BBC Proms – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin : Knussen, Ravel & Benjamin

george-benjaminPierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin

Knussen The Way to Castle Yonder Op.21a (1988-90)
Purcell
(transc. Benjamin) Three Consorts (1680) [World premiere]
Ravel
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31)
Benjamin
Concerto for Orchestra (2021) [BBC co-commission: World premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 30 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The cancellation of last year’s Proms meant the loss of several pieces by George Benjamin in recognition of his 60th birthday. Tonight’s concert, featuring the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with whom this composer-conductor has often collaborated, provided something of a redress.

The programme (its hour-long duration not unreasonably given without interval) began with The Way to Castle Yonder, a brief yet potent ‘potpourri’ from Oliver Knussen’s second opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! as amply conveys the aura of winsome yet ominous playfulness that suffuses the larger work. While they enjoyed a 40-year friendship, Benjamin’s own aesthetic is appreciably removed from that of the older composer so that a detachment, even aloofness was evident – without, however, detracting from this music’s always deceptive whimsicality.

Transcriptions of Renaissance and Baroque sources have been a mainstay of post-war British music, Three Consorts following an established pattern with Benjamin’s take on these Purcell miniatures underlining their intricate textures and piquant harmonies. The (to quote Benjamin) ‘‘visionary moment of harmonic stasis near the middle’’ of In nomine 1 went for little, with the ‘‘mesmerising intersection of line and harmony’ in Fantasia 7 effecting a Stravinskian objectivity, but the understated humour of Fantasia upon One Note was tellingly delineated.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard then joined Benjamin and the MCO in a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major that, though it had precision and refinement in abundance, was almost entirely lacking in the qualities that define this music’s essential persona. The opening Allegramente evinced a desiccated manner with such as the blues-inflected coyness of its transitions or the heart-stopping stasis prior to the reprise of the second theme going for little, while the central Adagio took on an all-enveloping inertia as it unfolded – the inward rapture of its expressive apex then the pathos of its ensuing cor anglais dialogue all too enervated in their repose. The closing Presto drew an incisive response from pianist and orchestra alike, but here again any sense of this music’s more provocative demeanour was absent from the prevailing stolidity.

Aimard returned for an animated reading of Benjamin’s early Relativity Rag which provided an admirable entree into the world premiere of the latter’s Concerto for Orchestra. Unfolding as a continuous span (a pause just past its mid-point may be structurally meaningful) across a little over 15 minutes, this is typical of Benjamin’s recent music in its systematic – but rarely predictable – formal trajectory and alluring emotional reticence. The various instruments are highlighted singly or in groups in what becomes an intensifying progression, albeit without a tangible momentum, to a climax which brings first violins to the fore, before subsiding into a close of serene equivocation. Superbly realized by the MCO, for whom it was written, this is a thoughtful addition to a genre in which ‘display’ has all too readily become the watchword.

One final thought – at his untimely death, Oliver Knussen had several large-scale orchestral works in progress and maybe even nearing completion. Might it not still be feasible to bring at least one of the pieces to performance? The UK music scene would be all the richer for it.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Sir George Benjamin, and on the performers’ names for more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

BBC Proms – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Folktone, BBC SSO / Ilan Volkov: Bartók Roots

Patkop Konzerthaus artist in Residence serie

Folktone [below – Adam Römer (violin), Tamás Ferencz (violas, percussion, dance), János Kállai (dulcimer), András Lovászi (double bass)]
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov

Traditional Hungarian folk music
Bartók
Violin Concerto no.2 BB117 (1937-8)
Traditional
 Hungarian folk music
Bartók
Suite no.2 BB40 (1905-7, rev. 1920 & ’43)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Saturday 28 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; picture of Ilan Volkov by Astrid Ackermann

This evening’s Prom may have seen the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard replaced by its principal guest Ilan Volkov, but the ‘Bartók Roots’ concept remained unchanged so as to provide a fascinating and instructive overview of the interface between folk and art music.

Each Bartók piece was preceded by a selection of (mainly) dances courtesy of the band Folktone (led by Adam Römer, familiar as section-leader violist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra). It was hardly a surprise that Patricia Kopatchinskaja, making her belated Proms debut, should have joined this enterprising quartet to make even more explicit the process whereby Bartók translated those folk melodies directly into the thematic content of his mature compositions – the seamless transition of one to the other doubtless giving Proms listeners pause for thought.

No performance by Kopatchinskaja could be described as routine, as it proved with Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto – less an interpretation than recreation of this greatest from a ‘golden age’ of such works, not least for the way it integrates formal rigour with that spontaneity of emotion emblematic of its composer. While there was no mistaking the all-round correlation between the outer Allegros, the means by which Kopatchinskaja emphasized this without loss of subtlety or expressive nuance underlined just how each of these movements reflects then transforms the other. Volkov secured playing of due sensitivity and poise from the BBCSSO – here and in an Andante whose variations on one of Bartók’s most disarming melodies was never more affecting than when this returns, only to evanesce into silence towards its close.

Kopatchinskaja herself returned for an apposite encore of Ligeti’s early Ballad and Dance in partnership with orchestra-leader Laura Samuel, the BBCSSO then joining-in with a repeat of the second piece. A further selection of folk pieces followed the interval, and prior to the performance of the Second Suite – among several early orchestral works by Bartók that are seldom revived but which throw a fascinating light on his evolution. If less amenable to the pointing up of its derivations from folk sources, the putative connections are no less evident.

At just over 30 minutes and scored for relatively reduced forces, this piece catches Bartók on either side of his initiation into collecting then absorbing of folk material. Such glimpses that emerge during the first three movements tend to be brushed aside by recurrences of that late-Romantic ethos stretching back via Strauss and Wagner to Liszt – hence the genial urbanity of the initial Serenata, rhythmic energy of the ensuing Allegro diabolico with its intensive fugal workout (this movement being the only piece its composer ever conducted in public), rhapsodic progress of the Scena della Puszta with its ruminative preamble for bass clarinet or new expressive vistas of the Per finire as it elides between folk melodies and voluptuous harmonies through to a close the more provisional for its having set out on a new beginning.

The BBCSSO recently recorded this work with Dausgaard (Onyx), but the present rendition with Volkov was no less idiomatic and maybe even more responsive to the chameleon-like aspect of its stylistic remit. It certainly ended this Prom in appealingly understated fashion.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the performers’ names for more information on Folktone and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, while for more information on the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s most recent Bartók release on Onyx Classics click here

BBC Proms – Timothy Ridout, BBC SO / Oramo: Arnold, Walton, Foulds & Bray

BBCSO_Oramo_Ridout_09_CR.Chris Christodoulou

Timothy Ridout (viola), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Foulds Le cabaret Op.72a (1921) [Proms premiere]
Walton
Viola Concerto (1928-9, rev. 1961)
Bray
 Where Icebergs Dance Away (2021) [UK premiere]
Arnold
Symphony no.5 Op.74 (1960-61) [Proms premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 27 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Sakari Oramo tonight returned to the Proms for the first of two concerts as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in a typically wide-ranging programme of British music as commenced with the overture La cabaret that John Foulds penned as incidental music before it became an autonomous item. For all its vaudevillian aura and unabashed razzmatazz, this ‘Overture to a French Comedy’ throws in numerous stylistic curveballs to point up its intent such as Oramo, given an advocacy of this composer stretching back over two decades, underlined with relish.

Although Walton’s music of the 1920s evinces a not dissimilar extroversion, a very different aspect of the composer is evident in his Viola Concerto – heard this evening in its revision for reduced forces but a notable role for harp. It also brought a Proms debut for Timothy Ridout, his burnished tone and unfaltering intonation much in evidence in the first movement with its smouldering pathos and brief if volatile flights of fancy (qualities which suggest Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto as the most likely model) that were carefully integrated into the whole.

The central Vivo was the undoubted highlight of this performance – Ridout’s passagework unflagging even at the tempo indicated by the revision, not least in those syncopated asides that amply delineate the spirit of the times. By contrast, the finale began reticently then only gradually intensified towards a climactic tutti that brought out the best in the BBCSO; after which, Ridout’s take on the coda made it seem almost parenthetical in its overt rumination, while rounding off the whole work with appropriate inevitability and unforced eloquence.

After the interval, a first hearing in the UK for Where Icebergs Dance Away – the most recent orchestral piece by Charlotte Bray, whose Cello Concerto was a highlight of the 2016 season. Inspired by the icy landscapes encountered on a visit to Greenland, this brief yet atmospheric piece – a faster central episode placing the relative stasis on either side into meaningful relief – suggested qualities of greater organic growth and emotional intensification which deserved to be expounded on a larger scale, while never feeling underdeveloped in the present context.

It may have taken six decades to appear at the Proms, but Sir Malcolm Arnold‘s Fifth Symphony – if not the finest of his cycle, is surely its most representative by dint of those confrontational extremes which, in the opening Tempestuoso alone, pit acerbic irony against expressive angst as threaten to overwhelm the movement’s formal logic. That it failed to do so was testament to Oramo’s acuity in keeping this music’s seeming excesses within relative proportion – not least in the violent irresolution of the closing pages, with their stark withdrawal into silence.

Featuring one of Arnold’s most potent melodies, the Andante brought a rapt response by the BBCSO strings and if Oramo drew less than the ultimate terror from the central climax, the transition to the pensive second theme then return to the initial melody were breathtakingly achieved. Neither was there any lack of malevolence or sardonic humour in the scherzo – its energy carrying over into a finale that was paced superbly to a climactic restatement of the Andante‘s melody and its collapse into nothingness. A fitting close to an impressive reading.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Charlotte Bray and Sir Malcolm Arnold, while for more on Timothy Ridout click here

BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall – Marmen Quartet play Haydn & Robert Simpson

Marmen-Quartet

Marmen Quartet [Johannes Marmén & Ricky Gore (violins), Bryony Gibson-Cornish (viola), Sinéad O’Halloran (cello)]

Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 ‘Lark’ (1790)
Simpson String Quartet no.1 (1951-2)

Cadogan Hall, London
Monday 16 August 2021 (1pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

In his centenary, it was timely to include music by Robert Simpson (who spent three eventful decades at the BBC) at the Proms, and while one might have hoped for one of his symphonies in the evening concerts, his First Quartet at a Cadogan Hall recital was hardly less welcome.

Finished when Simpson was in his early thirties and dedicated to Enescu (who read through and commended the score during his last visit to the UK), the First Quartet fairly typifies the composer’s music at this time in its stealthy take on progressive tonality and methodical yet never pre-ordained design. Thus, the opening Allegro evolves seamlessly from wistful then animated main ideas through an inwardly probing development to a trenchant reprise then a headlong coda; the ensuing Andante unfolding a series of variations on a ruminative theme – structured as a palindrome – that grows in intensity towards a fervent culmination before it touches on the work’s opening theme on route to a limpid final repose. Simpson was to use   a two-movement format on subsequent occasions, but never so elegantly or lucidly as here.

In his introductory remarks, Johannes Marmén stated that the Marmen Quartet had not been familiar with Simpson’s music until asked to learn the First Quartet for this recital. Evidently played-in beforehand, this afternoon’s performance was impressive in its formal command and audible feel for a distinctive idiom of far-reaching consequences. Hopefully this group will tackle further Simpson – the Second and Third Quartets, which explore the potential of their predecessor in what effectively becomes a ‘meta-quartet’, are a good place to continue.

A passing allusion to Haydn’s Lark Quartet at the start of the Simpson made the former a natural pairing, of which the Marmen made a virtue with its attentive and insightful account. After an animated reading of the initial Allegro (second half repeat included to make it weightier), the Adagio was notable for its eloquent ensemble and a tentative wit made manifest in the lively Menuetto. Sparkling yet never skittish, the final Vivace rounded off this performance in appealing fashion – leaving little doubt of the Marmen Quartet as an outfit with a future.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

BBC Proms – Víkingur Ólafsson, Philharmonia / Paavo Järvi: Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev & Shostakovich

olafsson-jarvi

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi

Prokofiev Symphony no.1 in D major Op.25 ‘Classical’ (1916-17)
J.S. Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor BWV1056 (c1738-9)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Shostakovich Symphony no. 9 in E flat major Op.70 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Saturday 14 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s Prom brought change of conductor, the always reliable Paavo Järvi stepping in for Santtu-Matias Rouvali in what would have been the latter’s Proms debut, but not of soloist – Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson duly making his first appearance at these concerts with concertos which, for the most part, played to his strengths.

The number of times that Bach’s keyboard concertos have been heard here on piano in recent decades can be counted on the fingers on one hand (Tatiana Nikolayeva’s D minor resonates in the memory), but that in F minor was a good choice in terms of its succinctness – the outer movements pitting soloist and (sizable body of) strings against each other with a trenchancy as was vividly conveyed here, with the central Andante an oasis of serenity that was not without its plangent asides.

Placing this piece before the interval, however, made for a distinctly short first half – given the relative length of Mozart’s C minor Concerto after the interval. There were many good things in this latter, Ólafsson keeping the first movement on a tight yet never inflexible rein so that its inclination to pathos – if not always its portentous undertones – came through in ample measure; not least in a coda that had been cannily prepared by the soloist’s cadenza. The central Larghetto was none the less the highlight – Ólafsson varying his tone such that piano melded into the woodwind for an early and defining instance of timbral colouration, with its limpid elegance never undersold. Maybe the finale was a little staid in the overall unfolding of its variations, but the coda’s strangely ambiguous poise was tangibly realized.

An auspicious debut, then, for Ólafsson, who underlined his prowess with affecting readings of the slow movement of Bach’s Fourth Organ Sonata (BWV526) in August Stradal’s chaste transcription and Liszt’s not unduly mawkish version of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (K617). These further extended the disparity between each half – the first of which had commenced with Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, not in the least small of scale or mimsyish as Järvi heard it; witness his acerbic and impetuous take on the initial Allegro, trumpets and timpani to the fore, then a Larghetto whose swift underlying tempo left little room for any harmonic piquancy to emerge. The Gavotte was slightly marred by several mannered agogics which tended to impede its rhythmic profile, but the Finale lacked little in sparkle or insouciance.

Among the most travelled and recorded conductors of today, Järvi can seem detached or even aloof in manner – but there was no such reticence evident in Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony as ended this programme. After a tensile and assertive Allegro, which audibly benefitted from the sizable forces onstage, the Moderato recalled Efrem Kurtz’s classic recording as to overall restraint and a dark-hued introspection rising to anguish in its twin climaxes. Playing without pause, the other movements were of a piece with the foregoing – a driving and almost manic Presto subsiding into a Largo, whose ruminative bassoon soliloquys were eloquently taken by Emily Hultmark, then an Allegretto whose capriciousness was acutely gauged through to its bitingly sardonic climax and breathless final payoff. Undoubtedly a performance to savour.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage