Prom 69 – Baiba Skride, Boston SO / Andris Nelsons – Bernstein Serenade & Shostakovich Symphony no.4

Prom 69 Baiba Skride (violin, below), Boston Symphony OrchestraAndris Nelsons (above)

Bernstein Serenade (after ‘Symposium’) (1954)
Shostakovich Symphony no.4 in C minor Op.43 (1936)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 3 September 2018

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Proms website here

The second of the Boston Symphony’s Proms, with its music director Andris Nelsons, offered a pertinent coupling which played to this orchestra’s strengths, while also suggesting that the interpretive insights of this much-lauded partnership are by no means to be taken for granted.

Time was when Bernstein’s Serenade was something of a rarity in live performance, but what is surely its composer’s most successful piece for the concert hall had come into its own well before the onset of his centenary celebrations. This sequence inspired by (though not indebted to) Plato’s consideration of Love in his Symposium was a gift on which Bernstein seized with alacrity, condensing its seven eulogies into five movements such as amount to a varied while cohesive totality to which he aspired without equalling in the concert music of his later years.

Baiba Skride proved a sympathetic exponent, segueing deftly from the lyricism of Phaedrus to the incisiveness of Pausanias and savouring the whimsical irony of Aristophanes. The fussiness of Erixymachus was pertly done and eloquence of Agathon not unduly emotive, for all its expansiveness; the finale almost achieving unity in the rumination of Socrates as overtaken by the ebullience of Alcibiades. Nelsons secured an engaging response from the reduced strings, while keeping some over-effusive percussion writing within sensible limits.

A pity that the sizable audience was not ideally attentive, suggesting that Bernstein as concert composer was less to its liking than when in ‘musical’ mode. It seemed rather more focussed for Shostakovich’s Symphony no.4 – an era-defining piece kept under wraps for a quarter-century after its completion, before gradually making its way into the 20th-century repertoire where it has been ever since. Subversive and despairing in equal measure, it duly received a commanding account where the BSO conveyed both visceral power and fastidious ensemble.

Were these the deciding factors of a great performance, this would assuredly have been one. Yet behind the formidable technical façade was a lack of empathy with this most emotionally charged of symphonies, not least a first movement whose stark alternations of Stravinskian energy and Mahlerian anguish Nelsons drew into a formally unified if expressively uniform whole. With its subtler pivoting between anxiety and elegance, the central intermezzo was finely rendered, even if its closing percussion ostinato was neither sardonic nor speculative.

Come the finale and Nelsons found an ideal tempo for its opening funeral march, though its overtones of heroism and plangency felt passed over on the way into a toccata section which lacked cumulative intensity for all its incisiveness. The ensuing divertimento gave several of the orchestra’s principals their moment in the spotlight that they took with panache, then the entry of duelling timpani was clumsily prepared going into a peroration as was imposing but never inexorable; the postlude which follows one of somnolence rather than numbed despair.

As so often this season, there was no encore – Nelsons purposely extending the silence at the close of the Shostakovich as its own epitaph. It set the seal on a lucidly conceived and superbly executed reading that yet missed out on what makes this piece an experience like few others.

BBC Proms: BBC Singers / Sakari Oramo – Songs of Farewell and Laura Mvula premiere

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: BBC Singers (above) / Sakari Oramo (below)

Bridge Music, when soft voices die (1907)
Vaughan Williams Rest (1902)
Holst Nunc dimittis (1915)
Laura Mvula Love Like A Lion (2018, world premiere)
Parry Songs of Farewell (1913-15)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 20 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Over the last couple of decades the Monday lunchtime strand of the BBC Proms concerts have gone from strength to strength, and the 2018 season looks like being an especially good vintage. English song has fared particularly well, and on the heels of Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s imaginative recital, here was a choral selection based around rest, sleep and departure.

To be more specific, the form of rest composers Bridge, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Parry had in mind was the Eternal form. Frank Bridge wrote Music when soft voices die (from 1:49 on the broadcast) as his entry for a magazine competition, Vaughan Williams set the text of Rest (6:33) as a deeply felt short song, while Gustav Holst’s setting of the Nunc Dimittis (10:49), made in 1915, was resurrected for publication by his daughter Imogen in 1979.

Pride of place, however, went to Sir Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, one of the crowning glories of his output. Rarely performed as a cycle, this series of unaccompanied motets, completed late in the composer’s life and in the shadow of the First World War, marks some of Parry’s deepest thoughts on mortality. They are every bit as profound in today’s world as they would have been then, and an attentive audience in the Cadogan Hall evidently took plenty from this interpretation.

Sakari Oramo has experience as a choral conductor but this was his first outing with the BBC Singers. He led them in a direct, unfussy manner, shaping the phrases while recognising this experienced group already have the tools at their disposal to make a beautiful sound.

Parry constructed the cycle so that his part writing gains density as the songs unfold, moving from four parts through to eight by the final Lord, let me know thine end.
Oramo took us on that progression with a gradual increase of intensity, helped by purity of tone and unanimity of voice. My soul, there is a country (29:09) began as a lighter, thoughtful account, building in intensity, the parts moving closely together. I know my soul hath power to know all things (32:53) was notable as much for its expressive pauses between words, Oramo’s direction ensuring a tight-knit ensemble. Some of Parry’s musical phrases are of considerable length, but the BBC Singers took them in their stride.

The density grew, from five parts (the beautiful Never weather-beaten sail, 38:35) to six (There is an old belief, ) then seven (a hypnotic account of All round the earth’s imagined corners, 43:15) to ultimately eight (Lord, let me know mine end, 50:04). This was the apex of the performance, notable for its calm acceptance of the final days of life, and in the closing pages the BBC Singers portrayed Parry facing his ultimate departure with an incredibly moving dignity.

The whole concert was structured rather like the Parry cycle, beginning from the small but poignant songs from Vaughan Williams and Bridge. The BBC Singers were excellent, with beautiful phrasing, and a surprise was in store for the Holst. Often the Nunc Dimittis is a softly voiced counterpoint to the Magnificat, but this one grew from small beginnings to become a forceful statement, delivered with impressive surety.

And so to Laura Mvula’s three-part work Love Like A Lion (12:58), written to a commission by the BBC but charting rest and loss in a rather different way. The loss here was a relationship, causing intense pain in Like A Child but with acceptance given in I Will Nor Die (For Him) (20:30), with a penetrating solo from Helen Neeves (21:08) over a gently undulating accompaniment that took us to a special, faraway place. Free from restrictions, Love Like a Lion itself (23:46) revelled in its new freedom, as did Sakari Oramo – who knows Mvula well from their Birmingham days. Love Like A Lion showed her ease with choral writing, and was a deeply expressive voyage from darkness to light. Hopefully we will hear more from her very soon.

Prom 44 – CBSO Choruses & Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot – Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

Prom 44 Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (above)

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo of CBSO (c) Upstream Photography

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Proms website here

One of the BBC Proms’ most valuable undertakings this season is the music of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). Her biggest choral work, a setting of Psalm 130 (Du fond de l’abîme) was the centrepiece of this enchanting concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot.

For once the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was ideally suited to the instrumentation of a piece, especially with the amount of detail lit up by this particular interpretation. Beginning with organ and lower strings that seemed to be positioned somewhere underground near the loading bay, the piece grew assuredly in stature and emotion, finding the nub of its text. The assembled throng of the CBSO Chorus sang as one, shaping Boulanger’s phrases beautifully while enjoying the harmonic twists and turns that give this piece – completed a year before its composer’s death – a distinctively modern turn.

Boulanger (above) was a friend of Debussy but had a tragically short-lived existence, dying from complications of illness at the age of 24. In that brief time she had already served notice as a composer of considerable invention, deep emotion and the ability to extend colour, harmony and melody in particular. All these things were on show in Psalm 130, the performance notable for its exquisite brush strokes.

The only problem was a difficulty in following the text itself from the arena. Although the right notes were undoubtedly there from the chorus, and mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė was full of tone in her solo passages, the words themselves were difficult to grasp above the texture. Some of the blame for this could go to the Royal Albert Hall acoustic itself – and it certainly wasn’t at the expense of a quite wonderful piece that should occupy a much firmer place in the repertoire.

For the rest of the programme Morlot and his charges gave us popular Debussy and Ravel, beginning in the heat haze of Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune and ending with the minimalist Boléro. These pieces were fascinating to contrast, from Marie-Christine Zupancic’s languorous flute solo that led off the Debussy – beautifully played – to the insistent, temple-knocking side drum of Adrian Spillett in the ubiquitous Boléro. Morlot paced both to perfection, giving us a chance in the Ravel to indulge in Matthew Knight’s trombone solo but also bringing out the Spanish rhythms and colour that make the piece a riot. He brought percussion section leader Spillett to the stage for a well-deserved curtain call at the end.

Before Boléro we were treated to the exquisite Nocturnes of Debussy – which would have been even more exquisite were it not for a barrage of coughing around the hall. Still, that did not completely harm a sensuously shaded account of Nuages (Clouds), the first Nocturne, whose softly oscillating chords left their understated mark, before the second and much quicker Fêtes (Festivals) ran lightly on its feet. The central procession episode of this pictorial movement was brilliantly paced by Morlot, with a hallucinogenic effect achieved through to muted trumpets, distant horns and wide open string textures.

While these two movements were special the concluding Sirènes (Sirens) was bewitching, fusing women’s voices and orchestra in an innovative combination that predates Holst’s The Planets by some 20 years. The CBSO Youth Choir were superb here, singing as one and hitting the high notes without fear – and without compromising the colour Debussy so clearly strives for. Morlot portrayed the vast, wide open scope of the sea – but also seemed to be looking beyond, casting his gaze far into space. This worked extremely well in the Royal Albert Hall, though perhaps quelling the coughers at the end was an even greater achievement!

This was an inspirational Prom, giving us familiar classics and the relatively unknown, boosting the profile of Lili Boulanger while reasserting the claims of Debussy and Ravel to be masters of their field. French classical music at its finest.

Prom 31 – Inon Barnatan, Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä – Homage to Leonard Bernstein


Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Bernstein Candide Overture (1989)
Gershwin Piano Concerto in F major (1925)
Ives Symphony no.2 (1897-1902, 1950)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

One of music’s greatest properties is making its listeners happy – and judging by the audience for the Minnesota Orchestra prom, wreathed in smiles as they left the Royal Albert Hall, this was an objective handsomely achieved by the orchestra and its music director Osmo Vänskä.

Making their first BBC Proms appearance since 2010, they had programmed a concert in honour of Leonard Bernstein the conductor, rather than the composer – but that still meant we got a chance to hear one of his most popular concert showstoppers, the Candide Overture. As a collection of catchy tunes and toe-tapping dance rhythms it is difficult to beat, and Vänskä conducted a performance light on its feet, affectionate and warm – if lacking a little of its composer’s highest spirits.

The performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto set that to rights. Taking the solo part was Inon Barnatan (above), whose command of the composer’s bluesy melodic style was well-nigh perfect. Gershwin is not thought of as key Vänskä repertoire but he brought to the orchestral passages a level of clarity that brought the streets of 1925 Manhattan into sharp, nocturnal focus. The string sound was exquisite, while the trumpet solo of Manny Laureano in the slow movement was brilliantly affected and played, fully deserving of its cheer at the end.

Barnatan was a box of tricks, at one moment thundering octaves down from on high, while in the other hanging onto the slow notes with great affection, as though unwilling to let them leave. The transparency of Vänskä’s conducting told of the influence Ravel has on some of Gershwin’s writing, but the swagger of the orchestra, leader Erin Keefe practically sitting next to Barnatan in a visual show of unity, was irrepressible. Barnatan gave us a perfectly positioned encore too, Earl Wild’s virtuoso study on I Got Rhythm.

The music of Charles Ives has barely popped its head above the parapet at the Proms, but here was a chance to enjoy a work premiered by Bernstein himself, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1951. It’s fair to say that Vänskä (above) secured a reading with a good deal more sobriety and control than the master might have done, but that’s not to say it was without flair and pure enjoyment.

The Minnesota Orchestra, once again playing with a smile, enjoyed the dense packing together of tunes in the symphony, while the strings dug into the serious first movement, setting out the case of a symphonic argument with impressive gravity. Once again Vänskä ensured they made a beautiful sound, the brass chorales ringing out with great surety, but as the symphony progressed so did the sense of convention edging nearer to the window.

This reaches its height at the climax of the fifth and final movement of course, and like the fast second this was taken at quite a lick, the music careering along as though about to lose its footing. And so it did, the last chord sounding its sharp clashes and some in the audience taken aback by Ives’ unexpected but wholly typical daring. Was it a mistake? Were we heading there all along? Yes and yes – and in that second, as booklet writer Paul Griffiths so aptly put it, ‘’Reveille’ was sounded’.

Yet there was one more surprise. As I write this the Minnesota Orchestra are on their way to South Africa to mark Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday in a series of high profile concerts. They gave a wonderful send-off, an arrangement of the traditional South Africa song Shosholoza, with the players joined in song as well as with their instruments. It was a joyful revelation, upping the spirits still further – and ensuring we will track their movements in South Africa with great interest.

BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below: