BBC Proms 2017 – John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Sibelius, Grieg, Schumann & Hindemith

Prom 33: Lise Davidsen (soprano), Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Grieg Peer Gynt Op.23 (excerpts) (1876)

Sibelius Luonnotar Op.70 (1913); Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)

Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)

Hindemith Symphony, Mathis der Maler (1934)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 10 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

John Storgårds has been making his mark on the BBC Proms in his appearances as Chief Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. Tonight’s tale of two geographical halves commenced with excerpts from Grieg’s music to Peer Gynt; starting with the lively Overture (hardanger fiddles in evidence thanks to the violas), then continuing with a vehement Ingrid’s Lament, a deftly propelled Morning and a pensive Solveig’s Song undermined by Lise Davidsen’s fluttery vocal; finishing with the suitably quirky Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter.

Davidsen (above) was then heard to better advantage in Sibelius’s tone-poem Luonnotar, coping ably with the stratospheric range of this singular creation myth – not the least of whose fascinations was having been premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral. There have been some memorable accounts of this piece over recent years, and if Davidsen did not efface memories of such as Mattila and Komsi, she duly pointed up its drama and mystery in what was, for the greater part, a sympathetic account. The Proms audience was suitably attentive.

Sibelius’s comparatively mellifluous Karelia Suite brought this Nordic first half to its close. Storgårds’s widely contrasted tempi for the Intermezzo left a rather disjointed impression, and while the Alla Marcia sounded rumbustious enough, a certain coarseness of playing rather limited one’s enjoyment. Best by far was the Ballade, one of the composer’s most arresting earlier pieces in its enfolding modal harmonies and given a notably rapt reading with such aspects as the wistful cor anglais melody towards its close eloquently phrased.

The Germanic second half began in more restrained mood with Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Rarely performed for decades (and more often in the transcription for violin), this deceptively genial piece is among its composer’s most ingenious in terms of form and motivic continuity. Alban Gerhardt (above) maintained a determined while never merely inflexible course across its three continuous movements, the BBC Philharmonic providing support as attentive yet unobtrusive as the music required. Interesting to hear that the soloist thought the finale musically the least successful, as this emerged as arguably the most successful part – not least with its engaging dialogue kept on its toes and with no sense of dourness or grittiness as regarded the orchestral texture. Overall, a perceptive and convincing account of a work still too easily overlooked.

Storgårds then rounded-off the programme with a taut and tensile reading of the symphony that Hindemith derived from his opera Mathis der Maler. This retelling of cultural meltdown and social antagonism during the Thirty Years War proved too ‘contemporary’ for the Nazi regime to stomach, and it was no surprise that the premiere of the complete opera took place in Zurich. Storgårds had the measure of the Angelic Concert with its austere chorales and angular though never impersonal polyphony. The Entombment of Christ was affecting for all its brevity, while the climactic Temptation of St Anthony built surely and impulsively from its stark introduction, through a central interlude of tangible pathos, to a culmination such as blazed forth in affirmation. All credit to Storgårds for ensuring so cathartic an impact.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Lise Davidsen (c) Ole-Jørgen-Bratland)

BBC Proms – Nielsen Fifth Symphony; Schumann Violin Concerto & Jörg Widmann’s Armonica – BBC Philharmonic / Storgårds

prom-23-1

John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms on Monday 1 August. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 23; Royal Albert Hall, Monday 1 August 2016

Widmann Armonica (2006) [UK premiere] [Christa Schönfeldinger (glass harmonica), Teodoro Anzellotti, (accordion)]

Schumann Violin Concerto in D minor (1853) (Thomas Zehetmair, violin)

Sibelius The Tempest – Prelude (1925)

Nielsen Symphony No.5 (1922)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s Prom brought a first visit this season from the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by its principal guest conductor John Storgårds in a wide-ranging programme which began in ethereal near-silence and ended in a blaze of affirmation rarely equalled this past century.

The relative silence was to be found in Armonica, among the most distinctive pieces by Jörg Widmann in that it features a solo role for glass harmonica – partnered here by the more abrasive sound of accordion in music which emerges into then evanesces out of focus; heard against a backdrop where indebtedness to Ligeti’s earlier orchestral works does not preclude a wealth of imaginative textures, particularly in the opening minutes. Christa Schönfeldinger and Teodoro Anzellotti interacted seamlessly, not least in those overly gestural closing pages.

prom-23-2

Christa Schönfeldinger performs Widmann’s Armonica with and Teodoro Anzellotti, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. (c) Chris Christodolou

Perhaps it was such ethereal sounds that the ailing Schumann heard over the troubled weeks prior to his final breakdown. If so, little of this otherworldliness found its way into the Violin Concerto which was his last major work. Its having been kept under wraps for eight decades, then miraculously relocated near the outset of the Nazi era, has passed into legend. Musically the piece can verge on the routine, not least a first movement whose progress is more than a little dogged due to insufficiently contrasted ideas, then a finale whose underlying polonaise rhythm abets the repetitiveness. Best is a slow movement that revisits Schumann’s ‘romanza’ idiom a last time; its enervated aura exquisitely judged by Thomas Zehetmair and Storgårds – musicians who have (uniquely?) encountered this unsettling work both as soloist and conductor.

The emotional temperature rose appreciably in the second half – first with the Prelude from the extensive incidental music Sibelius wrote for a Copenhagen production of The Tempest. Guardedly admired at first, it has latterly been hailed as a precursor of tonal innovations half a century on. While his account was not lacking for physical immediacy, Storgårds chose to emphasize those modal contours that spread across woodwind and brass as the piece moves beyond its climax towards as tenuous a resolution as any during the first half of last century.

How to wrest resolution from apparent chaos was the goal for Nielsen in his Fifth Symphony, a work that has rightly moved towards the centre of the repertoire over the past two decades. Consistency was the watchword of Storgårds’s interpretation – finding an unarguable ‘tempo giusto’ for the initial half of the first movement, its unfolding across shifting tonal planes as finely articulated as the intensifying ambivalence that suddenly clears going into the Adagio rejoinder. The climax had suitably majestic import, and it was hardly Paul Patrick’s fault if his side-drum ‘cadenza’ was outshone by John Bradbury’s plangent clarinet solo in the coda. The second movement’s propulsive opening Allegro was well judged and if Storgårds risked momentum in the curious bitonal transition, the ensuing Presto had the right headlong energy.

Nor was there any lack of focus in the fugal Andante which gradually works its way to where the earlier resolve can be regained, albeit now with a formal and expressive closure as makes possible a thrilling peroration that was superbly gauged at the end of this impressive reading.

Richard Whitehouse

On record: Poulenc – Works for piano and orchestra

Featured recording: Poulenc – Works for piano and orchestra (Chandos)
poulenc-lortie

Louis Lortie, a French-Canadian pianist, teams up with conductor Ed Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for a disc presenting Poulenc’s complete music for piano and orchestra, as well as some of his works for two pianos. Here he is joined by regular duet partner Hélène Mercier.

What’s the music like?

Poulenc is well-loved among 20th century composers, often for his gift of writing bittersweet melodies that make the listener smile – such as the oboe theme that dominates the Rondeau section of the Aubade for piano and orchestra, the second work on this disc.

Poulenc is a cheeky composer, thumbing his nose behind your back in a sense, and as with most French composers the imaginative and colourful orchestrations bring the music to life. Every so often Poulenc throws in a turn of musical phrase that makes the listener smile, with an exaggerated gesture here or a knowing chord progression there.

This new collection from Chandos brings together an impressive range of writing. The Piano Concerto is perhaps not as popular as it might be, for it often sparkles in this performance, and that label certainly applies to the entertaining and multi-faceted Aubade from 1929. This work, Roger Nichols informs us in his authoritative booklet note, was written in one of the composer’s depressive bouts, and it tells the story of how the huntress Diana is driven to suicide by her own ‘love that the gods forbid’.

The brief works for two pianos included here are greatly affecting – the doleful Élégie and the free-spirited L’Embarquement pour Cythère especially – while the concise Sonata packs an energetic punch. When writing for two pianos and orchestra in the Concerto Poulenc must have had great fun, for this is full of frolics – but with the customary cautionary notes just beneath the surface.

Does it all work?

Yes. This collection is consistently entertaining, played with great enthusiasm and affection and recorded in such a way that the light and shade of the composer’s writing is fully revealed.

The Aubade is at times po-faced but has an almost ever present glint in the eye, as though it can’t resist cracking a joke amongst the downward thoughts. In the double concerto, Mercier and Lortie enjoy sparkling and spiky exchanges between pianos and orchestra, and in the finale there is what sounds like a clockwork mechanism towards the end.

The tender second movement of the Sonata for two pianos is beautifully done, before the finale scurries away.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Poulenc is a charmer on record, and can be enjoyably brash too. The performers here do him proud.

Listen on Spotify

This particular recording is not on the streaming service, but samples from each track can be heard here

Proms premieres – Birds with new plumage

tui-bird
The Tui Bird from New Zealand. Photo (c) Sid Mosdell

Messiaen, orch Christopher Dingle – Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (1987-1991, orch 2015)

Ravel, arr. Colin Matthews – Oiseaux tristes from Miroirs (1905, orch 2015)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (Prom 29)

Duration: 4 minutes each

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ef3zc8#b0640p40

The Messiaen can be heard from 1:55; the Ravel from 35:02

What’s the story behind the pieces?

Messiaen’s Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (A bird from the tree of life) is music that is ‘incredibly technically difficult to conduct’, in the words of Nicholas Collon, given the job of overseeing its first performance in this guise, arranged by scholar Christopher Dingle.

The relatively short piece originally intended to be part of his massive, multi-movement orchestral piece Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà…, but was removed before the first performance. It is mostly scored for percussion but changes tempo and time signature more or less every bar. In the piece Messiaen profiles the New Zealand tui bird through a written-out melody of its song.

Meanwhile Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes (Sorrowful birds) is the latest French piano piece to be orchestrated by Colin Matthews. The composer has tried his hand at a number of Debussy Préludes, imagining how Ravel might have undertaken the task, but here he looks at one of the six parts of Miroirs, the suite written by the composer for piano. Ravel himself orchestrated two of the other movements, Une barque sur l’océan (A boat on the ocean) and Alborada del gracioso (Morning song of the jester).

The piece is intended to portray the sorrowful birds in the depths of a very hot summer forest. They are lost.

Did you know?

Ravel’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of many versions of the Russian composer’s suite for piano – but is the most performed.

Initial verdict

The Messiaen is bright and strongly rhythmic, but not in a conventional sense. It is very treble based, and is punctuated by crisp chords that have an unusual colour, with the wood block and tuned percussion heavily in evidence.

Colin Matthews’ orchestration is evocatively coloured, ideal for a humid evening at the Royal Albert Hall. The mood is oppressive, the brass lending weight to the lower end of the sound. It is clear from this that Matthews has listened closely to Ravel’s own methods of orchestration, because his way with the colours available is surely near to what the composer might have imagined.

Second hearing

tbc!

Where can I hear more?

Colin Matthews’ orchestrations of Debussy Préludes can be heard in a release made by the Hallé record label, found on Spotify here

Proms premiere – Luke Bedford: Instability

luke-bedford

Luke Bedford

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena (Prom 20)

Duration: 22 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

Instability can be heard by clicking here

What’s the story behind the piece?

You can look at the music itself courtesy of Luke Bedford’s publisher, Universal Edition, here

In the introduction on the same page, Bedford sets the scene for his new piece. “Ideas in this piece are torn apart by a strange energy and reform in new, dynamic relationships. There is a constant tension between growing and collapsing. That which seems durable can vanish in an instant. The piece will include the Albert Hall organ, a detuned orchestra and possibly the first use of a cricket bat in an orchestral piece.”

Reflecting the world we live in and experience. Was going to be a set of movements but is now in one continuous duration. Cuts between ideas in an unexpected and dramatic way. Some of the orchestra – wind and brass – play a quarter-tone lower.

Did you know?

Initial verdict

As the BBC Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny observes, Instability is a piece that vividly captures the uncertain and often overwhelming times that we live in. It is a very edgy piece indeed!

From the start (35:22 on the link) some quiet murmurings among the orchestra but then a sudden outburst that changes the whole dynamic of the piece. Bedford writes some striking music for the orchestra, a dramatic set of contrasts that perhaps intentionally leaves the listener completely on edge with the huge rumbles of sound. There is not so much melodic, as the big chords are walls of sound, but there is a good deal of pent-up anger released with them it would seem.

The organ is integral to the music, tending towards the upper end for a shrill sound, but cutting through around the 44’ mark with an emphatic blast of C major tonality. After this the piece becomes uncertain and wary again, with some creepy sounds and ominous, held low notes.

I couldn’t hear where the cricket bat comes in but assumed that to be in the percussive section around 41:30, where it feels like a lot of pipes are struck.

From around 48:55 on the link the cellos and violas intone a solemn melody, but the rest of the orchestra seems hell-bent on breaking this up and smothering it. Then the forces bang into each other chaotically before cutting out to near silence. Then what seems to be a coda starts, with another quite solemn and drawn out melody broken up by metallic chords from brass, wind, percussion and high organ.

To me this piece feels like an attempt to live a proper life in a society that is chaotic, uncertain and full of dread. At the end this tension is unresolved.

Second hearing

tbc!

Where can I hear more?

You can watch a portrait of Luke Bedford in this video uploaded to YouTube by the London Sinfonietta: