Arcana at the Proms – Prom 70: Daniel Pioro gives the world premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s Horror vacui

Jonny Greenwood (bass guitar/tanpura), Daniel Pioro (violin), Nicolas Mangriel (tanpura), Katherine Tinker (piano), BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Hugh Brunt

Biber Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas No. 16 – Passacaglia in G minor
Penderecki Sinfonietta for strings, second movement Vivace
Greenwood Three Miniatures from Water – No. 3; 88 (No. 1)
Reich Pulse
Greenwood Horror vacui

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 10 September 2019 (late night Prom)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Mark Allan

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

Alongside his role as lead guitarist with Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood has a close relationship with the string orchestra. Detailing his love for the medium in the programme for this late night Prom, he explained his preference for live music over electronic or recorded alternatives, citing the living and breathing aspects of the instruments as his prime reason for using them.

Breathing into the stringed instruments became an aspect of his new piece, Horror vacui, written for violinist Daniel Pioro and an ensemble comprising string players from the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Arranged in a fan shape across the stage, the orchestra had the lowest sounds at the back in the form of eight double basses and twelve cellos, with ten violas just in front of those. That left just the 38 violins in front, each of the 68 instrumentalists having their own specific part.

Greenwood’s directions for conductor Hugh Brunt were unconventional, his arm often sweeping across the ensemble from left to right and back again so that each instrument knew when to come in and fade away. This created a powerful visual and aural effect, the string players’ bows rising and falling like a sound wave.

Greenwood explained how Horror vacui is the fear of empty space, usually in paintings. This was vividly captured not just from the dense orchestration but from Daniel Pioro’s superbly played solo violin part. With incredibly secure intonation he excelled in the pure upper register passages, the notes soaring effortlessly towards the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall. Beneath him the textures were always changing, sometimes secured by players blowing into their instruments, literally breathing life into them, or from deep-piled chords, some of which were huge blocks of consonant sound. Around 20 minutes in the biggest of these chords drew applause from the audience, most of whom thought the piece had finished there – and indeed it would have been a natural stopping point. There was still a substantial coda to follow, which ended in a pure C major with Pioro back up in the heights. The conventional end felt like a more obvious statement after Greenwood’s innovations earlier in the piece, and though beautiful felt tacked on to the end.

That said, Horror vacui is a very impressive and engaging piece of work – and here, with the orchestra under the leadership of the energetic Lesley Hatfield, it received the best possible performance.

We heard two other Greenwood pieces. The third of Three Miniatures from Water was perfect late night fayre, especially with the drones of two Indian tanpuras to enjoy, but ultimately was not long enough for pure indulgence. The shapes made by the smaller orchestra were pleasing to the ear – while the liquid torrents from solo pianist Katherine Tinker in the premiere of 88 (No.1) were harsher. The title reflects the number of keys on a modern grand piano, and Tinker surely used them all in the course of a virtuoso performance that built on watery influences from Debussy and Ravel.

Steve Reich’s Pulse transported us to the American plains. Written in thrall to Copland’s Appalachian Spring, this very approachable piece has all the Reich qualities of small, oft-repeated melodic cells and development, but also a warmth not lost on the ensemble here. Greenwood himself played bass guitar but it was the higher riff from the violins at the start of the piece that made a lasting impression.

The inclusion of Biber and Penderecki at the start was helpful. The former ensured we could adjust to the sound of a solo violin in the big space of the Royal Albert Hall, as well as the idea of a minimalist approach in the composer’s development of a relatively small chord sequence. That it comes from the early Baroque period, late 17th century, is startling. Penderecki, a friend and close musical ally of Greenwood’s, was present in the second movement of his Sinfonietta. Energetically played here, it is however wholly under the influence of Bartók in its musical language and scoring.

This was a stimulating concert with an attentive audience. A brief note should be made about timekeeping, however, as due to the required stage changes, no matter how efficiently done, this Prom did not finish until 11:55pm. While that is unquestionably value for money, it did inevitably lead to audience members having to leave half way through or even before the main work in order not to miss their last transport options of the evening. The anxiety this can breed is contagious and can affect the whole evening, not just for the leavers but those around them. It would surely have been beneficial for an earlier item in the program to have been omitted to avoid this, or for the concert to start at 10pm as Late Night Proms used to do. I myself had to leave Greenwood’s piece before the finish, as staying on would have landed me with a £70 cab fare and an extremely late night. BBC Sounds was on hand to help with the closing minutes, naturally – but it’s something for the BBC to consider in future.

You can watch this concert in a recording on BBC4 on Friday 13 September. Rehearsal clips for Horror vacui on the BBC website

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 28: Tadaaki Otaka conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Rachmaninov & Huw Watkins

Prom 28: Iurii Samoilov (baritone), Natalya Romaniw (soprano, below), Oleg Dolgov (tenor), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Philharmonia Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (above)

Takemitsu Twill by Twilight (1988)
Huw Watkins The Moon (2018-19) (BBC commission: world premiere)
Rachmaninov The Bells (1912-13)
Borodin Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances (1869-87)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 8 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Tadaaki Otaka) Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Given his commission brief, to write a choral piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, Huw Watkins must have been tempted to set Neil Armstrong’s immortal ‘one giant leap’ quote to music. Instead however he opted to ‘capture our experience of viewing the moon from Earth’. In doing so he set four intriguing texts pre-dating the first manned visit to our original satellite – two from Percy Bysshe Shelley, and one each from Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen.

The four were stitched together like phases of the moon in a continuously running 20 minutes, with plenty of opportunity for the orchestra to have their say in between. Watkins has an interesting musical language, always rooted in tonality but using evocative colours and harmonies hinted at in works for chorus and orchestra by Holst, Vaughan Williams or even Hugh Wood.

The Moon had a very satisfactory flow to it, and was passionately delivered by the 130-strong BBC National Chorus of Wales, who clearly enjoyed the experience. Given its length it makes a tricky piece to programme or to appraise on one listen, but it is to be hoped in this anniversary year we get more chances to acquaint ourselves with a composer who writes in a very human voice, and found the ‘definite and bright’ description of Larkin’s verse. That may sound like an obvious statement to make, but surprisingly few composers form a connection with their audience as pronounced as Watkins did here, and even less make the words as clear as he did.

He was of course helped by his ‘home’ orchestra, conducted by a returning prodigal in Conductor Laureate Tadaaki Otaka. Making his first visit to the Proms since 2015. Otaka opened with a piece by his dear friend Toru Takemitsu. Twill By Twilight, in memory of Morton Feldman, was in clear thrall to the Debussy of Nocturnes, creating a dreamy atmosphere. The piece is typical of Takemitsu’s compositions in its dealing with orchestral colour, melody and harmony on equal standing, and it runs slowly if inevitably. In this performance it panned out beautifully, the expansive orchestral sound guided by Otaka’s steady yet relaxed direction.

Otaka has a special place for the works of Rachmaninov, having recorded the symphonies and piano concertos for Nimbus back in the early 1990s. Yet the Russian composer’s choral symphony The Bells was absent from this project, and it was great to hear it in such full-bodied form here. The BBC National Chorus of Wales were boosted still further by the 100-strong Philharmonia Chorus, making a terrific bank of sound that carried all before it – and yet which, thanks to Otaka’s careful balancing, was complemented by the orchestra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loud Alarm Bells, the third movement, was suitably terrifying especially at the end, Otaka driving at a quick tempo, and this balanced out the relative joy felt in the first movement, Silver Sleigh Bells, where tenor Oleg Dolgov was a fulsome presence. Soprano Natalya Romaniw sang beautifully in Mellow Wedding Bells, the second movement, her voice effortlessly soaring up to a top B flat without a hint of effort, while baritone Iurii Samoilov offered a darker hue for the depths of Mournful Iron Bells, whose late shift from darkness to light was beautifully done. Rachmaninov’s choral epic has been well served by the Proms in recent years – I remember a terrific outing directed by Vladimir Jurowski – and this was another fine advocacy.

Finishing with Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances was a masterstroke, sending the audience home with several tunes in the locker that simply refused to leave for the rest of the evening! What a gifted melodist Borodin was, and how frustrating that because of his day job – a chemist – he did not leave more for us to enjoy. What he did leave still gives much pleasure, however, and the Polovtsian Dances benefited from such a big choir at their disposal.

The women floated the tune of the Young Girls’ Dance beautifully, while the men – while not quite hitting the passion of Russian voices in this music – were still fulsome and bold. Several orchestral solos stood out, not least from clarinetist Robert Plane, while Otaka’s pacing and linking of the sections was ideal. At 71 the conductor still looks in fine fettle, and his ‘sleep’ gesture at the end was borne more of mischief than genuine fatigue. It seems he, like the rest of us, was fired anew by the passionate Russian music of the concert’s second half.

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tony Winter on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales playing Vaughan Williams, Parry & Holst

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Tony Winter gives his verdict on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their Prom of English music.

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 2017

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Tony, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

I had a brief encounter with the violin which I never really got on with – I didn’t get on with the teacher – and then when I was about 13 the guitar, but that was rock music. I played the guitar for years. When I retire it’s going to come out again! I played in a band called The Committee, but to be fair by the time they’d risen to fame they’d chucked me out!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I love Bach, just because of the melodies. I think you can look at other people and say the orchestration is great but for me the genius is the melody. James Rhodes says ‘the immortal Bach’, which sums it up.

I’ve been playing a lot of David Bowie recently with his demise, I was a big fan of Bowie up to about the Let’s Dance era, and now suddenly I’ve been playing some of the later albums as I’ve been guilty of overlooking some of them. I don’t like it when it gets too commercial! But I think later on he was saying that he didn’t give a shit, which is an approach I’ve always liked. The Outside album was described as ‘difficult and industrial’ but I think it’s great. I wonder in 200 years if people will be playing Bowie? He died at the same age as Shostakovich but who knows? Only time will tell. How many people were on stage tonight, over 100? I’m sure everyone would be using that if there weren’t cost implications to it!

I don’t know whether to say the Rolling Stones or Mozart for the third!

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’ve been to a few over the years – I’ve even started going to a few operas! Living close to the Watford Coliseum I’ve been going to concerts there as I’m a bit of a lazy bugger. I tend to go to any classical concerts they put on there. I’ve seen Beethoven’s 9th, that was a bit echoey. James Rhodes sticks in the mind for his more modern presentation which particularly appealed to my kids. They’re learning the piano so that helped but it helped that he stood up and made a few jokes. I’m not saying everyone has to turn into a variety act but he judged it right. I like sitting at the front in an intimate gig, but coming here tonight though I think I should drag my sorry arse into London more as I don’t think you could fit that orchestra on the stage in Watford!

Can you give a snapshot of the music you’ve been listening to in the past week?

Yesterday I was going through making a playlist for stuff we’re going to play on holiday when we’re driving in the car. I found something on Tidal called ‘Music Your Kids Like That Won’t Drive You Crazy’ but we were doing one of our own. We had a couple of Michael Jackson tracks – Thriller, Pretty Young Thing (there’s some good grunting on that!) My daughter jumps up and down on the sofa to it.

I stuck on some David Bowie because my wife wanted Adam Ant – Stand And Deliver – and the video put me in mind of Ashes To Ashes – which then made me think of Life Is Lost, which refers back to that song. Bowie was brilliant at referring back to things from years before. We had A-ha, Earth, Wind and Fire – an ever-growing playlist!

Apart from that I’ve been playing Daniel Barenboim’s recording of the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier at work. It’s my fallback and I put it on when it all gets a bit too much for me!

What did you think of tonight’s Prom?

I thought it was excellent! Parry I know absolutely nothing about. With Holst I know the proverbial Planets but nothing at all about the piece we heard tonight, and Vaughan Williams I’m very familiar with. I’m a huge fan anyway, and think his music is absolutely sublime, but it also comes from being a massive fan of The Fast Show – with Ralph and Ted! A friend of mine used to say ‘rural cowpat music’, which is not my take on it but there you go. I do think it is reminiscent of a lost England – not even John Major’s Middle England, an England before that – and certainly not Theresa May’s Brexit idiot England that we have now. We’re getting a bit political here!

What did you think of the Parry’s Fifth Symphony?

I thought it was a bit short – that’s not a symphony! I was quite impressed with it, and some of it was reminiscent of Carnival of the Animals for me, some of the slow bits in the score. I’m not at all familiar with it but I did enjoy it.

Which of the pieces left the most impression tonight?

It’s the one I am most familiar with – which is The Lark Ascending. The soloist (Tai Murray) was fabulous and it is one of my favourite pieces anyway, I just love it. It’s like the pop concert where the Rolling Stones do Satisfaction I think!

How would you describe your experience in the Arena tonight?

It was great. I love standing up in there, I think it’s more rock ‘n’ roll, you can move to the front. Someone came and stood in front of us in the first half but there you are! I really enjoyed it.

Verdict: SUCCESS

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.

Prom 8 – BBC NoW & Thomas Søndergård: The Music of Lili Boulanger & Morfydd Owen

Prom 8: Bertrand Chamayou  (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård

Lili Boulanger D’un matin de printemps; D’un soir triste (1917-8)

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor Op.25 (1831)

Morfydd Owen Nocturne (1913)

Schumann Symphony no.4 in D minor Op.120 (original 1841 version)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 20 July 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

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

Debussy and Bernstein may be the blockbuster anniversary composers this Proms year, but there are several composers whose cause is arguably more important. We heard two of them in this intriguing Prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their outgoing chief conductor, Thomas Søndergård.

Lili Boulanger and Morfydd Owen died far too early, in their twenties, but both left works telling of an original style that should have been heard far more often than they have – which sadly is the case for all female composers. Happily the BBC has made a commitment to start putting that right, and this Prom went back to the second decade of the 20th century with two short pieces from Boulanger (below).

D’un matin de printemps (Of A Spring Morning) caught the ear immediately. Completed in 1918, it was slightly furtive at times, as though describing flowers shyly poking their heads into the fresh morning air. The transparent orchestration drew parallels with Debussy, and the colourful textures and positive harmonies made for an ideal, descriptive curtain raiser.

By contrast D’un soir triste (Of A Sad Evening) wore a troubled frown. Here the music was more ominous but also more exotic, its use of modal melodies extending its reach towards the East. Again Boulanger’s orchestration was exquisite, with a lovely rasp to the bass clarinet in the texture, and some powerfully wrought climaxes strengthened the intensity of feeling but failed to shake off the preoccupied state of mind. Both pieces made a lasting impact.

Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne began the second half. Written just before the First World War, this was an intriguing piece that was livelier than you might expect from a piece bearing that name. Initially the shady textures found the orchestra depicting the half light of the evening, but as well as atmospheric pictures there were attractive dance episodes, Owen breaking towards lighter music with a twinkle in her eye. She returned to this music on several occasions, each time casting the tune in a slightly different setting, before the piece finished with a silvery harp, sweeping us away into the night.

Complementing the anniversary composers was music from Mendelssohn and Schumann. The former’s Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor was brilliantly dispatched by Bertrand Chamayou, whose stylish playing emphasised Mendelssohn’s precocious writing for the instrument at the age of 22. Initially the speed of the music was a bit too fast, and the Royal Albert Hall acoustic didn’t help here, but soon pianist and orchestra were aligned in a performance light on its feet and, in the Andante slow movement, tender at its heart. As a well chosen encore Chamayou, popular with the Prommers, gave Liszt’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song.

Finally Schumann, and the original 1841 version of his Symphony no.4. Søndergård connected the four movements into a satisfying whole, bursting with melody, but here again made sure the slow movement had plenty of air. There can be a foreboding atmosphere to this symphony, mindful of the mental struggles that dogged the composer throughout his life, but here the BBC NoW, energetically led by Lesley Hatfield, found the positive mood running through its core. The most dramatic music of the night came in the transition between the obdurate scherzo and the triumphant finale, Sondergard stripping back the textures to a cold, hollow sound before surging forward to the rousing finish.