The Proms Season 2009
Goodness, has the summer break finished already? Well, it is September and yet another season of Henry Wood Promenade concerts has come to an end. What a season it has been. There were many unmissable highlights, but here are my comments on just a few of the concerts that particularly caught my eyes and ears.
First Night – Friday, 17 July
Played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its conductor Jirí Belohlávek, the concert kicked off with Stravinsky's early piece Fireworks. Written in 1908 as an intended wedding present for Rimsky-Korsakov's daughter, Nadezhda, it never reached her. Stravinsky sent the score to her father, who died before it could be delivered to him; this was its first performance at the Proms. It was followed by another work receiving its first Prom performance: Chabrier's Ode á la musique, beautifully sung by soprano Ailish Tynan and the women of the BBC Symphony Chorus. The first section was completed by Stephen Hough playing what is now called Tchaikovsky's Third Piano Concerto, his final composition. In reality it comprises only a first movement with a substantial cadenza, and is derived from an abandoned symphony; an alternative title such as 'Allegro brillante for Piano and Orchestra' might be a better description. Although technically challenging, it is nowhere near the stature of his two previous concertos for the instrument.
The centre section of the concert brought a second piano on stage for Katia and Marielle Labèque to play Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos. This was a joy to watch and hear. The two sisters played with their trademark synchronicity, and even gave us an encore—four hands on one piano. Marvellous.
After the second interval, there were three works: Elgar's symphonic tone poem In the South (Alassio), the Brahms Alto Rhapsody and Bruckner's setting of Psalm 150. All three were finely executed. For the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, it was the turn of the men of the BBC Symphony Chorus, together with the mezzo-soprano Alice Coote. Finally the whole chorus rejoined, together with Ailish Tynan, to sing Bruckner's Psalm 150, a fitting conclusion to what had been a very long concert and the start of what promised to be an exciting Prom season.
Monday, 20 July
London Symphony Orchestra cond. Bernard Haitink
It was in the summer of 1909 that Mahler started the composition of his Ninth Symphony. It was in June 1969 that Bernard Haitink recorded the symphony as part of his first complete cycle of Mahler's symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra for the Philips record label. This was the first complete Mahler cycle that I purchased on LP, a boxed set of 16 records that cost a substantial amount of money at the time. Haitink was then aged 40; now aged 80, and with half a lifetime's experience of this magnificent work to call on, he again performed Mahler's last completed symphony, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra. Great orchestras respond to great conductors in great works, and this Prom gave us all three.
I was interested to compare Haitink's performances, then and now. In each of the four movements he is a little slower today, significantly so in the third movement, the Rondo Burlesqu, and it was here that a couple of times I felt I would have preferred a shade more foot on the gas pedal.
Nowadays, Haitink's performances of these symphonies are heard from the perspective of an overall structure, not only of the individual symphony, but also its place in the complete cycle of Mahler's work. Incidentally, this same view has been apparent in Valery Gergiev's readings of these symphonies in performances given over the last couple of years or so at the Barbican, again with the LSO.
Although the Ninth is symmetrical in structure, it is the last movement Adagio that is the raison d'etre for this work, and on this basis last night's performance could not and should not be faulted. For the closing pages, 5,000 people in the Royal Albert Hall held their breath, and continued to do so for ten seconds after the final, barely-audible D flat major chord. This was a Prom to be treasured. I have recorded it and will doubtless return to it many times in the future.
Wednesday, 22 July
800th Anniversary of Cambridge University
BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Sir Andrew Davis
This Prom commemorated the year 1209, significant as being the year in which a site of teaching and study began in the flat, marshy fenlands of Cambridgeshire. Over two centuries later, in 1464, the first documented Bachelor of Music degree was awarded to Henry Abyngdon. This concert was a celebration of staff and students, past and present, at the various Cambridge colleges that have contributed to the wealth of music that we know and love today. Among the 5,000-strong audience was HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, also a former Cambridge student.
Cambridge is world-famous musically in particular for its choral tradition: who has not listened to at least one Christmas Eve broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, an event that began in 1918 and has been broadcast continually since 1928 with the exception of only one year (1930). The elite of Cambridge's present choirs demonstrated the heights to which it has scaled. Sir Andrew Davis, himself a former Organ Scholar of King's College, conducted most of the pieces heard, except for two items in the second half when the choirs of St John's and King's colleges were conducted by their respective Directors of Music, Andrew Nethsingha and Stephen Cleobury.
What better way to start a concert than with an overture, and one exactly 100 years old. Ralph Vaughan Williams overture The Wasps was written for the 1909 Cambridge University production of Aristophanes’ play of that name. It is a well-known piece, but none the worse for hearing again all the same. As a student at King's College, one of RVW's teachers was Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, whose music was represented in the second half of the Prom.
Before the other Vaughan Williams work in this concert, we heard the World première of a new BBC-commissioned piece The Genesis of Secrecy by the 30 year-old composer/conductor Ryan Wigglesworth. Although a graduate of Oxford *said in a hushed tone*, he is a Lecturer in Music at Cambridge and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College. Although this short (10 mins) piece does not quote directly from others' music, the composer acknowledges that ideas were used as a framework that during the process of the work's composition was gradually hidden away.
The first part of the concert concluded with a performance of Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs. It was a pleasure to hear these songs for baritone and chorus complete: so often one only hears the popular final song, Antiphon, a setting of Let all the world in every corner sing, with its glorious choral writing, sung on this occasion by choirs from combined Cambridge colleges. The baritone, Simon Keenlyside, is, not surprisingly, a Cambridge graduate; not as you might have expected though, a student of music, but rather of zoology.
It must be something of a record that a work by Vaughan Williams' teacher Charles Villiers Stanford, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, written in 1880, should have to wait 129 years for a first performance at the Proms! It was given by the choirs of Clare, Gonville and Caius, and Trinity colleges. Stanford belongs to that group of Victorian establishment composers who have sadly been out of fashion now since the end of WWII. With music of this quality it is surely time for a revival of their work.
The Stanford piece was followed by two pieces from present-day former students of Cambridge University, both receiving their first outing at the Proms. The first was Jonathan Harvey's Come, Holy Ghost, sung by the choirs of King’s and St John’s colleges, conducted by St John's Director Music, Andrew Nethsingha. Beginning with a plainsong chant that sounds as though it could have been familiar to Machaut in the 14th Century, the composer takes us through 1,000 years of part-writing techniques in a mere seven minutes. The second of these two pieces Ascending into Heaven was by King's College alumnus Judith Weir, Britain's leading female composer. This piece for choirs with organ, has the organ part set in its highest registers for much of the time. Technically, it uses a melodic sequence in which the interval between each note and its successor is alternately a semitone then a whole tone. 'As an illustration of the title,' Weir notes, 'the music (especially the organ part) ascends frequently.'
The connectivity of the final work in this Cambridge-themed Prom was in all honesty a little contrived: Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony, 'The Organ Symphony'. The only link is the fact that the composer was awarded an Honorary Degree by the university in 1893. However it did give us an opportunity to hear the restored Royal Albert Hall organ at full-tilt; it really does sound magnificent. The organ part was played by Thomas Trotter, who like the conductor Andrew Davis, was also a King's College Organ Scholar. Davis described how in his earlier days he had not only played the organ part in this symphony, but had conducted the orchestra from the organ console, something he said he would not do (or be allowed to do) today— it was simply too dangerous.
So ended another long Prom1 but with three first-Prom performances included, well worth it.
Thursday, 23 July
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Vassily Sinaisky
I only had the chance to listen to the first half of this concert, but in some respects it was the more interesting half. That is not in any way a criticism of the second half item: Elgar's 2nd Symphony, played to commemorate the 75th anniversary year of Elgar's death in 1934. This symphony, rather less heard than the popular First Symphony, is a fine work, but not having heard the broadcast, I am obviously unable to comment further on it.
So to return to the first half. Two works, one getting its first Prom performance and the other almost so. The Symphony in G minor by EJ Moeran had been performed at a Prom once before, in 1938, shortly after its completion. However that was in the days when the Proms were held at the Queen's Hall in Langham Place. The hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1941, after which the Proms moved to their present home, the Royal Albert Hall. Thus last night, the symphony received its first Royal Albert Hall Prom performance. The real first Prom début was reserved for the second work in the half, Gerald Finzi's Grand Fantasia and Toccata for piano and orchestra, the piano played by Leon McCawley, the winner of the piano section at the 1990 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.
Moeran's rather neglected symphony deserves to be better known; a number of recordings of it are available in the CD catalogue. Started in 1924, it did not materialise until 1937. Although not programmatic, a substantial amount of the symphony was said to be inspired by the countryside of Ireland's County Kerry, while the second movement owes its origins to the sand-dunes and marshes of East Norfolk, where Moeran grew up as a boy. In four movements, the first and third are upbeat with some lovely melodic invention, the second movement is darker in tone. The final movement bears an obvious allegiance to Sibelius, in particular the concluding six chords from the orchestra, exactly mirroring those at the end of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. Nonetheless this is music that should be heard more often.
Best known for his Clarinet Concerto, Gerald Finzi wrote few purely instrumental works. The Grand Fantasia and Toccata is believed to originate (the Fantasia section) from 1928 as one movement of a piano concerto that never materialised; it was revised in 1953 when the Toccata was added. The word Toccata comes from the Italian verb 'toccare' meaning 'to touch'. Musically it almost always refers to a keyboard piece in which the skill of the performer (his/her touch) is demonstrated in a fast-fingered but delicate composition. Obviously a technical challenge for the pianist, it also provided an exciting listening challenge for the audience.
Saturday, 25 July
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Charles Mackerras
A programme of 'English' music, by three composers (Elgar, Delius and Holst) who all died 75 years ago in 1934. The BBC Philharmonic, making their second appearance at the Proms in three days, were conducted by that most English of conductors, Sir Charles Mackerras, now in his 84th year, associated for so long with Sadler's Wells Opera, now English National Opera. Isn't it funny how we define 'English'; Elgar— the very epitome of Edwardian England; Delius— Bradford-born to German parents but who from the age of 22 lived in Florida, Germany and, for most of his life, France; Holst— originally Gustavus von Holst of Latvian/Swedish extraction; and Charles Mackerras— an Australian born in New York.
The orchestra had certainly dressed for the occasion: the men in their white DJs, the ladies in their black evening dresses. The concert opened with Elgar's affectionate portrait of an idealised London: the Overture Cockaigne. The texture of this music in the wrong hands can be very dense, but in Sir Charles' hands it was a model of clarity. Sir Charles stood at the podium, resting occasionally on his high rehearsal chair, as appropriate for a man of his years; but was I mistaken, was he really chewing gum all evening or was it just a facial mannerism ( the latter I hope).
The Delius component of the concert was The Song of High Hills, a 30-minute work that had the authentic Delius sound right from the first bar. I had not heard this piece before and in general, apart from the well-known pieces: In a Summer Garden, Brigg Fair, Florida Suite etc., I have not had much to do with this composer other than reading Eric Fenby's writings on Delius. Perhaps it is time I rectified this shortfall. The high hills referred to in this piece are the mountains of Norway. It is written for a large orchestra, chorus, tenor and soprano voices. Delius uses the singers and chorus as a wordless 'vox humana' in much the same way as Holst does in 'The Planets' (which followed after the interval) and Vaughan Williams did in the first and last movements of his Sinfonia Antartica, to represent the icy wastes. My criticism of the work is that it is a big consumer of resources; the orchestra includes two harps, celesta and three timpanists as well as the chorus and soloists. It also has writing for a comparative stranger to the symphony orchestra: the bass oboe. In my view, the soloists added nothing that could not have been achieved by the chorus alone. Such lack of economy does not facilitate it being a regular part of the repertoire, which is a shame because this is a good work.
The second half of the concert was taken up with Holst's popular suite The Planets. Since this music is so familiar, I decided to try out a feature new this year to the BBC's televising of the Proms: 'MaestroCam'. This is available via the digital TV feed by pressing the red button during transmission. It gives you a permanent picture-in-picture view of the conductor, together with an audio commentary about his technique and his interpretation of the score. The commentary can also be turned off if you prefer, leaving just the music and the P-in-P view. Sir Charles is renowned for his meticulous tempo beat and his lack of platform theatricality. What I saw was as good a masterclass in conducting as you'll ever get for free. I was able to follow an online score, while watching him, hearing the music and listening to the commentary all at the same time. The commentary is not continuous, just where it's appropriate. A good additional feature from the BBC, although I would only want to use it with pieces with which I am totally familiar, and with a conductor like Sir Charles, from whom one could learn so much immediately just by watching. And the performance of The Planets? Like the Elgar, a model of clarity and Sir Charles' control of his orchestra was exemplary, relaxed but ever-present. A great concert.
Sunday, 26 July
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Chorus cond. David Atherton
This Prom rounded off a weekend of concerts featuring the music of the three British composers who all died in 1934: Elgar, Holst and Delius. The second half gave us the familiar works Delius' Brigg Fair and Elgar's Enigma Variations. However it was the first half of this concert that drew my attention, with yet another first Prom performance, this time of Gustav Holst's Choral Symphony. I have heard this work in performance once before, although I cannot now remember where; I would have said at the Proms, but clearly that cannot have been the case.
The work, a Prelude and four movements for orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist, sets lines from various poems by Keats. For this concert, the soprano role was sung by the winner of the 1994 Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Prize, Susan Gritton. Holst's symphony was written for and first performed at the 1925 Leeds Festival, where it achieved a degree of success; a second performance in London shortly after however was a failure and the work languished thereafter. Even almost 10 years later, Edwin Evans, writing a memoriam to Holst in the July 1934 issue of The Musical Times, said of the Choral Symphony "In the greater part of the Choral Symphony Holst was painting the lily. Some of the painting is very beautiful, but the lily is better without it." His principal gripe seems to have been that the poetic beauty of Keats' words were not in his view matched by the musical beauty of Holst's setting of them. Today we are able to take a different view.
The opening Prelude, Invocation to Pan, is intoned by the chorus on a monotone after a hushed orchestral introduction. In the first movement proper, the soprano and chorus alternate sections with lines relating to Bacchus. The second movement, for the chorus, is a setting of Keats' famous Ode on a Grecian Urn , 'Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness'. The quicksilver third movement is a Scherzo with a contrasting central Trio, but the return of the Scherzo after the Trio is given to the soprano soloist rather than the chorus. Like the first movement, the larger-scaled final movement alternates sections between the chorus and the soprano who opens and closes the movement.
Choral Societies up and down the country should be seeking out copies of this score for performance.
Thursday, 30 July
Hallé Orchestra, Hallé Choir and Youth Choir cond. Sir Mark Elder
It is now almost 10 years since Mark Elder was appointed as Musical Director of Manchester's Hallé Orchestra, in which time he has been a considerable contributor to the recovery of the orchestra from its difficulties in the 1990s. It is now once again a body of musicians to rival any other orchestra, and, as it showed on Thursday night, at the top of its game in the choral field as well.
Like football, this was a concert of two halves; Berlioz in the first half, followed by Mendelssohn in the second. The orchestra kicked off the first half with the overture to the opera Benvenuto Cellini, a standard repertoire piece. The second item in the half was the composer's dramatic cantata La mort de Cléopâtre - The Death of Cleopatra, sung, and indeed one may almost say acted, by the American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. The odd genesis of this work is worth recounting here. Written in 1829, it was Berlioz's fourth attempt to win the Paris Conservatoire's Prix de Rome, a prize of considerable merit and a valuable one to boot. However the odd conditions of the Prix were that after an initial round in which the competitors each had to write a Fugue, those that satisfied the judging panel (which Berlioz did not at his first attempt) proceeded to the next stage. These were then locked in their rooms for 22 hours a day and had three weeks in which to write a cantata to a given text, usually a dramatic death from history. Having come second in the previous year's competition, Berlioz was confident of winning and produced this emotional precipice from which Cleopatra must inevitably fall. However the composer's confidence did not take account of the arch-traditionalism of the panel, and once again he was unsuccessful in winning. He finally achieved his goal the following year. Had Berlioz adhered to the conventional pattern that the judges were clearly looking for, we would have been deprived of a magnificent work for female voice and orchestra. The ending in which Cleopatra's death-throes are portrayed as a shudder in the orchestra is as clear a picture as though it was painted.
The second half was given over to a performance of Mendelssohn's Second Symphony Lobgesang. This infrequently performed work, with its requirements for a full symphony orchestra, a 200-strong chorus, soprano, mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists, and an organ, is ideally suited to a venue like the Royal Albert Hall. The combined forces of the Hallé's orchestra, choir and youth choir under Mark Elder's direction did full justice to the hour-long piece. It is in three movements, played without a break. The first two movements are for the orchestra alone, the organ and choruses being brought in for the final movement. It was written in 1840 for the celebrations held for the 400th anniversary of Gutenburg's invention of moveable-type. However unless you are told that fact, there is nothing in the work itself to suggest so; no mention of Gutenburg, books or printing! Generally in alternating sections for the choruses and combinations of the soloists, it draws on words from the Bible and from the Psalms in particular. It includes the Lutheran Chorale Nun danket alle Gott.
The performance was a fitting tribute to the work of James Burton, the Hallé's Choral Director, whose final task with the chorus this concert was.
Friday, 31 July
Scottish Chamber Orchestra cond. Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Making his Proms début here was the young Quebecois conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a protégé of the late conductor Carlo Maria Giulini. At the start of the 2008-9 season he took over from maestro Valery Gergiev as Musical Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and has also been appointed recently Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
The first half of the concert provided the main item of interest: a full performance of the music for Stravinsky's 1920 ballet Pulcinella; normally we only hear the eight-movement Suite that the composer produced subsequently for concert performance. The full ballet is in 20 sections, some of which involve a soprano, a tenor and a bass soloist, singly or in combination. Pulcinella is a stock character from the Commedia dell'arte (I must remember to finish that Entry I started some time ago on this form of theatre) and shares a common ancestry with our own beloved puppet character Punch. The music is based on a set of pieces believed (at the time) to be by the early-18th Century composer Pergolesi, but in many cases the attribution is now considered spurious. Stravinsky adhered to the melodies of these pieces, but re-interpreted them by writing in a modern neo-classical style, in much the same way as Prokofiev did in his First Symphony, The Classical. As well as the three singers, this work also showcases the orchestra's string sections' principals. The conductor clearly communicated well with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, resulting in an impressive performance of this delightful music.
The second half of the concert featured the American pianist, Nicholas Angelich, playing the Schumann Piano Concerto and concluded with Mendelssohn's Reformation symphony.
Saturday, 1 August
BBC Concert Orchestra cond. Charles Hazelwood
A year ago, the BBC broadcast a series of TV programmes entitled 'Maestro', in which a group of celebrities with very different skills and professions where brought together to see which of them could successfully conduct the BBC's Concert Orchestra. The prize for the winner was to conduct a section of the Proms in the Park concert at London's Hyde Park on the Last Night of the Proms 2008. At the time, I wrote a series of journal entries about the show as it progressed, which afterwards The Post team kindly edited to became my very first 'Musical Notes' column.
One of the finalists in the competition was a man known simply by the name Goldie. In that column I wrote, "Of Goldie I knew nothing before the show. What a revelation he has been. The man is a natural musician and given some theory training could be anything he chose to be (it was only a few years ago that Paul McCartney learned to read music). He has drive, inventiveness and a completely open mind to new things. I hope he has been bitten by the bug."
People in positions with far more influence than I clearly thought the same, and in January 2009, Goldie was approached with a commission to compose a short piece of music to be played at one of the Prom concerts this summer. As with Maestro, Goldie would once again be working with the BBC Concert Orchestra, but the conductor for the performance at the Royal Albert Hall as part of one of this season's Family Proms would be Charles Hazelwood. Goldie's piece was to be of about seven minutes duration and to be on the theme of Evolution.
This was a stiff challenge. You may remember that Goldie has had no musical education, cannot read or write a note, and does not play any instrument. His musical ideas in the field of drum'n'bass in which he practises remain in his head until he renders them audible using digital electronics; nothing is ever written down. His commission task was not only to compose a piece of music for a symphony orchestra, but to produce a full printed score of it, in conventional musical notation, and to a tight deadline— he had six months to go from zero to hero. To help Goldie, he was reunited with his former Maestro mentor Ivor Setterfield, to guide him and introduce him to other composers and musicians who could give of their knowledge and experience.
Ivor Setterfield started by taking Goldie to a concert at the Barbican conducted by, and to meet a real maestro, Valery Gergiev, of whom Ivor Setterfield is a former pupil. This was probably the first time that Goldie has heard a full, world-class orchestra in action. Later, Ivor explained what musical resources he has available to him and mentions that he could make use of a chorus and the glorious sound of the Royal Albert Hall's organ. Goldie was like a kid let loose in a sweet shop : he wanted it all.
Ideas flow very easily from Goldie, but Ivor became very concerned that time was passing and as yet not a single thing had been written down. Clearly Goldie is not going to suddenly start writing notation, but somehow a path to a full orchestral score had to be found, and quickly. It was suggested that Goldie should go away and just draw some pictures and diagrams of what he wants to happen and to dump onto paper in any way he can the thoughts in his head.
What Goldie came back with a couple of weeks later was real progress. He had generated a full map of the outline of the piece against a timeline, marking where specific sounds should occur. His idea was that the piece should start with chaotic sounds leading quickly to an evocation of the Big Bang. The remnants of this would gradually coalesce, the chorus whispering on a monotone Goldie's text, leading to a celebration of Life, after which a more disturbed sort of tribalism would creep in. The view would then recede as though leaving the surface of the planet until the question is posed, why are we at war with this planet? The work ended with another Big Bang, but was this the end or the start of a new beginning? It also had a title, Sine tempore - Without Time, a phrase Goldie already has tattooed on the side of his neck!
Ivor set up a couple of workshops, one with the percussionists of the BBC Concert Orchestra and another with the Ossian Ensemble. With the percussionists, Goldie learned an important lesson, that musicians can (and should) be a part of the composition process, showing how they can adapt a basic idea and breathe life into it. With the Ossian Ensemble, a group specialising in improvisation, he learned how conventional instruments can produce very unconventional sounds.
Finally time for all the composition and polishing had run out and the work must be rehearsed with the orchestra and the conductor. Goldie was pleased with what he heard; there is nothing more he can do other than wait for the première in front of an audience of 4,000 paying listeners. Needless to say, on the day the piece was a great success, both with the audience, many of whom are youngsters, a number of whom know of Goldie through his role as a CD-producer and club DJ, and with professional composers and performing musicians.
What did I think of the piece? I liked it. The criticism I would make of it, and I have no doubt that Goldie will be of the same opinion in say 20 years time, comes back to my kid-in-a-sweet-shop comment earlier. There is too much in it. The texture needs thinning out somewhat. But would I want him to do it? No, definitely not; this is Goldie now and the Goldie of future will be something else. There WILL be more from this man. When Ivor asked him what next, he replied, "Who knows, a symphony perhaps?" Perhaps indeed.
Whosoever's idea it was to launch this project is to be heartily congratulated for creative programming. This is how television should be. Reith may not have been that keen on the subject matter, but it certainly met his guiding ethos and dictum to inform and educate the viewer. Bravo BBC and all concerned.
Monday, 3 August
BBC National Orchestra of Wales cond. Thierry Fischer
I must apologise to Herr Beethoven as I was only able to hear the first two parts of this three-part Prom, the third part being given over to his Symphony No.3, Eroica. Without doubt, the main interest for me in this Prom lay with a work in part one of the concert: the world première of an expanded version of a piece entitled Sillages (Traces) by the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell (note NOT Jean-Michel Jarre).
Before the première we heard one of Berlioz's earliest surviving pieces, the overture Les francs-juges, originally the lead-in to a later-abandoned and mostly destroyed opera. Some material was reused in other works, including the one played in part two of this concert.
But to return to Sillages. Originating from material, written in 1988 at Pierre Boulez's IRCAM studios in Paris, entitled Congruences for solo woodwind instruments and an electronic soundtrack, the composer transcribed it for flute, oboe, clarinet and orchestra in response to a joint l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/BBC commission and it was first performed in 2005. The version given at this Prom is longer and has a completely new second movement, which amounts to almost half the piece. In the first movement, which is very atmospheric, the orchestra, which in this version takes over the role originally furnished by the electronic soundtrack, often echoes the thematic threads sown by the three soloists, hence the title Traces, like the vapour trails left by high-altitude aircraft.
In the second movement, the soloists are sometimes treated as individuals, sometimes as a closely interlaced trio, while the orchestra is freer. This movement therefore more closely resembles the structure of a triple concerto, although in interview, one of the soloists was at pains to point out that the work is not in fact a concerto at all. I wonder if perhaps the term 'concertante' fits the bill better. I was particularly struck by some of the interesting, if unusual, brass sounds in this movement.
Berlioz's Symphonie funèbre et triomphale is not often heard in the concert hall, and for good reason. Even though this is a cut-down version of what Berlioz originally scored for outdoor performance, on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall for part two of this concert were 33 woodwind, 37 brass players and 18 percussionists. It was written to 'accompany' the 1840 ceremonial procession to inaugurate the new 200-foot Bastille Column, beneath which the bodies of the 1830 July Revolution victims were to be reburied.
Although listening to it was a fine experience, I would have loved to have been in the hall to see the array of instruments for myself. It is a pity this concert, or at least this part of it, wasn't recorded for broadcast on television; an opportunity missed, BBC.
Wednesday, 5 August
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Gianandrea Noseda
It has been a feature of a number of Proms this year that the programmes have been just that bit longer than in previous years. The main work in this concert was Mahler's Sixth Symphony, a work lasting some 80 minutes or so. At other times this would have been the only work in the programme, but here the BBC gave us a couple of extra pieces, with the symphony in second half.
First up on the programme was Stravinsky's Scènes de ballet, written in 1944 for a Broadway dance show called The Seven Lively Arts. Stravinsky, never one to turn down the chance of a quick buck, knocked out the 15-minute piece and pocketed some $5,000, it was said, for his efforts. Thereafter he seems to have taken no further interest in the piece. In my opinion, a piece like this, stripped of its context by being performed sans ballet, is a bit like being in an art gallery looking at a frame that has had its picture removed and saying "Look at the workmanship in that". Unless complete visually and musically, it is devalued.
The second item was very much complete: Mozart's bassoon concerto, a remarkable work given that a) Mozart was only 18 when he wrote it, and b) that it was written for an instrument he didn't play. The performance was given by the 19 year-old Scottish bassoonist Karen Geoghegan, who was recently a finalist in the BBC's television programme Classical Star. She received a very warm, cheering reception from the audience in the hall, which I'm sure helped calm the nerves she must have been experiencing; certainly I detected no sign of nerves in her bassoon tone. It is an ideal work for a Proms first-timer, not over-taxing nor too long overall, with a compact first movement cadenza. The brief round of applause after the first movement was a nice touch of encouragement for her, as was that that followed the lyrical second movement. The enthusiastic cheers at the end of her performance must have made her a very proud young lady, and well deserved.
So in the second half we came to Mahler's Sixth Symphony. I have written at some length on this symphony for those interested in the details of its genesis and musical structure. It has always struggled for popular appeal, even back to its earliest performances. After the three which Mahler conducted, he more or less abandoned the work. A choice facing any conductor of this work is deciding the order in which to perform the two inner movements; again I have written at length on this topic in Mahler's Sixth Symphony - A Matter of Order. For this performance, Noseda opted to play the Scherzo followed by Andante, a choice against which the evidence is now increasing stacked. However he did choose to restore the third and final hammer blow, which is not often done now. Mahler himself deleted it from the score, but in my view it was an error of judgement that he himself would have rectified had he lived longer: he died in 1911 aged only 50.
Whilst this reading had Noseda's stamp on it, it would be wrong to describe it as idiosyncratic, but nor was it routine. A well-considered reading I thought, the only surprise being the very brief pause after the long first movement and before the start of the second.
An excellent concert that I shall listen to again as soon as time permits, i.e. in the autumn/winter evenings now that the Prom season is over.
Tuesday, 18 August
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Six guys and two girls. It's difficult to describe the sound of UOGB. Imagine a string octet playing pizzicato and you're on the right road, but a long way from your destination. It's a beautiful sound with a full range from the bass ukulele ("It's the future, don't fight it" we were advised by the player of that instrument) through to the sweet upper treble reaches. Add to these some, err shall we say, 'untrained' voices, a dry sense of humour and a willingness to 'arrange' anything and there you have the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
Their musical style is interesting as well. Who else could start playing Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and segue neatly into Hawkwind's Silver Machine? Or follow Parry's Jerusalem (played the odd time or two previously at the Royal Albert Hall), with Talking Heads' Psycho Killer.
Throw into this mix the signature tune to the BBC's Children's Favourites, the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK, Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre, Wheatus's Teenage Dirtbag and some novel lyrics to accompany the title song from the James Bond film Thunderball.
Audience participation is always a fun way of making music and this concert provided it in spades. Something like 1,000 or more people (about 20% of the audience) had taken ukuleles along with them and were invited to join in the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth, Choral, Symphony.
After 1,008 ukuleles had played their part(s), all the UOGB's instruments were put down for an 'a cappella' arrangement of The Who's Pinball Wizard, and then picked up again for a stirring and irresistible rendition of Eric Coates's Dambusters March.
Fabulous music and a tremendous concert. Brilliant!!!
Monday, 24 August
London Symphony Orchestra cond. Valery Gergiev
Two works in this Prom: Alfred Schnittke's oratorio Nagasaki, dating from the composer's student days in the late 1950s but not given a public concert performance until 2006 and now receiving its UK première, and secondly Dmitri Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, For various reasons I am only going to comment here on the second of the two works.
Whenever I listen to this 8th symphony, I'm always waiting to hear the third movement which seems to me to be the part which makes or breaks a performance. My reference standard is the glorious old 1962 (or thereabouts) recording by Kiril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, issued originally on the Russian Melodiya record label and subsequently by EMI. Does anyone remember those Melodiya records, great thick slabs of vinyl, twice the weight at least of other label's discs? No warping there!
Anyway for me that performance of the 3rd movement has exactly the right amount of attack and venom and some absolutely glorious trumpet playing. Somehow most other performances I have on CD or have heard pale in comparison. Last night Gergiev and the LSO came as close to that as I think a modern symphony orchestra can today. The rough edge, not ragged just rough, of the Moscow Phil recording fits perfectly the acidity of Shostakovich's writing. Today's top orchestras are just too polished, too sure. The solo trumpeter in that old recording was hanging on for grim death and the resultant sound is hair-raising.
Gergiev has been chief conductor of the LSO for two years now and the partnership is working beautifully. One thing I have been aware of in his recent performances, and last night's performance of the slow first movement of the Shostakovich 8 was a good example, is the way he illuminates the music from within, showing off the internal workings as it were. And yet when you compare his timings with other interpretations, he doesn't take appreciably any longer. He hasn't dawdled along the way, nor does he skip ahead in places to catch up.
My only criticism on a first hearing, and it is only a little one, is that although the fourth movement carries on without a break, a tiny pause, no more than a bar, is just sufficient to allow the tumult at the conclusion of the 3rd to echo around the hall before the crushing and savage blow that launches the contemplative 4th movement Adagio. Gergiev's pause was just too short to allow its full effect.
Thursday, 27 August
Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Fabio Luisi
I would have listened to this Prom no matter what the programme might have been; to hear the magnificent Dresden Staatskapelle under its relatively new conductor, Fabio Luisi (appointed in 2007) is a privilege. To hear and see them perform on television was an added bonus; to see and hear them perform Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony was hitting the jackpot: the symphony is dedicated to this orchestra. Such is the pace of the modern world that this programme was a repeat of the orchestra's last home concert of the season, given at 20.00 the previous evening in Dresden!
Before the Strauss symphony, which occupied the second half of the concert, were two first half pieces. The first was the UK première of a revised version of a 15-minute work by Rebecca Saunders, entitled traces, the lowercase 't' is apparently correct. The composer was born on London in 1967, but is now based in Berlin. Her interest is in producing a sound-field, sometimes using the instruments of the orchestra in unusual ways to generate the effects she wants. In traces she is not sparing in her use of orchestral resources. Both a piano and a piano-accordion were employed, as well as a full range of percussion instruments. Painting with orchestral sounds it may be, but is it music? Sadly, for me it was not.
The second item in the opening half was Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, played by the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. This man, now aged 29, is the product of an ambitious father and a post-Cultural Revolution authorities' acceptance of Western music and the piano in particular. It is said there are now something like 50 million young people in China learning the piano. He is a superstar, fêted wherever he goes. He is also a supreme showman, much like Liszt and to a certain extent, Chopin, before him. The Chopin second concerto is an obvious candidate for display, and the pianist can tug on the Romantic heartstrings as much as he wishes. The second movement features regularly on popular-classic compilation CDs. Lang Lang delivered exactly what you'd expect, a romantic interpretation of a Romantic concerto, no more, no less.
If Rebecca Saunders piece was less than economical with resources, it is nothing compared with that required for Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony. The off-stage band alone, representing the hunting party, calls for 12 horns, two trumpets and two trombones, although here they were played on-stage muted. The array of percussion instruments, including wind and thunder machines, is gargantuan! Rarely is the stage of the Royal Albert Hall so full for a concert that does not involve a large chorus. Whatever one may think about Strauss and/or his music, there is no denying that he really was a master of orchestration. Although called a symphony, it is a tone poem describing the ascent and subsequent descent of an alpine mountain. It comprising 22 episodes played without a break, the whole work lasting some 50 minutes. A well polished performance.
Monday, 7 September
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra cond. Riccardo Chailly
All too soon we came to the final week of the 115th season of the Henry Wood Promenade concerts. The week started with a performance of Handel's Messiah, the choral parts being sung by seven youth/junior choirs from around the country, including the Scunthorpe Co-operative Junior Choir, the winner of last year's BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year competition.
And so on to the Mendelssohn/Mahler concert. The main work was a performance of Deryck Cooke's 'performing version' of Mahler's incomplete Tenth Symphony, preceded in the first half by Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No 1. The Mendelssohn was in all honesty a filler piece with no apparent connectivity with the Mahler symphony. I didn't think I knew this concerto until I heard the third movement which was quite familiar, although I couldn't have told you from where.
Entering the Royal Albert Hall for this concert was one of those déjà vu moments. I remember vividly being, as a teenager 45 years ago, in the arena audience for the first Prom performance by the London Symphony Orchestra of Cooke's early version of Mahler final musical thoughts. I have almost finished writing a full account of this symphony for an upcoming Entry, which will probably be submitted in the next few months, so I won't go into it here in any detail. What we heard last night was of course Cooke's later, more elaborated version of 1975, produced in conjunction with the brothers David and Colin Matthews.
In the afternoon, before leaving home, I listened to Chailly's 1986 recording of the symphony with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. I was interested to know how it compared with his reading now. Differences were not marked, more in the detail than in the overall picture.
The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is regarded, quite rightly, as one of, if not *the* finest orchestras in the world today. At this Prom they demonstrated exactly why they have that reputation; in every department they excel. Chailly divided his first and second violins left and right respectively, often a beneficial move with Mahler. Placing the violas centre right enabled them to not only be heard, but clearly seen at the opening of the first movement. The double-basses took station up top left, behind the first violins. Their loud pizzicato thumps were just right, maximum volume achieved but without allowing the strings to hit the fingerboard.
The woodwind section was silky smooth and the principal flute was the first of the many individual players that Chailly brought to their feet for applause at the end of the concert. Her major individual contribution comes near the beginning of the last movement in which the bass drum savagely silences any attempt for musical shoots to grow from the desert of abject nihilism with which the movement opens. The long cantilena flute solo that does manage to achieve life is one of the most beautiful sounds it is possible to imagine. The bass drum that features so dominantly at the conclusion of the fourth movement and throughout the fifth and final movement is one of those details that Chailly has changed. It is normally played as a single unpitched muffled thump, but here Chailly had it played as a fast triplet: ba-ba-BANG. All four percussionists, placed up at the back of the orchestra, away from the other players, are crucial to this symphony and delivered their parts magnificently. The brass section managed that most difficult of tests, to be strident without being edgy: glorious playing. And Chailly himself? His conducting was exemplary and given the layout of his players, he was able to highlight the contribution of the various orchestra sections to great effect, none more so than in the layering that builds the famous nine-note dissonant chord that occurs in the first and last movements.
I only wish this concert had been televised with Maestro Cam available. It was a performance to be treasured.
Last Night – Saturday, 12 September
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers cond. David Robertson
Roger Wright, the Director of the Proms, and his team have certainly produced a season of variety in this their first full season, and the
Last Night was a real eclectic mix of musical emotions, ranging from the sombre right through to the exuberant.
The First Night had started with fireworks by Stravinsky and the Last Night started with a Flourish with Fireworks by Oliver Knussen. Strange, at one point, about a quarter of the way into the piece, I was sure I was listening to Ravel's La Valse! This was followed by one of those pieces of programming that today we could only find at a Last Night of the Proms— Henry Wood's New Suite, a selection of 'bits' of Purcell, arranged for a large orchestra including the great Royal Albert Hall organ, a far cry from the proper settings of these pieces.
Two soloists provided major contributions to this concert: mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and trumpeter Alison Balsom. It being Purcell's 350th birthday year ( Henry Wood's New Suite having been written 100 years ago for the 250th anniversary) the second Purcell item on the programme was the lament 'When I am laid in earth' and the chorus that follows it, that conclude Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneus. This, together with the Mahler songs to follow, provided the sombre end of the emotional scale, but before the Mahler songs we heard Haydn's brilliant Trumpet Concerto in E-flat, played exquisitely by the gorgeous Alison Balsom, her first contribution to the evening. Written to take full advantage of the new valved trumpet, Alison took full advantage of the concerto's ability to demonstrate her virtuosity on the instrument.
Sarah Connolly then sang Mahler early song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. These songs are settings of four of the six poems that Mahler wrote and dedicated to Johanna Richter, a singer with whom Mahler had fallen in love while employed as a conductor at the theatre in Kassel, situated in northern Hessen, Germany. It is likely that Mahler's love was a bit of a one-sided affair; in the final song, the young man lies down beneath a linden (lime) tree, which showers its blossom over him in a poetic symbol of death.
The first half of the concert finished at the exuberant end of the scale with another of this year's first Proms performance, Heitor Villa-Lobos's Chôros No. 10 for large orchestra and chorus. One of a set of 14 pieces that the composer produced, this is a real Brazilian roof-raiser, although the term 'chôro' ironically meaning weeping, but not in the crying sense.
Part two of the Light Night of the Proms is when the celebrations begin and everybody can let their hair down. The opener was Malcolm Arnold's A Grand, Grand Overture written in 1956 for one of Gerard Hoffnung's Festivals. This piece of what can only be described as Goonery 'featured' conductor Jirí Belohlávek, musical all-rounder Goldie, violinist Jennifer Pike and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough on stage with the full orchestra, playing vacuum cleaners and floor polisher, with satirist Rory Bremner, pianist Stephen Hough, BBC Radio 4 broadcaster Martha Kearney and BBC Radio 3 presenter Chi-chi Nwanoku in the body of the Royal Albert Hall on rifles; the four on-stage end up being shot by these four ( you have to see it to bear any chance of understanding it).
It was of so-called 'Light' music next, with a performance of the final First Prom Appearance items: the once hugely popular In a Monastery Garden by Alfred Ketèlbey, and Libertango by the Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. With the party now in full swing, Sarah Connolly and Alison Balsom changed out of their classical clothes to combine with the orchestra (now in swing mode) for the world première of a BBC-commissioned arrangement of Gershwin's 'They can't take that away from me', from the 1937 film Shall We Dance. Wonderful stuff, with the two girls up behind the orchestra, just below and to the left of the organ loft.
The final new work was a set of 'call and response' fanfares, composed by six very young composers, aged 12-18, winners of the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers Competition. This was a technical tour-de-force, requiring perfect timing and coordination of musicians at six Proms in the Park venues around the UK. The 'calls' were made from the RAH, the 'responses' from each of the five venues in turn: Hillsborough Castle, County Down; Glasgow Green; London's Hyde Park; Buile Hill Park, Salford and Singleton Park, Swansea.
After excerpts from Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, we were on the last lap, starting with Arne's original version of Rule Britannia, sung by Sarah Connolly, wearing the uniform of a naval officer from the time of Lord Nelson. The music concluded in the traditional style with Parry's Jerusalem and Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No.1.
American-born conductor David Robertson had been in charge of Last Night proceedings for the first time, so as is the custom, the conductor's rostrum was adorned with 'L' plates. He clearly enjoyed himself and carried off his duties, including the obligatory repeats and the speech, with aplomb.
Well done once again BBC, but when are you going to learn that the Last Night of the Proms ALWAYS runs over time; allow an extra 20 minutes or so in the scheduling.