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

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 8: Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth – A Tribute to Oliver Knussen

Knussen Chamber Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (above)

Knussen …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell (1995) (from 2:15 on the broadcast link below)
Birtwistle Fantasia upon all the notes (2011) (9:29)
Freya Waley-Cohen Naiad (2019, world premiere) (20:14)
Knussen Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ (1972, rev, 2018) (30:54)
Abrahamsen Herbstlied (1992, rev. 2009) (38:58)
Alastair Putt Halazuni (2012) (47:36)
Knussen Songs without Voices (1991-2) (tbc)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 9 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The BBC Proms’ 800-year odyssey of music over eight weeks at the Cadogan Hall reached the present day in the company of the UK’s newest orchestra.

The Knussen Chamber Orchestra took its bow at the Aldeburgh Festival this year. Created specifically in memory and celebration of Oliver Knussen (above), it is an ensemble for commission and festival appearances, unrestricted in the repertoire it will perform – in that way very much reflecting the approach of its dedicatee. Comprising orchestral principals and budding young talent, it also reflects Knussen’s ability to communicate with musicians regardless of their standing.

Knussen is still greatly missed, a towering figure in British music in the latter part of the 20th century and the 21st until now. Tales have emerged not just of his mentoring of young composers and influence on the established writers, but of a sparkling personality and wit, a dinner companion par excellence. As a conductor he made several richly inventive programmes for the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Ensemble, and as a composer his small but perfectly formed catalogue is required listening for any budding contemporary composer of today. Like the composers he adored, particularly Stravinsky and Webern, his is a musical language that speaks directly through an economy of means.

That much was immediately evident in the three and a half minutes of …upon one note – Fantasia after Purcell, which used the colours of clarinet, violin, cello and piano to lasting effect. Knussen moved the omnipresent middle ‘C’ – the ‘one note’ – around the parts effortlessly, enjoying the harmonic diversions possible around it and alternating solemnity with mischief. The piece proved both a homage to Purcell and a brief spark of invention, and was ideally weighted by the soloists.

Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon all the notes has potential for mischief in its title but is in effect a typically serious piece. Written for an ensemble of seven players this was led with authority by harpist Céline Saout, who effectively drove the piece through its initial jagged outlines. The colours available to Birtwistle were exploited through music of stern countenance, its few tender asides to be cherished as the exception rather than the rule. Only at the end, with little points of pitch from solo instruments, did the mood lighten.

In a charming conversation with BBC Radio 3 host Petroc Trelawny, Freya Waley-Cohen revealed Knussen’s qualities as a tutor and a ‘wonderful person’. Naiad (20:14 on the broadcast) was a fitting tribute, fulfilling Cohen’s description of reflections from the scales of fish and dew on a spider’s web with music that cast a rarefied light, such as the sun does this time of year. The attractive melodic cells rippled with a slight chill, piercing moments of clarity from the woodwind contrasted by fuzzier asides from the strings. Although Cohen’s description of a slow piece and a fast piece rubbing up together was more difficult to follow, that did not mar in the slightest an enjoyable and meaningful piece, whose last few bars had a lilting four-note melody that hung on the air, leaving an enchanted atmosphere in its wake.

Bassoonist Jonathan Davies then stepped forward for Knussen’s highly virtuosic Study for Metamorphosis (30:54), based on Kafka. There were some extraordinary sounds here, the composer exploiting the cartoon-like persona the bassoon can elicit but also reminding us of the instrument’s versatility, its ability to paint pictures both happy and sad. Davies was superb and clearly enjoyed the experience.

Hans Abrahamsen’s Herbstlied followed (from 38:58), an extended arrangement and combination of a Danish song and two J.S. Bach subjects from The Art of Fugue. This instrumental version was unexpectedly moving, its picture painting of leaves ‘falling as from far…’ most apt for the time of year and given a vivid account by the five players. The cor anglais of Tom Blomfield added a unique sourness to the tone, and the downward motion of the melodies indicated sorrow, but there was still a sweeter melancholy here that stayed with the listener long afterwards.

We moved into Alastair Putt’s wind quintet Halazuni (47:36) without a break. This was a less affecting piece, more calculated in its depiction of a spiral (its title is the Persian word for spiral) The colours of the instruments – flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon – were frequently attractive, and while the music did on occasion feel predetermined, there was a clear end goal.

The best was saved until last in the form of Knussen’s Songs Without Voices (not yet linked to the broadcast on BBC Sounds). A group of four pieces for an ensemble of eight players, the Songs use vivid colour combinations which bring the composer’s imagery to life. The melodies, though short, are incredibly meaningful.

The first three Songs are wordless settings of texts by Walt Whitman, starting with Winter’s Foil, which was alive with bird calls and blustery winds. As elsewhere Wigglesworth secured playing of great poise and personality, led with characteristic authority by violinist Clio Gould. Prairie Sunset showed off the colours of the ensemble both separately and in combination, before the delicate outlines of First Dandelion were revealed. ‘simple and fresh and fair’.

Finally we heard Elegiac Arabesques, Knussen’s tribute to Polish-English composer Andrezj Panufnik. This wove an incredibly poignant thread, suitable in its own way as a memorial to the composer-conductor commemorated with such grace and feeling here.

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

A playlist featuring works both composed and conducted by Oliver Knussen can be heard below. It includes …upon one note from this concert, though not the Songs Without Voices – which are in fact available on the Erato label:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos, Vienna Philharmonic & Andrés Orozco-Estrada – Dvořák & Korngold

Prom 61: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Dvořák The Noonday Witch Op.108 (1896)
Korngold Violin Concerto (1945)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From The New World’ (1893)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 4 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

If ever a piece of music could depict the passing of summer, Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Noonday Witch would make a good choice. Introduced to the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in its year of composition, 1896, it raised the curtain for the second Prom of the season from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

There was charm aplenty in the opening pages of this late work, the mother and young son going about their domestic business with a sense of blissful routine, but as the witch of Karol Jaromir Erben’s folk tale appeared the mood grew decidedly chilly. Strings turned icy, woodwind soured and the brass sounded warning notes, telling us how everything was about to go very wrong indeed. The Viennese would not have been too familiar with this music, but it showed in a good way as Andrés Orozco-Estrada secured an insightful performance, the darker hues of the story coming to the fore with descriptive power.

The sun reappeared from behind the cloud for Korngold’s Violin Concerto, soloist Leonidas Kavakos taking us to the heights. The concerto begins with one of the composer’s top-drawer themes. Full of big screen occasion but tender enough to melt the heart, it reaches for a perfect melodic interval and deliberately falls just short, tugging at the heartstrings. That sense of yearning powers the first movement, in which the orchestra were a smooth partner for the ardent violinist. Kavakos possesses a sumptuous tone, even at quiet dynamics, though on occasion when he reached for the highest notes his tuning was just awry.

The second movement glittered with its Hollywood scoring, beautifully rendered by Orozco-Estrada, while Kavakos effortlessly hit the sweet spot with his part without cloying. The finale crackled with energy in response, the to and fro with the orchestra brilliantly judged and executed, before signing off with aplomb. In a daring encore Kavakos gave us Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Tárrega’s most famous guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, performed with an admirable lack of fuss given the considerable physical challenges behind the scenes. Kavakos really is the swan of the violin, channelling the physicality of his playing into the most natural of styles.

After the interval, a fresh set of clothes for Dvořák’s beloved Symphony no.9, From The New World. It is easy to forget just how many good original tunes this symphony holds, the composer spoilt for choice as he moulds, develops and interweaves them. One of the first symphonies to make such prominent use of the pentatonic scale, it is a continued delight when presented to the audience fresh, and the lightness of touch often experienced here gave room to the melodies themselves.

The Largo was the undisputed highlight. Aided by a wonderful cor anglais solo from Wolfgang Plank, it was slightly faster but still found the time to breathe with its phrasing, pausing where necessary, and in the magical coda allowing the solo strings to come to the fore.

The first movement may have lacked a little drama but Orozco-Estrada was clearly enjoying the interplay between his outstanding wind section and the equally capable strings. Having recorded the piece with an American orchestra, the Houston Symphony, he knows the piece well enough to impose sensible phrasing and an attractive give and take on the tempo.

The third movement Scherzo was feather-light in its outer exchanges before the finale took the performance up a level, its first statements probing deeper and the unexpected discords near the end making themselves known, examples of Dvorak’s underappreciated daring with harmony.

After a rapturous curtain call we were given a Viennese encore in the shape of Josef Strauss’s Ohne Sorgen Polka-Schnell Op.271, where orchestra and audience enjoyed a call and response shout. It was slightly out of place with the concert’s mood but judging by the lasting smiles it left Orozco-Estrada had made the right call once again.

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 59: Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique & Sir John Eliot Gardiner – Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini (1836-38)

Opera in two acts (four scenes)
Music by Hector Berlioz
Libretto by Léon de Wailly, Auguste Barbier and Alfred de Vigny
Semi-staged performance, sung in French with English surtitles

Benvenuto Cellini – Michael Spyres (tenor)
Teresa – Sophia Burgos (soprano)
Fieramosca – Lionel Lhote (baritone)
Ascanio – Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano)
Giacomo Balducci – Maurizio Muraro (bass)
Pope Clement VII – Tareq Nazmi (bass)
Pompeo – Alex Ashworth (bass)
Innkeeper – Peter Davoren (tenor)
Francesco – Vincent Delhoume (tenor)
Bernardino – Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Perseus – Duncan Meadows (actor)

Stage director Noa Naamat
Lighting designer Rick Fisher
Costume designer Sarah Denise Cordery

Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (above)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 2 September 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The Proms has witnessed some memorable (and innovative) Berlioz performances – with this evening’s account of Benevento Cellini, itself the culmination of Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s Berlioz project leading up to the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death, an undoubted highpoint.

Not a little of its success was the effectiveness of this ‘staged concert performance’ – directed by Noa Naamat so as to make resourceful use of the Royal Albert Hall platform (who would have thought that singers hiding behind – antiphonally divided – second violins made so deft a theatrical conceit?), with unfussy costumes from Sarah Denise Cordery in keeping with the late-Renaissance setting and lighting from Rick Fisher as vividly expanded on the latter-day Proms procedure of illuminating the stage area. A presentation serving the opera admirably.

At least as significant was Gardiner’s pragmatism over just how much of the opera to include. Even at its Paris premiere in 1838, what was heard of Benvenuto Cellini was already distinct from what Berlioz had written; an issue further complicated by versions presented at Weimar during 1852-6. Taking the Urtext published in the New Berlioz Edition, Gardiner has arrived at a compromise which encompasses all the music one would reasonably hope to hear while vindicating this opera as an overall dramatic concept. Recklessly ambitious in its technical demands as it may have been, Cellini was always practicable as a dramatic undertaking and – akin to Prokofiev’s War and Peace a century later – giving a convincing shape to this excess of material is at least half the battle in ensuring its theatrical as well as its musical success.

Not the least of those technical demands is on the singers, and this cast did not disappoint. As Cellini, Michael Spyres (above) evinced all the necessary panache without buckling under some stentorian vocal requirements. He was ideally complemented by Sophia Burgos as a pert yet never too coquettish Teresa; her naivety thrown into relief by the machinations of her suitor Fieramosca, given with suitably hollow bravado by Lionel Lhote, and cynicism of her father Balducci – tellingly rendered by Maurizio Muraro. Adele Charvet made for an appealing and sympathetic Ascanio, with Alex Ashworth exuding appropriate pomposity as Pompeo. Peter Davoren’s cameo as the unctuous Innkeeper was matched by that of Tareq Nazmi as the self-aggrandizing Pope. The Monteverdi Choir brought off its crucial contributions with aplomb.

Inevitably it is the orchestra which so often steals the limelight in a work by Berlioz, and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique accordingly rose to the challenge. Of course, any performance of this music on ‘authentic’ instruments must contend with his assertions that the development of instrument-making and instrumental practice (notably within Germanic territories) was a necessary one. That said, he may have been reconciled to those limitations had his work been rendered with such timbral brilliance and intonational accuracy as here.

In building an ensemble of such consistency Gardiner takes especial credit, the more so as his performance demonstrably channelled its authentic credentials towards the spontaneous and creative reassessment of a masterpiece now receiving its due – even if many decades too late.

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Roisin Brophy on the BBC SO concert of Elgar, Vaughan Williams & Hugh Wood

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Roisin Brophy (above) gives her thoughts on the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Prom of English music under Sir Andrew Davis.

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

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

I am from a very heavily Irish catholic family. I grew up on a lot of Irish folk music, and my mum is quite a hippy at heart. My god parents are also hippies at heart, and so I grew up with a lot of Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell. My mum’s got really good taste in music, so I grew up always loving Led Zeppelin and they continue to be my favourite band.

My dad is quite a musical person, he plays guitar and sings, and therefore I think I was very influenced into doing folk music as a child, and also being a catholic and going to catholic school, and going to church – where I heard choral music. I sang in a choir for our local church, and I stopped when I was about 15 or 16.

I got into drum and bass completely by accident. I don’t even listen to drum and bass! I know a lot of it but because I happen to work in it. I was just picked up by a dubstep producer years ago, and got into drum and bass from that. Folk is my most natural style of music, although I don’t write it professionally.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Joni Mitchell (above) – (a) because I grew up on her music, (b) because I think her vocal range and songwriting ability is unreachable by anybody else.

Led Zeppelin (above) Again the vocal range and the guitar and drum skills, for me, and their heavy influence from blues music, which you can really hear going into pop music.

My third would have to be Dolly Parton (above), because she’s a sassy lady, her songs are insanely catchy and again her voice is like no other.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I’ve always studied music, and did GCSE and ‘A’ level before studying popular music at university. I’ve always been around people that have been involved in classical music but not been involved personally, as I have always been on the popular or folk side of things. Going to Goldsmiths, which is very renowned for being a classical music education system, I had a lot of friends that were classical musicians and opera singers.

I’ve always loved classical music, and studying it you learn what you like and what you don’t like. I still listen to it most days, it’s more of a morning thing for me. I like piano-based stuff. Vladimir’s Blues by Max Richter is a good example.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I absolutely loved it, and I’m actually a bit blown away by how much I did love it. The second half was definitely a lot more emotive than the first, but I think that was because of how the piece (Elgar’s The Music Makers) moved. The crescendos were incredibly moving and the sound in general was such a massive sound with the choir, females on one side and male on the other, a huge orchestra and the percussion in the second piece.

I think it made me appreciate that it was not a piece of classical music I would necessarily listen to on headphones, but now that I’ve seen it live and understand the musicianship behind it, I would very much want to listen to it again as a recording.

What did you think of the Vaughan Williams?

I have a feeling I recognised it. I felt it was light, soft, warming, and dreamy. It was nice to listen to live and I have never seen classical music to that standard live before, so when that piece first opened and the string players were playing it together, how crisp and clear and on point it was! It almost sounded like it was recorded, it was so perfect.

What did you think of the Hugh Wood?

It definitely told the story and was creepy at times. It felt like it was for that purpose, and the emotions that it conveyed was exactly what it was meant to do. It was eerie and scary, and seeing the singers battle against the orchestra with no microphones was pretty amazing. I loved it.

But the Elgar was the one you love the most?

Yes, for sure. It was just a lot more emotive and there was more behind it. The sheer size of it you could tell not only how much went into the writing of it, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to write for that many musicians and to think about that many parts working together, and for it to come out that perfect. Add to that the hard work and musicianship and understanding the commands of the music itself was amazing.

What did you like about the Proms?

The venue is amazing, a beautiful place to be, and it’s worth a visit on its own regardless of whether there is a concert or not. Going to see classical music you’ve never seen or heard before, for me it opened my ears to listening to classical music I would never necessarily listen to at the moment. Now I’ve seen these pieces live I could now appreciate listening to a recording.

What might you improve about the experience?

I don’t want to change it, because it was as it’s supposed to be. I think because I’m used to going to watch music that requires amplification, seeing music that doesn’t require amplification that is never going to be as loud so you have to wear earplugs as it’s so bloody loud, so maybe I would change the loudness of the sound. But it has a meaning, and that’s the whole point.

Would you go again?

Yes, definitely.

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can listen to the Elgar piece The Music Makers below in this recent release from Dame Sarah Connolly and the BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra with Sir Andrew Davis: