BBC Proms #26 – The Labèques, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Julian Anderson premiere, Martinů & Rachmaninoff

Prom 26 – Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (above)

Anderson Symphony No. 2 ‘Prague Panoramas’ (2020-22) (BBC co-commission: World premiere of complete work)
Martinů Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra H292 (1943)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 5 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

An unusually well-assembled concert this evening with what might be termed a programme of ‘three-by-threes’ – each of these three works having three movements which, in each case, results in a broadly symmetrical design, not least the Second Symphony by Julian Anderson (with the conductor, below).

Inspired by Josef Sudek’s photographs of Prague while utilizing two medieval Czech hymns, Prague Panoramas (might Prague Pictures be even more apposite?) is typical in its fusing evocativeness with precision. Not least the preludial opening movement, its stark alternation of quick-fire chords and silence evolving into aspiring melodic lines as build to a tumultuous if quickly curtailed climax, though this linear aspect comes to dominate the nocturnal central movement with its expressive intensifications then fades against a backdrop of bell resonance and luminously modal polyphony. The finale is a deftly organized rondo – its energetic main material, inspired by Josef Lada’s almost Rabelaisian depictions of pub brawls, interspersed with more lyrical ideas through to the heady peroration later subsiding into a calm postlude.

Although its first two movements had been heard in Munich and Prague, this was the work’s first complete performance and found the BBC Symphony at its collective best – not least the lambently interweaving woodwind and strings, the visceral impact of brass and a substantial array of percussion whose contribution was pervasive. Semyon Bychkov (under-appreciated as an exponent of contemporary music) duly brought out that unity-within-diversity such as gave this work an underlying focus across the 32 minutes of its eventful yet cohesive course.

From Prague-inspired music by a British composer to that by a Czech composer in America – Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos may never have gained the plaudits of his earlier Double Concerto but it typifies this composer’s exile in a tried-and-tested interplay of folk-inflected melodicism with a harmonic acerbity recalling Prokofiev and rhythmic dexterity redolent of Stravinsky. Its undoubted highlight is a central Adagio whose almost ‘harmonie’ woodwind writing and circling piano figuration (had the composer come across the gamelan-influenced music of Colin McPhee?) feels mesmeric and affecting. Neither outer movement comes close in their audibly contrived amalgam of the rumbustious and lyrical, but this is music in which Katia and Marielle Labèque excel and tonight’s performance could rarely have been equalled.

Nor was there any doubting Bychkov’s authority in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances that followed the interval. Admittedly this now regularly played while technically exacting piece needed more rehearsal than the BBCSO was able to give it on this occasion, though the outer sections of the first dance had just the right ominous incisiveness and its middle part featured winsome alto saxophone from Martin Robertson. The second dance had irony and angularity aplenty, as was slightly offset by the strings’ less than unanimous response towards the close.

Its sombre ambivalence and intricate textures give the central span of the final dance a quality unique in this composer: if Bychkov might have endowed it with even greater intensity, there was no doubting his identity with this music here or on the way to its resplendent apotheosis.

For more information, click on the names of composer Julian Anderson – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Katia and Marielle Labèque, Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. For more on this year’s BBC Proms as it continues, head to the Proms website

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

BBC Proms #25 – Carolina Eyck, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds: Kalevi Aho Theremin Concerto, Saariaho & Shostakovich

Prom 25 – Carolina Eyck (theremin), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Aho Eight Seasons (Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra) (2011) (London premiere)
Saariaho Vista (2019) (Proms premiere)
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major Op.141 (1971)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 4 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

John Storgårds has given some memorable Proms with the BBC Philharmonic in the decade since he became this orchestra’s guest conductor, and tonight was no exception for featuring a theremin concerto by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Its title Eight Seasons should be taken advisedly – the eight continuous sections encompassing a period from autumn to spring, as is reflected in the mostly restrained yet constantly changing textures which define a progression from the richness of Harvest to Midnight Sun with its serenity informed by new potential.

An instrument as fascinating to watch being played as it is to hear, the theremin has become the victim of its own ubiquity as an enhancer of atmosphere in film-scores and for musicians from Brian Wilson to Jonny Greenwood. Carolina Eyck was a dedicated exponent (evident in her encore-demonstration) – not least in the latter stages when her vocalise proved an enticing extension of her instrumental prowess, and the myriad timbral shifts more than compensated for the intermittent blandness of Aho’s acutely fastidious if not consistently involving music.

The layout of this piece (wind quintet and percussion alongside reduced strings) necessitated an early interval to prepare for those relatively lavish forces of Vista, Kaija Saariaho’s latest return to the orchestra and inspired by traversing the Californian coast from Los Angeles to San Diego. This is embodied over two cumulative movements – the expectancy of Horizons duly fulfilled with the mounting activity of Targets which itself subsides into an intensified recollection of the opening, now sounding as expansive as that ‘vista’ envisaged by the title.

Music so complex needs a sure hand to maintain its focus, the BBC Philharmonic responding with alacrity to Storgård’s attentive direction while he steered a convincing trajectory through what is likely Saariaho’s finest large-scale work for years – the intricacy and translucency of her writing having a panache which ensured this was manifestly a showpiece with substance. In particular, the sense of ideas being tentatively anticipated then vividly recalled added much to the evocative quality of music as formally substantial as it sounded expressively involving.

From recent Finnish orchestral works to Shostakovich’s last and most equivocal symphony is a fair step aesthetically, but Storgårds ensured the succession was a meaningful one. If it did not evince the ultimate in ominous irony, those laughs elicited from the opening movement’s stealthy activity and allusive inanity were for real – as, more regrettably, were those hesitant coughs denoting uneasy response to the slow movement’s emotional intensity as heightened by its sparseness of gesture, while not forgetting an eloquent response by cellist Peter Dixon.

Nor was the percussion found wanting in its almost concertante role, to the fore in a scherzo where the whimsical and sardonic found an unlikely accord. From its sombre initial gestures, Storgårds then had the measure of a finale whose central passacaglia built toward a powerful climax, and while tension dropped with the resumption of earlier ideas, the spectral transition into the coda was judiciously handled with the latter mesmeric in its deft profundity. Should the BBC Philharmonic need a new chief conductor, Storgårds might be worth approaching.

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

On Record – Bamberger Symphoniker / Jakub Hrůša – Bruckner 4: The Three Versions (Accentus)

Bruckner (ed. Korstvedt)
Symphony no. 4 in E flat major ‘Romantic’ – 1874, rev. 1875/6; 1878-80, rev, 1881; 1887, rev. 1888. Finales – 1878 ‘Volksfest’; 1881. Earlier drafts and versions

Bamberger Symphoniker / Jakub Hrůša

Accentus Music ACC30533 [four discs, four hours 34 minutes]
Producers: Sebastian Braun, Bernhard Albrecht; Engineers: Markus Spatz, Christian Jaeger
Date: November 2020 at Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Jakub Hrůša directs the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra – whose chief conductor he has been since 2016 – in this survey of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony: three ‘versions’ of the complete work, together with two additional versions of the finale plus over a dozen sundry excerpts.

What’s the music like?

Evidently this project had its basis in a period of lockdown during the Covid pandemic, thus enabling a focus on one specific piece such as would have been unfeasible under more usual working conditions. How one responds to it depends, firstly, on how one sees the legitimacy of the ever-increasing editions of Bruckner symphonies; secondly, on the qualities – whether interpretative or executive – of these performances. Certainly, the identity of this conductor with this composer – whose music he has not previously recorded – can hardly be gainsaid.

Undoubtedly the highlight here is the 1874 version, of which this is the first recording in its 1876 revision – significant in that Bruckner clearly intended for the work to be heard in this guise, rather than its being a ‘first attempt’ shelved on completion. Hrůša might have taken the opening movement at a swifter underlying tempo, but its relatively prolix course is well articulated; as is that of the Andante whose course might seem circuitous compared to later versions, but which eschews discursiveness even so. Its close, moreover, provides a catalyst for the scherzo: too often dismissed as a failure, but recklessly imaginative in its expressive character and benefitting here from the revision’s excision of those pauses between sections. Even finer here is the finale, one whose supposedly lightweight content belies its rhythmic propulsion or a stealthily accumulating momentum unequalled by either revision – certainly not in so viscerally energetic a coda. The Bambergers give their all, while confirming that what Bruckner got wrong here was not necessarily put right in either of those later versions.

The 1878-80 version has become the preferred option in the post-war era, the streamlined trajectories of its initial two movements being more easily absorbed by listeners and more comfortably navigated by the musicians. Without yielding any revelations, Hrůša has their measure – not least a magisterially projected coda in the former or an inexorable approach   to the latter’s climax. The spacious acoustic of Joseph-Keilberth-Saal endows a convincing overall perspective but not the ultimate clarity, such as marginally obscures cross-rhythmic interplay of the brass during the Scherzo’s cumulative passages but ensures an ethereal aura in its trio. The Finale emerges broadly and patiently: maybe too much depending on whether one hears this version as the natural outcome of its music’s thematic potential, or an attempt to make this movement a weightier and more serious culmination that leaves an inevitable self-consciousness in its wake. Hrůša seems to have his doubts, though not in a fervent and headily cumulative account of what is undeniably among the most eloquent Bruckner codas.

The 1888 version is that by which earlier generations came to know this piece, making its latter-day rehabilitation the vindication of Bruckner’s final thoughts or an editorial cash-in according to vantage. Whether or not determined primarily by the composer or by his self-appointed acolytes, the cloyingly enriched harmony or theatrical reorchestrations speak of     a desire to ‘sell’ the ‘Romantic’ as a would-be-Wagnerian equivalent to the symphonies of Brahms. Qualities, moreover, which Hrůša tacitly acknowledges in a dependable but often detached reading – tacitly underlining the myriad textural changes without ever seeking to condone them. Neither does he shirk from following those inane truncations as the Scherzo proceeds into then out of its trio, such as conductors who otherwise adhered to this version were wont to ignore, nor the excisions meted out on the Finale as only serve to fracture an already unwieldy and formally disjunct design. As with the final revisions of his first three symphonies, this is worth hearing in context but not as means to any deeper appreciation.

The fourth disc consists of 14 excerpts, mainly of variants from the second version Bruckner amended during the revision process. Few will need to hear these more than twice, as is also true of an 1881 finale differing only incrementally from that found in the main performance (and which would have been more worthwhile had it featured the coda’s 1886 amendment). More valuable is the inclusion of the Volksfest finale as originally intended for the second version, and which Bruckner rightly recognized as a transitional version towards one that he was never to get quite right. As it stands, though, this alternation between the humorous and portentous makes an engaging piece in its own right; one that could even now find favour as a concert overture or even symphonic poem such as the composer never actually envisaged.

Does it all work?

That depends on whether you regard it as legitimate to release a set as contains three versions of just one piece. Editorial reservations as there are focus on whether Benjamin Korstvedt has exceeded his remit by presenting his editions as being of comparable validity, which is hardly unknown in latter-day academic practice (Simon Rattle’s account of this work, due from LSO Live, takes a similar if less inclusive approach using the editions of Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs). As to performances, those who already have accounts of the 1874 version by Michael Gielen (SWF Music) or Simone Young (Oehms Classics), the 1887 version by Osmo Vänskä (BIS) and 1878-80 version by upward of a dozen conductors can rest content. Hrůša is evidently a Bruknerian of note, however, and his perspective on this piece is well worth getting to know.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The presentation, four discs in a slipcase plus a booklet featuring detailed notes from Korstvedt and a thoughtful interview with the conductor, is stylishly economical. Those most redoubtable among the ‘usual suspects’ might dissent, but this project is its own justification. Note too that Hrůša and the Bamberg have a recording of the ‘First’ Symphony by Hans Rott – now regarded as the aesthetic link between Bruckner and Mahler, pertinently coupled here with the former’s Symphonic Prelude and the latter’s Blumine – due out on DG this October.

For further information on this release, you can visit the Accentus website, and you can purchase by clicking on the link from Presto Music. Click on the names for more information on the Bamberg Symphoniker and their chief conductor Jakub Hrůša

BBC Proms #7 – Soloists, La Nuova Musica / David Bates: Purcell Dido and Aeneas

Purcell Dido and Aeneas (c1689)

Dido – Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Aeneas – James Newby (baritone)
Belinda – Gemma Summerfield (soprano)
Sorceress – Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano)
Second Woman – Nardus Williams (soprano)
Sailor – Nicky Spence (tenor)
Spirit – Tim Mead (countertenor)
First Witch – Helen Charleston (mezzo-soprano)
Second Witch – Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano)

La Nuova Musica / David Bates (harpsichord)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 19 July 2022 (late night)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

After the existential confrontations of Vaughan Williams and Tippett earlier this evening, the more restrained yet no less acute expression of Dido and Aeneas came as a necessary tonic – with Purcell’s only through-composed work for the stage leaving a memorable impression.

The nature of its conception might remain as conjectural as the circumstances of its premiere, but there can be no doubt that this opera’s blazed a trail over the centuries that followed. Not the least of its attributes is a formal economy and a tensile dramatic trajectory whose ‘less is more’ aspect could scarcely be more evident. Neither is there any lack of expressive diversity in a score where elements of levity, even slapstick are aligned with a dramatic acuity which draws the three short but judiciously balanced acts into a cohesive and inevitable continuity.

Tonight’s concert performance manifestly played to these strengths. For the title-roles, Alice Coote brought gravitas and nobility of spirit to that of Dido, with James Newby an impulsive while knowingly fickle Aeneas. It was, however, Gemma Summerfield who stole the show as Belinda in rendering this most dramatically fluid of the opera’s parts with an emotional force, latterly foreboding, that was never less than captivating. Madeleine Shaw was larger than life if never overly parodic as the Sorceress, with Tim Mead a plangent Spirit whose intervention (from the organ console) seals the fate of the main protagonists. Credit, too, to Nicky Spence for an uproarious yet winning cameo as the Sailor in a scene whose Village People campery seemed entirely apposite in context and hence made this opera’s outcome the more affecting.

Directing La Nova Musica from the harpsichord, David Bates never lost sight of the dramatic continuity while ensuring an exemplary balance between chorus and ensemble. The former responded with a judicious combination of eloquence and discipline, whereas the emphasis on a continuo section of theorbos, harps and even guitar opened out but never obliterated the bracing string sonorities. Tempos were almost invariably well chosen, and though the final chorus was undeniably drawn out, this reinforced its postludial function to the work overall.

The past 58 seasons have since Dido and Aeneas given complete on four previous occasions, each time reflecting on how the opera was perceived at the time. Tonight’s performance was such a statement, and one as reaffirmed its greatness some 333 years after the first staging.

For more information on the 2022 BBC Proms season, you can visit the festival website. For more on the artists, click on the names for La Nuova Musica and David Bates.

BBC Proms #6 – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis: Vaughan Williams & Tippett Fourth Symphonies

Prom 6 – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Symphony no.4 in F minor (1931-4)
Tippett Symphony no.4 (1976-7)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 19 July 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Whether or not the Fourth Symphonies by Vaughan Williams and Tippett had previously been scheduled together, they made for a striking and provocative programme such as was its own justification. Omer Meir Wellber clearly thought so when this concert was planned and, even though indisposition had led to withdrawing from this year’s Proms, the presence of Sir Andrew Davis on the podium could hardly have been more conducive to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra giving performances of the interpretive insight and technical conviction as were evident this evening.

Admittedly the Albert Hall’s opulent acoustic is never the best setting for VW4, the visceral impact of whose opening was inevitably diluted. Allowing for rather more expressive leeway than he might otherwise have done, Davis paced this explosive movement securely with just a slightly listless take on its coda detracting from the whole. The Andante was the highlight here – its fatalistic course exuding gravitas but never dragging, with the tritonal plangency of its main climaxes palpably in evidence and pathos of its final bars enhanced by an affecting contribution from flautist Alex Jakeman. This acoustic may have obscured something of the Scherzo’s contrapuntal ingenuity but not its sardonic humour or, in the trio, didactic coyness. The stealthy transition into the Finale could have had even greater cumulative focus, but what followed had all the requisite impetus – its central interlude raptly delineated, then the drama of its ‘epilogo fugato’ conveying increasing velocity through to the starkly inevitable return of the opening gesture and what is the most unequivocal four-letter ending of any symphony.

Interesting to recall the temporal distance between these pieces is now less than that between the Tippett and the present. Enthusiastically received at its Chicago premiere and one among a handful of his works still revived following his death, Tippett’s Fourth Symphony evinces  a ‘birth to death’ trajectory that differs – crucially so – from its assumed model of Sibelius’s Seventh in not being a cumulative design; its climax being rather the kinetic developmental paragraph at its centre and from where the piece fans out, in a sequence of evolving episodes, back to the launching of its introduction and onward to the passing of its coda. Although he may have directed performances of greater tautness, Davis here secured a persuasive balance between unity and diversity – bringing a metaphysical poise to its ‘slow movement’ then a deft whimsicality to its ‘scherzo’, whose respective qualities underlined the confrontational drama elsewhere. Lavish writing for brass and percussion helps makes this Tippett’s most virtuosic such statement, in which the BBC Philharmonic was rarely to be found wanting.

A less successful component of this reading was the latest attempt to represent the ‘breathing effect’ specified by the score, in which the real-time voice of CJ Neale seemed hardly more successful than those attempts of wind machine, sampler et al to realize Tippett’s speculative imagery. No matter – any such overreaching was part and parcel of this composer’s inherent ambition; an ambition, moreover, which his present-day successors would do well to emulate. Almost a century and half-century on, both these works pose challenges constantly to be met.