiana’s teenage crush on Onegin was a bit of a suspension of disbelief for a singer-actress who has been singing major Wagner, Verdi and Puccini throughout mainland Europe and at the Met – let’s pray that a young artist of this quality is not being over-promoted – but I wonder when I last heard a pianissimo of such beauty fill the Royal Albert Hall, carried by a liquid, flexible vibrato that supports her voice from a substantial low range to glorious, soaring heights. And she is also blessed with a magnetic stage-presence. Poor Tatiana’s one moment of uninhibited passion left you craving more from this accomplished singer, and Bychkov and his orchestra shadowed every phrase with scrupulous tact.

Shostakovich 8 derives its shape from the crudest of means – three obliterating fortissimos, one each in the first, third and fifth movements. They are not climaxes but gashes in the fabric of this multi-layered traversal of a War-inspired musical void.

Bychkov’s realisation of this will stay with me for a long time, especially the wraiths and shadows that seep through the start of the first movement, strangely placed before the harsh martial music that, as it were, caused them, so that you lose your grip on what is reality and what is memory. Crucially, Bychkov had the insight to move from Shostakovich the objective observer to Shostakovich the obliquely tender sympathiser – just when you thought there was no more colour or expression to lose from the strings’ sound, they could summon up a barely perceptible shift towards grey warmth. Bychkov’s sense of pace was superb for supporting a bleak aimlessness that drifted into brief passages of something more defined.

Not even the gormless dribbles of clapping following the first two movements could detract from this Symphony’s terrible sadness – given voice by the perfectly pitched solos that Shostakovich threads through the score like a musical depiction of those who have had the misfortune to survive; the first movement’s cor anglais was just one of many instances of intensely crafted subtleties. Via a more solid pace than you’d expect, Bychkov added an air of uncertainty to the violas’ trenchant ostinato in the third movement, while the trombones went for the music’s Mosolov-like brutalism with a will. After the second fortissimo outburst, the Largo’s fractured bird-calls – like distant relatives of ‘Die Krähe’ in Schubert’s Winterreise – had an absence of sensation that made the fragile waltz of the Finale sound inescapably like music from a distant Neverland.

You had to be quick to catch Bychkov and the Czech players reveal layer upon layer of shade and meaning before they just as quickly evaporated, and it was strange to be both stimulated and devastated by this outstanding performance.

Prom 69: Czech Philharmonic – Semyon Bychkov conducts The Bartered Bride & Shostakovich 8 – Elena Stikhina sings Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin Read More »

Proms at … Cadogan Hall/Proms Chamber Music 8: Tribute to Oliver Knussen | Knussen Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth

“A giant of British contemporary music, composer Oliver Knussen is remembered and celebrated in a special performance by the newly formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra. Music by Knussen himself is framed by works from Abrahamsen, Birtwistle and Waley-Cohen.” [BBC Proms website]

Oliver Knussen
… upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell
Harrison Birtwistle
Fantasia upon all the notes
Freya Waley-Cohen
Naiad [BBC commission: world premiere]
Study for ‘Metamorphosis’*
Hans Abrahamsen
Alastair Putt
Songs without Voices

Jonathan Davies (bassoon)*; Knussen Chamber Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 September, 2019
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The final stop in this year’s Proms Chamber Music 800-year journey brought us right up to date and featured the newest ensemble in the roster: the Knussen Chamber Orchestra, founded by Ryan Wigglesworth who followed the late Oliver Knussen as Sir Richard Rodney Bennett Professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Formed of students, both current and graduate, from the Academy together with the institution’s professors it is dedicated to pursuing Knussen’s eclectic musical interests.

Typical though was the nod to Knussen’s breadth of musical references. We started and ended with his tributes to other composers: first Purcell, the singular C here passed between the five instruments (piano – Wigglesworth himself – violin, viola, cello and clarinet); finally Knussen’s memorial to Andrzej Panufnik, featuring a mournful cor anglais solo from Tom Bloomfield. The centrepiece was his Metamorphosis Study – from 1971, but revised just shortly before his death – the only fragment extant of a project he had hoped to go back to, performed evocatively by Jonathan Davies, playful and sombre by turns in his instrument’s distinctive registers.

If Metamorphosis was the pinnacle of the concert’s trajectory, the ascent had skilfully paired another Purcell-inspired piece with the commission from Freya Waley-Cohen. Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon all the notes uses a harp as an arbiter between four strings and two winds (flute and clarinet), in a soundworld immediately recognisable as only his. A warble of a phone from upstairs interrupted the stuttering ending, unfortunately. Waley-Cohen’s Naiad adds piano to make an octet and introduces a faster section that seeped into the initial slow tread as an evocation of Nature, beautifully crafted and exquisitely played.

The descent from Metamorphosis also had a pairing: the beautiful sonorities of Hans Abrahamsen’s Herbstlied, so delicate and sonorous, which gave way to the woodwind quintet that is Alastair Putt’s Halazuni, intricate in its interweaving, even though I might not have guessed just hearing it that it was inspired by Islamic art.

Knussen’s Songs without Voices – for octet: strings, winds (though no room for bassoon) and piano – offered the most orchestral sound; its first three short movements evocative of Nature, like Waley-Cohen’s Naiad – winter, a sunset over the prairie (featuring cellist Zoe Walters) and the insubstantial flightiness of a dandelion – before the heartfelt tribute to Panufnik. Typically jewel-like, it was also a fitting tribute to Knussen.

Proms at … Cadogan Hall/Proms Chamber Music 8: Tribute to Oliver Knussen | Knussen Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth Read More »

Prom 68: Wagner Night – Marc Albrecht conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Christine Goerke & Stephen Gould

Der Freischütz – Overture
Siegfried – Forest Murmurs
Le chasseur maudit
Götterdämmerung – Dawn-Zu neuen Taten, teurer Helde-Siegfried’s Rhine Journey-Siegfried’s Death & Funeral March-Brünnhilde’s Immolation

Christine Goerke (soprano; Brünnhilde) & Stephen Gould (tenor; Siegfried)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Marc Albrecht

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 9 September, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was the first of three concerts in this the final week of Proms 2019 which hark back to Henry Wood’s inclination to feature programmes devoted to one composer. Wagner was first off (Bach and Beethoven will follow) though with rewarding diversions to one of the originators of German Romantic opera, as then to a composer beyond Germany who was inspired by Wagner’s great advances in musical technique and expression.

In the first half, forests, Nature, and the supernatural were explored by Marc Albrecht and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, opening with a somewhat foursquare reading of the Overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz – the slow unison introduction could have been more pregnant, and the upbeat coda more exuberant. ‘Forest Murmurs’ from the third of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy was more atmospheric, beginning with quiet rustlings, then expanding into a series of lush washes of sound as the swaying leaves and birdsong came into greater focus.

The real substance of the programme’s first half came, however, with César Franck’s Le chasseur maudit (1882) that vividly recounts a folk story in which a sacrilegious Rhenish Count peremptorily speeds off to a wild hunt, ignoring bells which summon him to Sunday Mass. As a result, a supernatural voice condemns him to be eternally pursued by demons – a sort of twist on the legend of The Flying Dutchman, in which the tragic hero is doomed to everlasting roving, though without any means of redemption in the case of Franck’s scenario.

The RPO played evocatively, with the warm and stately horn-calls of the opening looking ahead to Janáček (Sinfonietta) and Nielsen (Helios Overture) with its emphases on intervals of a fourth, rather than back to the more classically triadic character of so much earlier hunting-horn music. The violins’ mellow playing of the modal melody which follows identified the score as more typically Gallic, and Albrecht’s detailed conducting of the rest of the piece elicited an exciting, febrile interpretation which brought out the work’s drama. It begged the question why it is not heard more frequently in concerts and, for that matter, why Franck’s D-minor Symphony or Symphonic Variations are so rarely encountered, once regular parts of the repertoire.

Wagner occupied the second half with a digest of Götterdämmerung – and, by extension, of the entire Ring, as the extracts bore reference (in text and musical leitmotifs) to episodes in the previous three parts of the cycle. They were given here as extracts, strung together in sequence so that the very brief pauses between them, without any connecting material, rather drew attention to their status as ‘bleeding chunks’.

Nevertheless the RPO was on rousing form, from the muffled, tentative beginning of ‘Dawn’ on the cellos, gathering pace with a surging accumulation towards its climax, recalling the very beginning of Das Rheingold, to a coruscating conclusion with Brünnhilde’s ‘Immolation’. Sometimes ensemble and intonation among the brass was ragged, but otherwise Albrecht presided over an enthusiastic and potent performance. Christine Goerke impressed for the directness of her singing, which caught the passionate, intimate ardour of her duet with Stephen Gould as Siegfried in the passage from Act One, and rose to more grandiose heights for the ‘Immolation’. Occasionally her wide vibrato obscured the clarity of her notes, but to project into the Royal Albert Hall and hold one’s own against an orchestra is no easy task. Gould’s Heldentenor was lyrical and fairly restrained, but no less expressive for that, especially in Siegfried’s dying breaths, before the RPO took on a heroic account of the ‘Funeral March’. Overall this condensation of Wagner’s monumental achievement left a stirring and exalting impression, as this music should.

Prom 68: Wagner Night – Marc Albrecht conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Christine Goerke & Stephen Gould Read More »

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