Musical Notes: BBC Proms 2010, Weeks 1 and 2

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BBC Proms 2010: Weeks 1 and 2

E – E sharp – F sharp. These three champagne cork chords, shot off at the beginning of the Overture to Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus could just as easily reflect the three concerts that started the 2010 Prom season: Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, ambitious programmes all.

My comments on the first of these appeared in last week's Musical Notes. It had been my intention in this last column before the summer break to cover, albeit briefly, most of the remaining concerts from the first two weeks of this season. However, having experienced Prom 2, a large part of what follows will now be devoted to that: Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Saturday, 17 July

Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, cond. Lothar Koenigs

The opera started at 4pm in the Royal Albert Hall and was broadcast live on BBC Radio; the TV broadcast was delayed until 7pm to avoid the extended intervals between the Acts: about 25 minutes between Acts 1 and 2, and about an hour between Acts 2 and 3. As I was already committed elsewhere for the evening of the performance, I was also delayed, and watched a recording of the TV relay the day after its broadcast. What a truly stupendous event it was.

The Prom was billed as a 'concert performance' given by the Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, their conductor Lothar Koenigs and a wonderful cast including the great Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. This new production of Wagner's comic masterpiece has been playing, until a couple of weeks ago, at its home, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, to great critical acclaim. This is the first time Bryn Terfel has sung the rôle of the principal character, Hans Sachs. As with Shakespeare's King Lear in the theatre, Sachs should not be attempted by any singer until he has fully learned his craft over many years on the opera stage. Bryn now feels he is right for the part and there can be no doubt that he is correct.

Concert Performance

But just what exactly is a 'concert performance'? Clearly, on the large stage of any opera house you will see the characters acting, singing and moving about (in costume), the chorus as the populace at large (as and when required), scenery (often manipulated by complex machinery), stage props, dramatic lighting effects and last but not least, surtitles (for the audience). At a Royal Albert Hall Prom, many of these elements are of necessity missing. Costumes are dispensed with, there is no scenery or lighting effects, although small props can be used, and the singers' movement is restricted considerably – I have seen concert performances where the soloists have remained completely static throughout, apart from sitting down and getting up again, as though taking part in an oratorio. Finally, there are no surtitles to keep members of the audience who are not fluent in the language of the opera – German in this case – informed of what is going on.

This 'concert performance' however put everything in that it possibly could: the male soloists were uniformly dressed in open-necked black shirts and trousers, the ladies in full-length dresses, rather than showy gowns. All the facial expressions, gestures, glances and body language were expressed as they would have been in the opera house, and given the limited space of the strip at the front of the platform, between the conductor and the audience, the cast made best possible use of it. The chorus were arranged behind the orchestra as they normally be for performance of a choral work, but they too joined in the facial expressions and looked at each other at appropriate moments. It was also unusual to see a large chorus singing from memory and not holding vocal scores. Sachs had his shoe and hammer for the famous 'Marker' scene in Act 2, Beckmesser 'played' his instrument in the same scene and again in the singing competition in Act 3. While Bryn Terfel naturally, but not forcedly, dominated the stage whenever he appeared, I was particularly struck by the performances of soprano Amanda Roocroft as Eva and baritone Christopher Purves as Beckmesser. Fine performances also from tenor Raymond Very as the knight Walther von Stolzing, bass Brindley Sherratt as Eva father Pogner, mezzo Anna Burford as Magdalena and tenor Andrew Tortise as Sachs's apprentice David, although the top of David's voice was a bit wayward on a couple of occasions early in Act 1. As regards the absence of surtitles, this was compensated for by the inclusion of the full libretto of the opera in the concert programme. I don't know how much was being charged at the hall for a copy, but if it was anywhere near its normal price, then it was extremely good value for money.

A disadvantage of the stage arrangement used is that the conductor has his back to the soloists and therefore has no visual communication with them. It requires a very well rehearsed team, who are confident in each other, to do this, but I'm glad to say that here there was no hint of a problem.

The comedy element of this opera centres around the mockery and humiliation of the character Sixtus Beckmesser, the Town Clerk of Nuremberg and a senior member of the Guild of Mastersingers. It was believed generally, even at the time, that Beckmesser's character was a parody of music critics in general, but in particular of the ultra-conservative, highly influential writer on music, Eduard Hanslick, who became increasingly negative about Wagner's work. Whether Wagner actually targeted Hanslick personally is open to debate, but he was certainly poking ridicule at those critics whose musical horizons began with Mozart and ended with Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.

A Prom to be remembered and treasured for a long time to come.

Sunday, 18 July

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra with Plàcido Domingo

Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, cond. Antonio Pappano

How anyone who stood in the Arena for all three of the opening Proms survived physically and emotionally I'm not sure; bravo to those who managed it. This opera was broadcast on radio, but not shown on television, however having very recently seen this ROH Covent Garden production, I'm assuming it was of the same standard. The Prom was billed as a costumed semi-staging, but I'm not in a position to say in what way (other obviously than the costumes) it differed from the presentation of the previous night's concert performance of an opera.

The rôle of Simon Boccanegra is written for a baritone voice, whereas we are familiar with the great Plácido Domingo as a tenor. However, Plácido is now coming to the latter part of his career, the tessitura of the rôle is pitched fairly high in the baritone range and it should not be forgotten that he started off singing as a baritone. This production is the first time that he has appeared in the rôle.

Monday, 19 July

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Vasily Petrenko

In this Prom it was good to hear Tchaikovsky's four-movement symphony Manfred, after Byron's poem of the same title. It is a piece that Tchaikovsky at one time regarded as my best symphonic work, though…it is doomed to failure, a verdict that seems to be relatively borne out if you compare its popularity with that of the composer's fourth, fifth and sixth (see Friday below) symphonies. It deserves to be better known.

Tuesday, 20 July

WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne cond. Semyon Bychkov

The work that caught my eye here, sandwiched between the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony, was the UK première of an orchestral piece by Gunther Schuller entitled Where the Word Ends, the title implying…Music Begins. Equally comfortable (and accepted) in both the classical and jazz worlds, he was the first classical musician to be positively identified with the jazz movement. From playing French horn with the New York Philharmonic at age 16, Schuller went on to become Principal Horn with the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In 1955, along with John Lewis - founder member of the Modern Jazz Quartet - Schuller co-founded the Modern Jazz Society, later called the Jazz and Classical Music Society, to present concert performances of rarely heard compositions. He termed the amalgam of classical music and jazz, 'The Third Stream'. If you have access to the Proms via the BBC iPlayer, you could do a lot worse than give this 25-minute piece a listen.

Wednesday, 21 July

Paul Lewis, piano

BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Juri Belohlavek

A Beethoven Night Prom, with an Overture and a Piano Concerto in each half: Egmont and Piano Concerto No.1 in the first, followed by The Creatures of Prometheus and Piano Concerto No.4 in the second. I will simply echo Edward Seckerson in The Independent newspaper the next day:

The big occasion often brings out the best in the truly gifted and with so much riding on his much-anticipated Proms cycle of the Beethoven Piano Concertos – the first ever by a single artist – I can honestly say that I have never heard Paul Lewis play better.

Thursday, 22 July

BBC National Orchestra of Wales cond. Thierry Fischer

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.1, soloist Alexander Toradze

Shostakovich: Symphony No.7

A work of quality though it is, it is difficult to understand what Britten thought he was doing when he wrote his Sinfonia da Requiem in 1940 to a commission received via the British Council for a piece to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese Imperial dynasty: what on paper appears to be a Catholic/Christian work for a Shinto/Buddhist country. Not surprisingly the work, which is dedicated to Britten's parents, was rejected as an insult. Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto I got to know via an old heavyweight Melodiya label gramophone record, which I loved and played so much it wore out and was replaced with a (then) more modern recording. Once heard, it is ages before you can get its main theme out of your head. Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony was *beautifully* played by Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. But that adverb I'm afraid is a velvet-gloved backhander. Like all modern first class orchestras, the BBC NOW is a precision instrument, spot on in ensemble and with exemplary strings, brass and woodwind. The trouble is that Shostakovich doesn't really hit home as hard when played that way; it needs its rougher edges. It is difficult to put into words, but is heard clearly if you listen to a performance of this (and other) Shostakovich symphonies as played by one of the big Russian orchestras of the late Soviet era. It may well also have something to do with a life-long absorption of the Russian cultural psyche. Ah well, we are where we are, but at least we can choose which to listen to as the older style was preserved on record.

Friday, 23 July

BBC Philharmonic cond. Vassily Sinaisky

Parry: Symphonic Fantasia in B minor, '1912'

Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F# minor, soloist Nelson Goerner

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, 'Pathétique'

Congratulations to Roger Wright and his team for programming Sir Hubert Parry's Fifth Symphony, but brickbats to his predecessors that a major work by a major English composer should have to wait 98 years for its first performance at a Prom! Parry is today better known for his choral compositions – Blessed Pair of Sirens, the anthem I Was Glad and the ubiquitous setting of Blake's poem Jerusalem - than his orchestral ones. This is the last of Parry's five symphonies and a piece well worth getting to know. The Scriabin piano concerto is a relatively early work that contrasts sharply with the composer's later and better known piano compositions. Not yet showing the primary colour palette that characterises the later sonatas etc, this is a concerto in the Romantic vein and makes a good addition to a crowded and often overplayed genre. From famine to feast: Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony got its 118th outing to a Prom performance!

Musical Notes is taking its summer break now along with the rest of The Post, so until then, happy listening to the Summer Proms.

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