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:

BBC Proms: The Brandenburg Project – Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Proms 29 & 30: Soloists, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard

Prom 29
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major BWV1046
Mark-Anthony Turnage Maya (2014)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major BWV1048
Anders Hillborg Bach Materia (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major BWV1050
Uri Caine Hamsa (2015)

Prom 30
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.4 in G major BWV1049
Olga Neuwirth Aello – ballet mécanomorphe (2017)
Brett Dean Approach – Prelude to a Canon (2017)
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.6 in B flat major BWV1051
J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major BWV1047
Steven Mackey Triceros (2015)

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 5 August 2018

You can watch this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

If musical authenticity has largely banished J.S. Bach’s Six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV1046-51) from the standard repertoire, then the brace of Proms that constituted The Brandenburg Project enabled near-capacity audiences to experience what was once the foundation of this tradition. This was hardly the large-scale Bach that would once have been a familiar fixture at these concerts, but the playing of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra – by turns incisive and sensitive – and unfailingly astute direction of Thomas Dausgaard served these pieces well.

A quirky collection this is too. Uncertain as to its date (Bach’s promotional autograph to the Margrave of Brandenburg dates from 1721 but the music was likely in existence up to a decade earlier) and hardly constituting a logical or systematic key sequence (being in F, F, G, G, D and B flat respectively), it positively invites juxtaposition with works either akin in genre or inspired by their specific precedent. It was this latter factor which underlies the present project, with six diverse composers commissioned to write a piece inspired by the Brandenburg in question.

The Brandenburg Project – 1

With its relatively expansive four-movement structure and its virtuosic use of a (then) sizable complement of wind and strings, the First Concerto anticipates the Concerto for Orchestra of two centuries hence. Dausgaard secured a suitably forthright response, not least in the diverse ‘quodlibet’ that is the finale; the SCO then providing eloquent support for cellist Maya Beiser in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Maya. Although the least ‘connected’ to its Brandenburg in terms of concept and follow-through, this was an impressive showing for its soloist’s long -limbed phrasing and mellifluous tone – even if its two halves witnessed relatively little sense of expressive contrast or intensification. The fact that Turnage completed his contribution so far in advance of the project’s taking place suggests his response as being a generalized one.

Long the most famous (rather, immediately recognizable) of the set, the Third Concerto is a blueprint for the Concerto for Strings beloved of the high Baroque era. The SCO relished the robust and incisive contrapuntal interplay of its outer movements; the (deliberately?) absent slow movement being provided on this occasion by Anders Hillborg, who then drew upon its plaintive understatement in the slow section of his Bach Materia. With its prelude of anticipatory tuning, headlong workout between violin and double-bass in its scherzo, then a finale whose interaction of soloist and ensemble was as much vocal as instrumental, it was a showcase for ‘improvising violinist’ Pekka Kuusisto as communicated readily to the audience, even if its attractions (not for the first time in Hillborg) seemed to lie primarily on the surface.

Whether or not the first Concerto for Keyboard, the Fifth Concerto is an intriguing take on that nascent genre; its elaborate harpsichord part scintillating in Mahan Esfahani‘s rendition (not least the headlong ‘cadenza’ passage), with the more circumspect contributions of flute and violin no less appealingly taken by Fiona Kelly and Antje Weithaas. They remained in their respective roles for Uri Caine’s Hamsa, joined by the composer on piano for a piece whose ominous-sounding title is no more than the Arabic for ‘five’. What ensued was an object lesson in composing-out an already elaborate structure and it was hardly Caine’s fault if, at the end of a lengthy programme, this piece outstayed its welcome. Certainly, his attentive pianism and formal finesse would have held one’s attention in any other context.

The Brandenburg Project – 2

With its dextrous and, in the elevated central Andante, plangent interplay of violin and two recorders (the preferred option for those mythical ‘fiauti d’echo’ so designated by Bach), the Fourth Concerto is perhaps the most immediately attractive of these works; despatched with relish and not a little pathos by Kuusisto in partnership with Per Gross and Katarina Widell. As part of her response, Olga Neuwirth pointedly eschewed Double or even Triple Concerto connotations for a single flute as heard against an ensemble with two obligato trumpets and portable typewriter as part of the continuo. This, along with judicious use of tuning systems, gave her ‘ballet mécanomorphe’ which is Aello (2017 – the title that of a retributive Harpy) an insubstantial and capricious aura not without its more ominous and suspenseful qualities.

That the final two instalments segued directly between Brandenburg and commission was not their least fascination. In his Prelude – Approach to a Canon, Brett Dean came up with a methodical extemporisation where he and fellow violist Tabea Zimmermann pursued a fine line in ‘call and response’ with the ensemble; motifs from the Sixth Concerto being variously evoked and denied prior to a rhetorical lead-in to the Bach such as Schnittke might well have relished. With its scoring for low strings and its accordingly dark sonorities, this is the most intriguing of the Brandenburg’s – a Concerto for (or at least predicating) Two Violas whose intricately polyphonic opening movement makes way for winsome elegance in the Adagio then gallant buoyancy in the finale. Qualities to the fore in this most probing of accounts.

The segue was in the opposite direction for the final pairing, with the Second Concerto a putative Sinfonia Concertante whose modest dimensions belie the plethora of timbres and textures derived from its solo quartet. Kelly and Weithaas were partnered by oboist Mårten Larsson and trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger, their overt élan during the outer movements complemented by their wistful poise in the Andante. A sustained note from trumpet duly provided a link into Triceros  Steven Mackey’s typically resourceful response that deploys ‘family’ instruments (piccolo/alto flute, cor anglais and flugelhorn/piccolo trumpet) in music whose ingenious variations on Bach motifs readily evoke the title’s ‘three-horned chameleon’ through to a heady culmination then full-circle resumption of that trumpet note.

Maybe it would have been preferable to hear this latter trilogy in the published order (2-4-6), or at least end with the Sixth Concerto so that Bach’s music could have framed proceedings. Even so this was a fascinating and engrossing project, judiciously conceived and unfailingly well executed, such as confirmed both the intrinsic greatness of the Brandenburg Concertos and their continued relevance three centuries on. Might a similar Proms project be considered utilizing Bach’s Four Orchestral Suites or Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi? Let us hope so.

Prom 17 – BBC NoW & Martyn Brabbins: Vaughan Williams ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, Parry Symphony no.5 & Holst

Prom 17: Tai Murray  (violin), Francesca Chiejina (soprano), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone),  BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins

Parry Symphony no.5 in B minor (Symphonic Fantasia ‘1912’) (1912)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914, rev 1920)
Parry Hear my words, ye people (1895)
Holst Ode to Death, Op.38 (1919)
Vaughan Williams A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony no.3) (1921)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 27 July 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos of Martyn Brabbins and Tai Murray (c) BBC/Mark Allan

You can watch this Prom on BBC4 on Sunday 22 July here

This was a fascinating concert, a celebration of Sir Hubert Parry both in his music and the work of his pupils.

Parry – composer of the music to Jerusalem and royal anthem I Was Glad for many of us – wrote five symphonies, and it is bordering on ridiculous that only one of them, the Symphony no.5 in B minor, has been heard at the Proms before. Hopefully this excellent performance from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Martyn Brabbins will open the door to further hearings, for it presented the piece as an extremely coherent stream of consciousness.

With its Schumann-like dimensions, the Fifth flows for 27 minutes unabated, and is almost constantly melodic, its themes and motives passed through the instruments. There were some lovely moments of clarity in the first movement where a certain English splendour came through, whereas elsewhere Parry was in thrall to Richard Strauss and his hero Brahms without ever slipping into parody.

The programmatic nature of the piece is revealed in the titles of its movements (Stress, Love, Play and Now) and Brabbins shaped his response accordingly, lovingly tendering the phrases but enjoying the more adventurous and colourful aspects of the score.

The rapt stillness of Vaughan WilliamsA Lark Ascending followed, in which the audience were immediately relocated to the stillness of an English field to witness the freedom of the lark as its song spiralled upwards. Tai Murray (above) was the violinist inhabiting its character, and she allowed the music all the room it needed. Brabbins enjoying the softly burnished strings – some beautiful shading from the BBC Welsh – before the slightly more playful and folksy central section took hold. Her encore, a gravity defying account of Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, felt a little misplaced but was played with exceptional athleticism and virtuosity.

There was more music from Vaughan Williams’ teacher Parry after the interval, in celebratory festival mood for Hear my words, ye people. This presented a couple of tricky performance issues, with the soloists Francesca Chiejina (below) and Ashley Riches just in front of Sir Henry Wood’s bust at the back of the stage, with a 120-strong choir behind them. To the side were the brass of the BBC Welsh – but all gelled together in classic Anglican exultation, nicely held together by organist Adrian Partington, who delivered sensitive registrations on the Royal Albert Hall organ.

Parry’s celebrations were checked by a polar opposite in a work from another of his pupils, Holst’s Ode to Death – a choral setting of Walt Whitman. This left an incredibly powerful impact in an understated way, leaving us mindful of the First World War – to which the piece responds. The best Holst music takes its listener to the brink of another world and this was another such occasion, Brabbins overseeing a performance of subtlety and beauty but uncertainty too, especially when the composer’s oblique harmonies and silvery orchestration were at work. As in the Parry, the BBC National Chorus of Wales were superb.

Vaughan Williams invested heavily in the First World War, not from a position of overwrought patriotism but from a sense of duty to his country. What he saw as an ambulance driver in France in 1916 is not fully documented, but it left a lasting impression fully realised in A Pastoral Symphony, his third – following musical depictions of the Sea (no.1) and London (no.2).

While ostensibly a peaceful work, there are hints around the edges that its composer is struggling to come to terms with peace in the wake of such a terrible conflict. Martyn Brabbins felt this too, and brought from the orchestra some beautifully judged phrasing, colourful textures and eloquent playing, none more so than Neil Brough‘s exquisite off-stage trumpet solo in the second movement.

Everything was headed for the appearance of soprano Chiejina at the height of the fourth movement, and the balance was ideal as her wordless vocalise sounded from on high – a touch too much vibrato for my taste, but leaving a strong impact nonetheless. In our uncertain times now, we would do well to heed Vaughan Williams’ subtle but incredibly powerful warning of the consequences of war.