Nobuyuki Tsujii (piano) and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Domingo Hindoyan. Photo: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou

Prom 70: The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – Honeggar, Rachmaninov, Ortiz and Bernstein

Arthur Honegger

Sergey Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op.30

Gabriela Ortiz
Clara (UK premiere)

Leonard Bernstein
Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’

Nobuyuki Tsujii (piano)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Domingo Hindoyan

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 8 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Those wanting an adrenalin fix had no reason to look any further than this penultimate Prom that seemed to encompass ‘something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue’. 

Arthur Honegger’s Rugby, or Symphonic Movement No. 2, was written for the recently formed Orchestre Symphonique de Paris in 1928 and its restless energy fully captures the vitality of the sport that it evokes. Honegger insisted the piece was not programme music, but an evocation of the game’s ‘attacks and counterattacks’ imagined at the Stade de Colombes. Marked by Stravinskian gestures and vividly scored, this performance underlined its relentless athleticism and was strongly conveyed by team Liverpool. If perhaps too indigestible for an amuse-bouche, this rarity neatly coincided with the start of the Rugby World Cup in France.

Far more compelling was the music making from the 34-year-old blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii who had made his Proms debut in 2013 with Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Learning scores largely from recordings and Braille, it’s little wonder Tsujii has acquired pop star status in his native Japan, and watching him perform, after running his right hand to the end of the keyboard to gauge where to place his hands, one can only marvel at his achievements. There is no doubting his technique, although the opening movement of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto brought both finesse and a little clunkiness, a small price to pay for not being able to see one’s fingers on the keyboard. The account was an understated collaboration that allowed plenty of inner detail to register, with well-judged tempi bringing nothing sentimental or overly histrionic. Silky strings paved the way for Tsujii’s bone china tone in the ‘Intermezzo’, now variously passionate and glittering, its Hollywood tune ardently shaped. The Finale’s rollercoaster journey sashayed along with impressive momentum, its bravura apotheosis prompting a standing ovation. As an encore Tsujii gave the riotously jazzy Concert Etude Op. 40, No. 1 by Soviet composer Nikolai Kapustin. 

The relationship between Robert Schumann and his wife was the starting point for Clara by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz: a 2021 work here receiving its UK premiere. Variously arresting, dreamy and shape shifting, its five movements conjured, not so much a musical portrait, but a personal response from Ortiz, its startling orchestral sonorities including one unsettling passage for solo cello and muted brass that carried echoes of Charles Ives. For all its imaginative scoring, this Schumann encounter was possibly a creative leap too far, its invented interior life causing some head scratching from my immediate neighbour.

More obviously related to its subject was Bernstein’s West Side Story for which his Symphonic Dances were arranged in 1960. And what a rousing finish this was to the season. With playing as electrifying as this, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Domingo Hindoyan are clearly at the top of their game.

Photo: BBC/ Andy Paradise

Prom 66: Rufus Wainwright

Want One [album recreated in full preceded by ‘Want Symphonic Overture’; encore was ‘Going to a Town’ from the album Release the Stars]

Rufus Wainwright

BBC Concert Orchestra
Sarah Hicks

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 5 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Few festivals can compete with the range of music presented at the Proms since founder-conductor Henry Wood took up the reins in 1895.  At the season’s original Queen’s Hall venue, destroyed during the Blitz, programmes were routinely constructed from popular ballads, cornet solos and the like in addition to classical overtures, marches and shorter extracts. The hall even offered primitive moving pictures as well as fine music at first. That said, Western art music was the focus of the endeavour with both contemporary music from outside that tradition and even smaller, older choral pieces generally perceived as beyond the pale. There was controversy as recently as 1997 when The King’s Singers placed music by Clément Janequin alongside seven Beatles covers. You don’t have to subscribe to Anthony Burgess’s bleak view of pop stardom as immaturity – ‘a wretched little pseudo-musical gift, a development of the capacity to shock, a short-lived notoriety, extreme depression, a yielding to the suicidal impulse’ – to fear for the survival of the Sir Henry’s educative mission in the 2020s.

All of which is a little unfair on the multi-talented Rufus Wainwright. He may tick some of Burgess’s boxes (and others) but no-one could accuse him of writing only the kind of ‘popular music’ that can be evaluated in terms of its contribution to the bottom line. In June he released an album of folksong collaborations, Folkocracy, celebrating the musical legacy of his own famous family. Reviews were mixed but Want One, his benignly narcissistic third album sounds audaciously grand and wonderful twenty years on. You’d expect nothing less from an artist who has subsequently dared sing Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été in concert, has had a go at writing opera and is said to be working on a musical and a Requiem.One might wish for a narrower focus but that is not his way.

Tonight we were promised ‘brand new symphonic arrangements created specially for the Proms’ – some mistake surely given that the composer/performer had an overlapping set with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia only last month. The youngsters in marketing seemed most enthused by the promised guest appearance of one-time Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears, 44, in the separate Want Two recreation starting at 10.15pm, too late for this 65-year-old.Wainwright himself is 50 and has played the Royal Albert Hall before, with and without the benefit of Proms branding. The Japanese-American Sarah Hicks conducted, a Morricone enthusiast and no musician has ever been more adaptable and ageless than he.

The evening began with a purely orchestral overture promising much, a twinkling, opulent medley credited online on the BBC Proms website to a John Hickin but more plausibly the work of Joshua Hickin. Discreetly miked up it seemed sensitive to both occasion and acoustics and even embraced a fugal episode. Also splendid was the album opener, ‘Oh What a World’. The song kicks off with an unassuming oompah accompaniment on tuba, morphing into a typically offbeat epic conceptually indebted to ‘What Now, My Love?’, Cal Sigman’s English-language version of Gilbert Bécaud’s ‘Et maintenant’ (as covered by Judy Garland, Elvis Presley et al). Rather than using just the recurring ostinato from Ravel’s Boléro, Wainwright borrows the actual tune and what sounds like a full-strength orchestra even on the original album. The lyrics, self-centred but joyous and positive, were audible in the big barn. So far so good. As throughout the evening Wainwright’s singing was strong, a curious mix of the grateful and the wearing, superbly accomplished on its own terms. The colour remains oddly nasal yet capable of conveying emotional weight with real beauty, vibrato gilding the line.

What happened next was on one level disappointing. The tendency to pump up the volume after the first few songs (as in every rock-oriented event I have ever attended), had the unfortunate effect of muffling much of the reimagined instrumental texture, thrusting the vocal line (quite unnecessarily) forward at the expense of mid-range detail. Instrumental filigree was visible to the eye, but in the driving, rock-oriented material, largely inaudible from my seat. Songs like the glorious, apocalyptic ‘Beautiful Child’ were bound to be impactful anyhow. Wainwright, dressed idiosyncratically and exuding offbeat charm, addressed the crowd to admit to technical difficulties with his word prompt, acknowledge his limitations as a pianist and pay tribute to his collaborators. The main arrangers were Sally Herbert and Maxim Moston (Max Mostin according to the BBC Proms website).

As a show the concert will probably be judged more successful than his previous Prom, a late-night appearance here in 2014 with Deborah Voigt, but it was not the radical reinvention that might have been hoped for. Was that inevitable? John Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements for Peter Gabriel have been genuinely transformative, adding another dimension to determinedly non-acoustic originals. Wainwright stands rather in the tradition of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman or, closer to home, Van Dyke Parks, because the sound is already half ay there. Radio listeners may have been in a better position to make a judgement, undistracted by the busy rockshow lighting and aural anomalies.  Needless to say the hall was full, the enthusiasm boundless. Was this a Prom or a tour date pulling in its own demographic? Do such questions even matter anymore?

Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Prom 65: BBCSO/Bychkov – Bruckner 8

Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 revision, edited Leopold Nowak)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 4 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Coming on the composer’s 199th-birthday (what bliss 2024 will surely be for Brucknerians) the Eighth had this Prom all to itself. Accordingly, Semyon Bychkov gave an unhurried survey of it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (the movements clocking in at around 18, 15, 27 and 24 minutes for what it’s worth – a stately 85 minutes or so in all, in this edition of the 1890 version by Nowak that is actually slightly shorter than Haas’s) without particularly emphasising the grandiose in this largest of Bruckner’s complete Symphonies. Rather there was a reflective, restrained sense of resignation or wistfulness, sometimes weariness, carried across the BBCSO’s beautifully wrought melodies – it’s not so often that Bruckner sounds quite so songful and as though influenced by opera, even in the more determined first theme of the Scherzo.

If the great Adagio springs from the same syncopated rhythm as the mystical love duet of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde, overall it was something more of the serenity (even if won through experience and suffering) of Parsifal which prevailed – at least in the first three movements. The climax of the Adagio third was certainly glorious and arose naturally from all that went before. But that and the climaxes in the Symphony up to that point weren’t especially searing or apocalyptic. The unison brass notes towards the end of the first movement (before it subsides into its grim ‘deathwatch’ coda) registered more as brittle and defeated than stark or defiant.

Drama came with the Finale – as it should, if not previously in the Symphony – right at its thumping outset. That was then sustained not only within the subsequent turbulent sections of that movement, but also between the contrasting quieter passages, which fell back into the earlier state of comparative repose. Somehow the soft focus of the latter, calmly creeping in each time, didn’t hold up the musical argument. Instead, on the analogy of the ‘cathedrals in sound’ it was as though, having traversed the long nave of the first three movements in a more or less uniform style, that was now more dynamically intersected with a different sort of architectural character and rhythm, to generate successfully a new narrative tension and urgency in the last movement, carrying it on to the Symphony’s conclusion – the point at which the true climax is reached in the wonderful torrent of themes in its coda, rather than the generously expansive climax of the Adagio here.

It was an intriguing and refreshing combination of elements, taking the long view, but integrated into a satisfying unity. Some blurred sonorities from the horns, and a couple of garbled entries by the woodwind in the Scherzo (at different points in its first statement and recapitulation respectively) were fairly incidental accidents (three or four ringing mobiles from the audience were less excusable). Some may prefer a grander, richer account of the work. But this had grace and an inscrutable logic of its own.

Photo: BBC/ Andy Paradise

Prom 64: Berlioz’s Les Troyens

Les Troyens – opera in five Acts to a libretto by the composer after Virgil’s Aeneid [sung in French with English surtitles]

Cassandra – Alice Coote
Aeneas – Michael Spyres
Dido – Paula Murrihy
Coroebus – Lionel Lhote
Ascanius – Adèle Charvet
Narbal / Hector / Trojan Sentry – Alex Rosen
Panthus – Ashley Riches
Anna – Beth Taylor
Iopas / Hylas – Laurence Kilsby
Hecuba – Rebecca Evans
Priam – Tristan Hambleton
Helenus – Graham Neal
A Soldier – Sam Evans

Monteverdi Choir

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Dinis Sousa

Tess Gibbs – Movement Director
Rick Fisher – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 3 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Having performed two other of Berlioz’s epic stage-works at the Proms in recent years with its founder Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique now turned to the grandest of them all, Les Troyens – by coincidence in the same season in which the two other operatic offerings were also in French. As has become widely known, Gardiner was due to conduct this Prom, but ‘decided to withdraw’ as the programme put it, following an alleged fracas at a previous performance of the opera with the same forces in France. (William Thomas, on the receiving end of that incident, also was not present, with Alex Rosen and Tristan Hambleton taking his place in the roles of Narbal and Priam respectively.)

Gardiner was replaced here by Dinis Sousa. Although the ORR and the soloists’ interpretation will surely have been imprinted by Gardiner’s vision of the work in their recent performances elsewhere, Sousa still seemed to make this rendition impressively his own, crafting and moulding the score with his animated conducting on the podium, especially in the livelier instrumental sections, where precision of detail and articulation didn’t run counter to the music’s innate expressiveness. A generally translucent approach ensured that the orchestra didn’t overpower the singers, but supported them with some finely shaded pastel colours. Just sometimes there could have been a more foreboding tension in the performance. But undoubtedly there was a caution and poise which aptly pointed back to the Classical formality and balance of Gluck (whom Berlioz greatly admired) rather than straining forward to a heady Wagnerian surge – as much in the compelling restraint of Cassandra and Coroebus’s Act One dialogue or Dido and Aeneas’s rapturous duet of nighttime ecstasy (not unlike Tristan and Isolde’s in idea, which it anticipates rather than copies) as in some of the finely sculpted edifices of choral sound. That said, here the sinister, dark sonorities with snarling brass at the opening of Act Two, and its syncopated throbbing, rightly looked ahead to the terrifyingly brooding atmosphere of Act Two of Götterdämmerung.

Virtually without exception, the cast were outstanding in their idiomatic realisation of their roles. If there is now a slightly shrill drawl in Alice Coote’s voice, it lent a suitably eerie, unworldly veneer to the music of Cassandra, the prophetess fated not to be believed and who dominates the first two Acts. Ultimately, therefore, Coote drew one into the character’s vulnerability and tragedy, but also her courage and nobility as she commits suicide to avoid capture by the Greeks, paralleling Dido’s demise in the work’s second half. Paula Murrihy’s Queen of Carthage by contrast was dignified and forbearing, not given to any histrionics, but able to command by the sheer clarity and lustre of her singing. Her careful inflections of words were all the more telling and dramatically effective as she coaxed or sarcastically addressed Aeneas, or movingly contemplated death after he had forsaken her in pursuit of his predestined journey to Italy. Beth Taylor was an apt foil to Dido as her sister, Anna, in exuding some coquetry and friskiness, playing a buffa part to the Queen’s serious one.

Although Berlioz diligently constructs the role of Aeneas so as not really to constitute a dramatically central one, Michael Spyres projected an effortless, steady heroism, filling the Royal Albert Hall in both urgent and tender passages without booming, even if his acting was not nearly so charged. But his music told all, in its seamless blending with both orchestra and Murrihy’s voice. The four principal baritone or bass parts were well taken: Lionel Lhote’s assiduous and direct Coroebus (Cassandra’s betrothed); Ashley Riches’s vividly charismatic Panthus; and Hambleton, first as the ghost of Hector, issuing a plangent instruction to re-establish the Trojan community in Italy from the organ loft (unillumined) across the stage to Aeneas, and then as a characterful Narbal. Laurence Kilsby was a touch tremulous in the two roles of Iopas and Hylas – perhaps not surprising in trying to carry a high tenor register in such a large space – but he certainly sustained a beautifully lyrical line in the songs which Berlioz gives to each of those characters.

Just as dramatically involved was the Monteverdi Choir – musically immaculate but demonstrating admirable versatility in switching between different groups who are never anonymous commentators on the action but crowds actively caught up in it, first as prematurely jubilant Trojans and in their subsequent prayer to the gods, already marked by an intensity that skilfully hinted at nervousness instead of assurance, and later as Carthaginians vehemently cursing Aeneas. The female section were especially magnificent, negotiating the chromatic wailing of the Trojan women lamenting the fall of Troy, and the Orientalism of Berlioz’s writing for the chorus of Nubian slave girls in Act Four.

As the choir was also fully engaged choreographically – for instance with their jostling at the front and back of the stage at the very beginning, and mimes for the Royal Hunt and Storm pantomime which opens Act Four – and the soloists also came and went through the orchestra to enact some of the narrative, all enhanced through appropriate lighting, it was a pity that the spectacle wasn’t captured for television broadcast, seeing that the work’s large scale means that it is not often mounted. Nevertheless, the musical dimension alone made it dramatically and emotionally gripping. With only a week to go for this year’s Proms, it can be confidently asserted that this was one of this season’s standout events.

Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (Performed from memory). Photo: BBC/Andy Paradise

Prom 62: The Rite by Heart

Various Artists
A dramatic and musical exploration of Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring (performed from memory)

Jane Mitchel – concept and script
Anouar Brisset – projections
James Bonas – stage director
Karl Queensborough – actor
Charlotte Ritchie – actor

Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Colon

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

From the primeval darkness an eerie, reedy sound grows and oscillates. The lights gradually reveal a white-floored Royal Albert Hall stage littered with some white boxes, on one of which bassoonist Amy Harman stands, ululating the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

In a Proms season that has me running out of superlatives – even just in the penultimate week of the Proms – Aurora raises the bar even higher. With Nicholas Collon, Aurora’s Proms performances from memory really do refresh parts of a concert hall that other orchestras cannot reach. That’s the literal truth, at this afternoon performance (the first of two), when for two encores players streamed from the stage to stand down the stairs from each door in the stalls and also into the arena to revisit parts of the chosen work in a live surround sound that probably doesn’t work as well on Radio 3 (on the evening relay) given the distance to the microphones. As Collon says ‘there’s nothing as thrilling as being inside the orchestra” and with his players unencumbered by parts and stands they can make the stalls at least hear from within. Quite simply, WOW!

Of course, Aurora and Collon have form: ten years’ worth, in fact, since they gave Mozart 40 from memory in 2014. Since then Jupiter has been committed to memory as have four symphonies by Beethoven (in order, PastoralEroica, No 7 – broadcast from an empty Royal Albert Hall during Covid in 2020 – and No 5), as well as Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony and Stravinsky’s 1945 Firebird

How to celebrate ten years of memorising music?  Go for the biggie, obviously, and The Rite of Spring it was, already run in from Aldeburgh via Helsinki, and here – as has become tradition – prefaced by a first half that helps explain the music, hence Amy Harman’s first rendition (today) of the famous high bassoon solo which starts the work. Actors Karl Queensborough and Charlotte Ritchie opened the well-curated 40 minutes or so of history and context, starting with some of the tall tales about the premiere in May 1913 of Stravinsky’s third ballet for Diaghilev, and joined by Collon himself who unpicked some of the musical secrets of this influential work. He even got the audience to clap four different rhythms underpinning The Dance of the Earth – including horn triplets and trumpet semiquavers, to interrogate the complexity of Stravinsky’s vision. We also got to count the 11 string and timpani chords that herald The Glorification of the Chosen Onetoo. Collon could spotlight various combinations which could be illustrated by grouping instruments differently on stage – and the players emulated Iván Fischer’s Budapesters by singing the Lithuanian folk tune that Stravinsky manipulated to fashion the very opening. The actors pieced together the long gestation period of the work, and his collaboration with designer Nicholas Roerich, who worked on the scenario with Stravinsky. From Stravinsky’s many reminiscences, we heard his shock about how slow the dances wanted his music and Ian Farrington was on hand to enliven the tale of Stravinsky taking his seat at the piano stool and playing how fast he wanted the music to go.

Invigorating in itself, with a concept by the orchestra’s Jane Mitchell and directed with a fluent ease by James Bonas, the ‘living programme note’ of the first half of the concert was a mere taster for the second half: a complete performance from memory, everyone save cellos and basses standing.

To say it was electrifying seems damning with faint praise. It was utterly exhilarating, and as convincing a performance I’ve ever heard (and there have been many, especially at the Proms). Whether enhanced by the introduction to the piece or the nature of the standing players unencumbered by parts and music stands, this performance thrilled both the ear and the eye. One stray brass entry seemed entirely understandable amidst the collective feat of musical memory and prowess and the audience response was ecstatic, and certainly more unanimous than the original audience in May 1913.

I wonder where Aurora will go next in committing music to memory. I hope the Proms will be the place they do it.

Aaron Azunda Akugbo (trumpet) and the Chineke! Orchestra. Photo: BBC/ Mark Allen

Prom 61: Chineke! Orchestra/Anthony Parnther perform Valerie Coleman, Coleridge-Taylor, Haydn, Coleridge Perkinson and Beethoven

Valerie Coleman
Seven O’Clock Shout

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Four Noveletten for String Orchestra, Op. 52

Joseph Haydn
Trumpet Concerto in E flat major

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson
Sinfonietta No. 1 – Rondo

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major

Aaron Azunda Akugbo (trumpet)

Chineke! Orchestra
Anthony Parnther

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 1 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

At least three proms’ premieres (though one was curiously not indicated as such in the programme) and two cornerstone pieces of the classical repertoire staples: there was so much to enjoy – and enjoy we did in the packed Royal Albert Hall!

The concert opened with the first proms performance of a work by American composer Valerie Coleman that drew its inspiration from the public percussive weekly tributes to health and care workers selflessly helping others during the Covid-19 Pandemic worldwide. A time when eerily silent streets suddenly became alive with noise of shouts and striking of pans in the early evening. One might have thought this could become rather sombre and indeed the opening theme as it developed had a gentle and affecting melancholy about it. However, the piece is generally playful as the interplay of the wind instruments over a regularly pulsating underlay suddenly erupts into the ebullient celebration of improvisatory instruments and human voices making a din with abandon in an amazing aural recreation of those times. This is followed by an orchestral chorale-like section that brings the work to an positive close. At about 6 minutes duration this is a perfect opener and, one suspects, could become a popular encore. 

No less entertaining was the Proms premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Four Noveletten. These are short orchestral vignettes – each with a whimsical dance-like quality, although the third of them, the only one with a name of a dance in its title (Valse), actually proves to be the emotional core of the four; it has an intensity about it that seems to be addressing something more deeply and overtly emotional. The first Allegro moderato is characterised by a lilting dance that is taken over by the lower strings with an attractive theme that is developed and repeated with the tambourine and triangle – the only two non-string instruments in the ensemble – making their characterful presence felt. The Larghetto second Novelette is even more delicate, and at its core is a solo cello theme, here given a luxuriant and silky performance by Desmond Naysmith. The final dance is one of rhythmic strength delivered with brio by the Chineke! Players.

This same vitality informed the Rondo of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No.1. The work is characterised by a seemingly jaunty and angular melody that is ‘argued’ by the strings becoming bolder and forceful, but never angry, as this occurs. Reminiscent of some of the music of Michael Tippett, albeit form a very different tradition, it is a work that belongs unmistakably to its period of composition (1953) and should be better known.

And so, to the staples. Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat major is an understandably popular work – gently showy and fun. Aaron Azunda Akugbo’s performance was just that. Although standing front-of-stage the initial sounds he produced seemed to come from within the ensemble such was his control of dynamic. His legato playing is impressively fluid and his careful yet sparing use of a vibrato-like quality to the sound most beguiling. The performance and his cadenza were all about the instrument; his rather self-effacing performance bringing huge dividends in that demanding final rondo. The enthusiastic audience response demanded an encore – duly rewarded by a mellow rendition of Florence Price’s Adoration (another proms premiere?) with unconducted, gently undulating accompaniment from his orchestral colleagues.

The final work was a roller-coaster ride of a performance of Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. Conductor Anthony Parnther led a performance notable for its crispness, light and shade. The brooding opening had a tinge of menace to it and then sunshine burst through. The pace was excitingly fast and frenetic; the wind soloists challenged to give of their virtuosic best and responding triumphantly – well-played that bassoon! Yet despite the dangerously fast tempi throughout, the whole avoided raucousness and orchestral felicities registered owing to the precision of the players and overall control of volume. The effervescence was all there too. Terrific!

Photo: Andy Paradise

Prom 60: Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra

Kurt Weill
Kleine Dreigroschenmusik

Thomas Adès
Piano Concerto

Sergey Rachmaninov
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 31 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Berlin has so many ensembles that the identity of this one was not immediately apparent (to me at least). The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is in fact the contemporary manifestation of the East German radio orchestra kept going by conductor Rolf Kleinert when many of its players fled West with the construction of the Berlin Wall and sounding in pretty fine fettle sixty years on. Directed by Marek Janowski for much of the present century, Jurowski has been its chief conductor since 2017 and he looks set to remain so despite his grander job as Generalmusikdirektor of the Bavarian State Opera. By accident or design tonight’s programme reflected the peripatetic internationalism of his own career. It will also be given in Berlin’s Philharmonie.

The team began on home turf with Weill’s suite, originally presented by Otto Klemperer, a po-faced interpreter in later life which perhaps explains the conductor’s reluctance to exaggerate or over-point. He and his orchestra are no strangers to the idiom yet this was one of those performances which will have sounded far better on air than it did in the hall. Smaller wind-based ensembles in the Royal Albert Hall give out waves of sound that not only travel to the far end of the building but bounce back again, producing aural confusion from most seats. Jurowski’s tempos were mostly relaxed, the attack not-quite sharp enough, but then the zippier approach to the uptempo foxtrot and Charleston movements merely confused the ear. Kirill Gerstein played in the ensemble.

‘Too clever by half’ sums up the uncomprehending contemporary reaction to much of Benjamin Britten’s early output. Adès’s Piano Concerto is rather different, a deliberate provocation in the manner of Gerald Barry. Taunting the listener with its callous, empty brilliance, it has nonetheless been widely acclaimed. Lasting around twenty minutes, the score resembles nothing so much as an extended, updated Hoffnung gag about concerto writing. Somewhere in the tangle of notes, Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto is crossed with Ligeti, meeting Gershwin, Prokofiev, Bartók and many more along the way, possibly Britten himself. The solo part was dispatched with apparent aplomb by the pianist for whom it was written, not the first time he has wowed the London audience with its torrent of figuration. To describe the work as did one Boston critic as Adès’s ‘greatest achievement to date’ seems wholly bonkers. It is a technically bulletproof product of genius but something has gone badly wrong if the best we can expect of a 21st-century piano concerto is a cartoon.  Least vacuous is the downbeat ‘processional’ slow movement: fewer notes, more gongs and, perhaps, more heart. The encore was the pianist’s own arrangement of an early Rachmaninov song, ‘In the silence of the secret night’, the third of his Six Romances Op.4. A kind of bridge to the second half as was suggested.

Rachmaninov never appeared at the Proms, whatever Vladimir Jurowski chooses to believe, although he did play his own Second Piano Concerto at Henry Wood’s Jubilee concert in the Royal Albert Hall, just days after the end of the 1938 season during which the conductor introduced the Third Symphony to Proms audiences. (The Queen’s Hall in Langham Place was the season’s regular venue until the building’s destruction during a bombing raid at the height of the Blitz.)  Jurowski saved the best or at least the most novel part of tonight’s concert until the very end, disinterring Wood’s own heavy-handed arrangement of the C-sharp minor Prelude as an encore. It was fascinating to hear once, an organist’s arrangement as my companion suggested.  In a brief address before his encore the conductor also informed the audience that Rachmaninov and Sir Henry were friends (true) and that the Third Symphony had received its first UK outing under Sir Henry (false – I think it was Beecham). Once wholly neglected – the composer ruefully noted that only three people really liked the Symphony: Wood, the violinist Adolf Busch and Rachmaninov himself – it has become sufficiently familiar for one to carp at some of Jurowski’s decisions. Dispensing with the first-movement exposition repeat, he obtained much fine playing with plentiful expressive slides from the strings and eloquent touches from the winds, but why the gratuitous lingering?  Even in the dangerously episodic finale, where Rachmaninov’s intentions remain distinctly mysterious to this listener, living in the moment took precedence over structural cohesion, although the ending was mercifully unmannered. Elsewhere more drive would have been nice. The players were seated ‘centrally’ and quite far back on the platform with more of them than usual positioned on raised levels. This seemed to firm up the sound nicely. The hall was commendably full though there were empty seats, the audience generally quiet.

Photo: Andy Paradise

Prom 59: Paavo Järvi, Augustin Hadelich & Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich – Beethoven, Tchaikovsky & Dvořák

Ludwig van Beethoven
Overture ‘The Consecration of the House, Op.124

Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35

Antonín Dvořák
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Augustin Hadelich

Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich

Paavo Järvi

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 30 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Welcome ‘old-fashioned’ programming – overture, concerto, symphony. Super-league conductor. A-class Central-European orchestra. Poet-virtuoso soloist. Sell-out house, five-thousand plus, cheering, roaring and stamping.

To open, Beethoven’s Handelian late concert overture The Consecration of the House, introduced to the Proms by Henry Wood in 1896, Paavo Järvi sculpted a grand processional opening, hard-stick drums, glittering woodwind, noble brass, richly grained strings (antiphonal violins, double basses left of stage), sharp attack and keenly terraced, hairpin dynamics setting the tone for the evening to come. The culminating fugue was lithe and urgent, the musical argument, responses and phrased shifts of timbre brilliantly commanded, the Tonhalle-Orchester players on the edge of their seats, at one with their music director. Corporate playing of impeccable fire and urgency, soaring the moment, glorying in full-throated C-major resonance.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto comes and goes in one’s affections. Augustin Hadelich’s approach, enhanced by outstandingly detailed, ‘listening’ orchestral support, Järvi’s master-hand eloquently at the helm, sent it stratospheric. Mahogany-toned, never coarse, his 1744 ‘Leduc, ex Szeryng’ Guarneri del Gesù instrument spoke all the way from maiden to hero, Ural bard to Caucasian dancer, ringing out across the auditorium. The personality and temperament, the sheer elation, took me back to past greats, every gesture charged and nuanced with fresh insights and underlinings. A thrilling journey. For encore, Hadelich’s arrangement of ‘Howdy’ Forrester’s Appalachian-tuned ‘Wild Fiddler’s Rag’, pulsed and bent beneath a blue moon.

Dressing old favourites anew, brushing away cobwebs, was the heartbeat of this concert. Nothing was ordinary or routine. Järvi spelt it out in the programme book. “With a [familiar, well-known] piece like the ‘New World’ Symphony, you have to take a very strong personal point of view. Nobody’s interested in an average performance, or a good copy of another performance. The only reason to perform a piece like this is to bring something that’s yours to the music – but, that said, you should never impose anything artificial … Doing something differently for the sake of it is just a gimmick, and that’s simply not interesting. I remember when I was a student in America, I saw Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the piece, and my jaw just dropped … everything was different: it was singing and dancing, and there were nuances I’d never heard before.”

I first experienced the ‘New World’ in 1959. Malcolm Sargent, LPO, Royal Albert Hall pre ‘flying saucer’ acoustic. Stirring somewhere within those nostalgic ghosts of gone-by days, aweing and silencing the room, Järvi’s magnificent reading floored me. This was a golden account of the daring-to-risk variety, the stakes high. From first crack of the drums to a phenomenal Largo of hyperbole-prompting dynamics at the quietest end of the spectrum, cor anglais (Simon Fuchs) and strings, the orchestra, breathing as one … from a precision attack Scherzo, hard-sticked timpani again to the fore (Klaus Schwärzler), meticulous rhythms, the Tonhalle’s celebrated woodwind choir in rustic Bohemian cry, to an epic Finale, the heavy brass in forged, spine-tingling unanimity, the string accents gruffly edged … this was an elevated ‘New World’ penetratingly re-examined from the page. Järvi’s discreet rubatos and commas, his trademark control of tempo and time changes, the cultured way he welds and cadences structure – globally and internally – lifted events to a quite extraordinary degree. The stuff of memory. For encore, showcasing the strings, Hugo Alfven’s Shepherd Girls’ Dance from his 1923 ballet-pantomime The Mountain King – Estonian Festival Orchestra territory, stunningly coordinated, Andreas Janke leading.

Regretful that the occasion was not televised, out to Kensington Gore, crowds streaming away, the Victorian rotunda and lamps of the Hall behind us, the Albert Memorial before, unpeopled, lit to the stars. The 52 and 390 to King’s Cross. The Cambridge train to fields and silence beyond. My Proms are over for another year.

The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle perform Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 9. Photo: BBC/ Mark Allan

Prom 56: LSO/Rattle Mahler 9

Francis Poulenc
Figure humaine

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No.9 in D

BBC Singers

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 27 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Not the first concert to be marketed as Sir Simon’s farewell to the LSO (nor, one suspects, quite the last) but a memorable occasion all the same, given before a raptly attentive full house. There was only one intrusive mobile phone contribution and a single protracted round of coughing in the 80 minutes of the Mahler. The Ninth’s closing gestures of dissolution have made the piece as a whole seem like a deliberate parting shot though we can only really say that it was the last of Mahler’s completed works to be set before the public.

First though tonight came Poulenc’s secular cantata of protest, newly totemic for this conductor in the wake of the proposed axing of the BBC Singers. The music was intended for a much bigger ensemble than the 24 tonight – even the 84 mustered when an earlier manifestation of the BBC Singers premiered the score in 1945 was something of a compromise with members of the Variety Chorus ‘hardly used to this kind of music’ (as BBC producer Edward Lockspeiser remarked) having to be brought in. Poulenc is said to have had as many as 200 voices in his mind’s ear. Oddly enough his composition was not sung at the Proms until twenty years later when John Alldis conducted his own choir in the second half of an all-French concert which finished with two movements from Messiaen’s La nativité du Seigneur. The first half’s orchestral fare, including Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, was assigned to Norman Del Mar and the Royal Philharmonic!  This was the BBC Singers’ third Proms account and inevitably the one with the highest profile. In the Barbican last April and very much at the eleventh hour, Rattle had paired the Singers’ Poulenc with the LSO’s Mahler (the Seventh Symphony) as a gesture of solidarity. Chaotic arts cuts are the most obvious if indirect legacy of Nadine Dorries’s time in government. This time there was no speechifying after a realisation remarkable for its technical finesse, clarity and range. The texts by Poulenc’s friend Paul Éluard are surrealistic but accessible enough to have become associated with the French Resistance, particularly the poem ‘Liberté’ which closes the cycle on a ringing not quite impossible high E. I don’t know whether the work was one the conductor knew well prior to the threat to the BBC Singers but he used a score and shared the applause with someone I assume from afar was the groups’s embattled chief conductor Sofi Jeannin.

Printed matter was not in evidence after the interval and it goes without saying that few if any contemporary conductors know their Mahler ‘better’. With tonight’s concert Rattle took his place alongside those who have directed the Ninth more than once at the Proms: Bernard Haitink (in 1970 and 2009) and Pierre Boulez (in 1971 and 1975). Sir Simon’s own previous account was with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1991. At the Royal Albert Hall he has also conducted the First (1987 and 2010), Second (1999 and 2022), Fifth (1997), Sixth (1984 and 1995), Seventh (1989 and 2016), Eighth (2002) and ‘Tenth’ symphonies – both the ‘Adagio’ alone (1994) and Deryck Cooke’s five-movement performing version (1982). There are already three commercial recordings of Sir Simon conducting the Ninth in Vienna, Berlin and Munich though not I think, for whatever reason, in Birmingham. Tonight’s account was certainly more controlled than the first of those, very much a young man’s view, challenging in a different way.

The performance, in many ways an appropriate end point for Rattle’s LSO tenure, reflected many of his current preoccupations. Antiphonally placed violins remain a thing for him and are certainly important in this piece. Notwithstanding this element of ‘authenticity’, the first movement was seen very much from the modernist end of the telescope, its emotional life secondary to the exposure of antic elements (harmonic and colouristic) that (whisper it quietly) might even have been smoothed away or ameliorated somewhat had the composer lived to conduct and revise the score. The strings as a whole majored on leanness and transparency, their slides never sentimental or Romantic, while the horns made Berio-ish noises. The conception followed a pattern set by last year’s Proms Resurrection, a slow-burn Rattle reading of comparable technical excellence, similarly reluctant to trade on older stereotypes of Late Romanticism. 

The Ninth’s second movement was superbly achieved yet so anti-bucolic, so remorseless in its ironizing of the material that there was arguably too little for the parodies to play ‘against’. The undeniably forward-looking and urban Rondo-Burleske responded superbly to Rattle’s approach, as might have been expected. More surprisingly perhaps the launch of the final Adagio, arriving without much pause, found the strings at last allowed a richly upholstered timbre. Going forward their sound was as sustained as it had been fractured in the first movement, winding down to silence at the close. That silence was well-maintained too. Then came ecstatic acclaim for a towering achievement achieved in part by dismantling received ideas about warmth, blend, style, spirituality and naturalness. While the music was no longer noticeably Judaic or Viennese, was that perhaps the point? Mahler made uncomfortable again, not easy listening but brilliant and new and belonging to us all. Following hard on the heels of a disappointing Boston Symphony Orchestra date, I should add that the playing of the LSO was genuinely world-class.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays Gershwin's Piano Concerto. Photo: BBC/ Chris Christodoulou

Prom 55: The Boston Symphony Orchestra 2/2 – Andris Nelsons/Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Carlos Simon, Stravinsky, Gershwin and Ravel

Carlos Simon
Four Black American Dances [European premiere]

Petrushka (1947 version)

Piano Concerto in F-major

La Valse

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

Andris Nelsons

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 26 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Come dancing might well have been the watchword of this second Prom given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under their Music Director, Andris Nelsons. I came away feeling much more satisfied than after their first appearance, and not only because of the more original and coherent programming. A second day at the same venue repaid dividends too in the tighter ensemble and more committed playing, leaving any vestiges of jetlag far behind.

The composer of Four Black American Dances, Carlos Simon, was in the audience to hear a performance which delivered exactly what was on the tin: four related but contrasting studies in the importance of music for Black American communities. From the start of “Ring Shout” there were waves of percussive energy, reminiscent of Bartók in his Miraculous Mandarin mode and more than a hint of Bernstein’s West Side Story, with additional input from players clapping their hands to accentuate the rhythm. The second dance “Waltz” revealed a more softly lyrical side, longer-breathed and appropriately suave in tone, the Boston first violins displaying a commendable purity of line in their uppermost register. In the third and shortest of the dances, “Tap!”, the infectious vitality of a Latin American fiesta was well to the fore, and in the concluding “Holy Dance” there were delicious spectral glides coming from the wah-wah effects of the trombones, bundles of jazz-infused syncopations and furious keyboard effects from the three percussion players kept perpetually busy. The Boston players certainly know how to do swing.

Nelsons took a broad and expansive view of Stravinsky’s strongly narrative score Petrushka. At thirty-eight minutes, it was one of the longest I have heard live, and yet nothing ever dragged or seemed indulgent, the individual episodes delivered with care and clarity, enabling the Bostonians to do justice to the vibrancy and seemingly endless invigoration that the score inhabits. Above the cushion of sweet-toned strings the principal trumpet provided repeated lashes of incisive brilliance, the infectious ripples from the piano driving the momentum on, while the sparkling allure of the flute, the aristocratic elegance of the oboe and the full-fat nougat of the bassoon were instrumental highlights. Nelsons might have underplayed the earthiness and rusticity that others have found in this music, but there was no mistaking the brilliance and detailed characterisation of the storyline. Three examples may suffice: “The Moor’s Room” already displayed a hint of ominous menace, “The Dance of the Nursemaids” was admirably fleet-footed, “The Dance of the Coachmen” bristled with swagger and self-importance. At the point of Petrushka’s death, when he falls victim to the Moor, Stravinsky instructs the tambourine player to let his instrument fall to the floor. This was chillingly and audibly observed, and in the concluding sequence where the ghost of the puppet appears, a plaintive violin solo and wraith-like sounds from the strings accompanied the slowly falling theatrical curtain, the audience waiting for the final pizzicatos to properly register before breaking into applause.

I find it odd that Gershwin’s Piano Concerto is not given more outings. It instinctively communicates its infectious appeal to an audience. Composed just a year after his triumph with Rhapsody in Blue, it is much closer to a traditional concerto in its three-movement pattern with a central slow movement allowing for repose and reflection, together with a pulsating rondo finale. When he conducted the composer as soloist in the 1925 premiere, Walter Damrosch commented in a programme note: “George Gershwin seems to have accomplished [a] miracle…he is the prince who has taken Cinderella [jazz] by the hand and openly proclaimed her a princess to the astonished world, no doubt to the fury of her envious sisters.” It was fortunate that one of today’s staunchest champions of the work, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, was tonight’s soloist. His identification with the jazz-inflected rhythms as well as the subtle and mercurial shifts in mood was palpable. Working hand-in-glove with Nelsons, with whom he regularly maintained eye contact, he ensured maximum buoyancy and irrepressible drive. Part of the mesmerising quality in the opening Allegro came from the filigree effects obtained in clutches of notes played very close together on the keyboard in repeated patterns. There was never anything hard-edged to Thibaudet’s playing, even in the intoxicating jazz syncopations which characterise the concluding movement. Most memorable of all was his treatment of the slow movement, where he found a teasing quality to his first entry, the expression of perfect nonchalance, picking up all the vibes from the bluesy trumpet (who had much work to do) and matching the dreamy sweetness of tone in the concertmaster’s solo. This was playing of great assuredness, redolent in charm and conviction.

Ravel’s own view of his choreographic poem La Valse was clear: “It is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and of the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.” There was much to admire in Nelsons’s approach to the work as well as in the finely-detailed playing of the Boston orchestra, demonstrating its excellence in all departments. From the gentle heartbeats at the start, through a slight feeling of unease marked by the horns, the bassoon plumbing the dark and murky depths, Nelsons moved in a series of slight shudders and agogic hesitations into a growing and agonising realisation that the ground below was slowly parting company with the feet in motion. He has both a keen ear for sonorities and colour as well as a balletic sweep which brought out all the dreamy languor and dramatic contrasts from timpani, bass drum and cymbals. Mahlerian sweet sickliness coloured the textures; the horns reintroducing menace and premonitions of doom. What stopped this La Valse from being great, rather than merely good, was how Nelsons approached the final pages. The steady control never sufficiently relaxed, the cracks were not permitted to open up and reveal the terrifying chasms below. At its close this piece is much less a waltz than a frenzied bacchanal. The listener needs to feel that the world has come to an all-embracing and shattering end. This was more of a controlled explosion.

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