Inspired by Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opp.21 & 61 – Overture & Scherzo
Much Ado About Nothing – Suite, Op.11
Three Songs from William Shakespeare Songs
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
Hamlet – Suite, Op.32a

Prunella Scales & Timothy West (speakers)

Anna Dennis (mezzo-soprano)

Britten Sinfonia
Alexander Shelley

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 July, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

No sooner has the Proms started in the Royal Albert Hall, but the newest strand to the Proms brand (incepted last year) – Saturday Matinees at Cadogan Hall – also got going. Still only four concerts, each highlighting a chamber orchestra, PSMs have become a popular adjunct to the main season.

There could be no better beginning than with the Britten Sinfonia, recently awarded a Royal Philharmonic Society award and here filling Cadogan Hall’s platform for a programme of ‘Shakespeare in Music’, one of this year’s themes. Indeed it could easily have been given a title after a phrase Korngold used after his future wife Luise von Sonnenthal had told him that his music for “Much Ado About Nothing” was a “little masterpiece”. He replied “Eine kleine Bühnenmusik!” (A Little Theatre Music).

On hand (unannounced in advance) were Prunella Scales and Timothy West – long-time Proms supporters, they had attended the opening concert – to recite choice examples of the Bard himself, as a preface to each piece of music.

Thus, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had two of the most famous Shakespearean musical references: the opening of “Twelfth Night” (“If music be the food of love”) from West and Scales delivering Portia’s musing on music from “The Merchant of Venice”. Before the Korngold we had an elderly (but no less communicative for that – could a production be set amongst the Chelsea Pensioners, one wonders) incarnation of Beatrice and Benedick, with Scales – of course – having the last word. West recited Sonnet 128 before Stravinsky’s settings of Shakespeare, while Scales took the part of Gertrude in telling of Ophelia’s death to introduce Frank Bridge’s piece that takes that speech’s famous opening line as its title, “There is a willow grows aslant a brook, before West assumed the title-role of “Hamlet” as a preface to Shostakovich.

Alexander Shelley, conducting throughout without a score (perhaps not surprising in the Mendelssohn, but very impressive in the rest, not exactly repertoire pieces), proved himself in the many moods, if allowing the Britten Sinfonia too much head in Mendelssohn’s Overture, which really should be much quieter in its ‘fairy’ passages. Other than that, collectively they put hardly a foot wrong, the Korngold suffused with late-Romantic ardour, the Bridge a darker post-war melancholy. Both these pieces sided out of the Shakespearean theme to herald two other Proms interests this year: It is the 50th-anniversary of Korngold’s death and the Bridge was given its world première at the Proms in 1927, the first year of the BBC’s stewardship of the festival.

Which leaves the two Russians. Stravinsky’s “Three Songs from William Shakespeare” (Sonnet 8 – Music to Heare; Full Fathom Five from “The Tempest”; and When Daisies Pied from “Love’s Labours Lost”) are scored for voice, flute, clarinet and viola. Dating from 1953, with Stravinsky in exile in Los Angeles, they were his contribution to a musical co-operative’s “Evenings on the Roof” series. Not only are these his first and sole settings of Shakespeare, but also they marked his assumption of serial technique, although here it is the sparseness of the scoring rather than the 12-note rows that might indicate his Second Viennese School forebears. Offering a more reflective central section to the concert, joining Britten Sinfonia principals, was soprano Anna Dennis (who missed a second curtain call, such was the audience’s enthusiasm, leaving just flautist Michael Cox, clarinettist Joy Farrall and violist Clare Finnimore to take their bow).

To end was Shostakovich’s first take on “Hamlet” (much later than this 1932 incidental score he would compose music for a film), where he took iconoclast director Nikolay Akimov’s skewed attitude of the play, making Ophelia less than pure, Claudius ineffectual (and even likeable) and Hamlet something of a bored glutton. The 13-movement suite, taken from the 40-odd pieces Shostakovich wrote, barely lets up on the tub-thumping sarcasm, bringing the concert to a rousing, if slightly anti-Shakespearean, end.

No time for an encore, even though the concert finished early and BBC Radio 3’s schedule was generous. Shame, I was secretly hoping for the overture to Wagner’s “Das Liebesverbot”, his early opera based on “Measure for Measure”, with the overture probably the most vibrant (and certainly tambourine-heavy) music he ever wrote. Alas, not. Another day, perchance…

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