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 2017 – Alexander Melnikov and the Latvian Radio Choir perform Shostakovich at the Cadogan Hall

Alexander Melnikov (piano, above), Latvian Radio Choir /Sigvards Kļava

Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87 (1950-51): no.1 in C major; no.2 in A minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): To the Executed, The 9th of January

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: no.3 in G major; no.4 in E minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): The last salvos have sounded; They’ve won…

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: no.7 in A major; no.8 in F sharp minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): May Day Song

Cadogan Hall, Monday 14 August 2017

Listen to this concert on the BBC Radio Player

The Latvian Radio Choir‘s BBC Proms mini-tour has been marked by inventive programming, and this grouping of revolutionary texts, set to music by Shostakovich, was a mile away from the previous night’s chaste yet subtly uplifting All Night Vigil by Rachmaninov.

Here the choir settled in an ideal acoustic, Cadogan Hall, but with some unsettling songs. Shostakovich wrote the Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets in 1951, acutely aware of the need to please the powers that be but still writing from the heart in a style that builds on the big opera choruses of Musorgsky. The unaccompanied choir sang grisly tales of ‘two prematurely fallen fighters’ (To The Executed), then the people ‘riddled with bullets and lead’ (The 9th of January). Their delivery was sharp and incisive when required in the faster music, then cold and distinctly wintry in the composer’s slower thoughts, which were almost beyond solace.

It was down to Alexander Melnikov (above) to supply the effective contrast in excerpts from Shostakovich’s largest piano work, the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87. A homage both to Bach and to his pianist friend Tatiana Nikolaeva, the cycle contains some of the composer’s most intimate and confidential thoughts. Running through each of the 24 major and minor keys, the work progresses as a ‘cycle of fifths’, with a Prelude and Fugue in each major key (for instance ‘C’) immediately followed by its relative minor key (in this case ‘A’).

Melnikov chose three ‘pairs’ – in C (with A minor), G (with E minor) and later on A (with F# minor). Each were closely linked to the choir’s texts, sentiments and tonality. The purity of C major was briefly cast under a shadow, the sunny Prelude countered by a thoughtful Fugue that emerged gradually into the attentive silence of Cadogan Hall. The rippling A minor Prelude flowed at great speed, as did the Fugue, but the G major prelude was solemn and magisterial, filling a much bigger space, a series of bright colours when compared to the downtrodden E minor Fugue.

As we moved from piano to choir the contrasts were striking, yet the emotions followed a clear path, so that when Melnikov returned he provided solace in A major. This cut to the sardonic humour of the F# minor Prelude, paired with a serene but baleful Fugue, a bridge to the empty triumph of the choir’s closing number, May Day Song.

This was a terrific concert, well planned and thought-provoking in its execution, especially given today’s political climate. Shostakovich was a composer under extreme duress at this time – but sadly that era of writing music is not so far removed as we think it might be.

Ben Hogwood

You can listen to Alexander Melnikov’s recording of the complete Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues on Spotify below:

Proms interview – David Lang (Bang On A Can)

This year the pioneering ensemble Bang On A Can reaches the grand old age of 30. Directed by three composer-performers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang (above) – the ensemble are to celebrate the occasion with a late night Prom. In it they will pay tribute to Philip Glass, but typically the concert will include a world premiere in Gordon’s Big Space, a London premiere in Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, an established work by Louis Andriessen (Workers Union) and Lang’s own Sunray, written for his father. In this interview he tells Arcana about the challenges and rewards of running an ensemble regarded as one of the very best in contemporary music making.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

My parents weren’t music people and there was no classical music in my house growing up.  My first real spark of interest came from seeing a film of Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich‘s 1st Symphony – it was raining in my school when I was 9 years old and they played this movie during lunch, to keep us quiet.  Everyone was throwing food and making noise, but I was mesmerized, and after that, hooked.

You’ve described yourself as a ‘deep classical music nerd’. Does that mean you need to study classical music a lot more closely to get maximum enjoyment from it?

I wouldn’t say that what I get from the study of classical music is maximum enjoyment.  Music is a means of communicating things between people and many of the things people need to communicate aren’t enjoyable!  But I am really interested in the messages that underlie classical music and getting deeper into the music lets me find out more about what the music can mean.

If you could somehow sum up what you learnt from studying with Andriessen, what would you say has left a lasting impact?

I never studied directly with Louis, although when I was a young composer I spent many many hours talking to him about music.  I learned many things just from watching him – about how to be an active musical citizen, how to be generous to other musicians, how to be supportive of young composers, how to be engaged with the larger culture that surrounds us.  Those are all very important.  In his music he always has tried to push his curiosity as far as it will go, in the most honest and direct way possible.  Those are also very useful lessons.

Congratulations on 30 years of Bang On A Can. What has been the biggest challenge to the ensemble in that time?

Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and I started Bang on a Can 30 years ago, because we were passionate about ways we thought the world needed to change, in order for experimental music to take its rightful place in our culture.  The biggest challenge for me personally has been setting aside the time to make sure I keep my focus on all the things I am passionate about.

Is the ensemble all about ensuring there are no boundaries between classical music and all the forms around it?

The ensemble was built to be flexible – just the instrumentation itself is hybridized between musical genres, and the players have backgrounds in different kinds of music as well.  We didn’t start the All-Stars so that the band could have no boundaries between it and the world, but so that it would be maximally useful to the widest assortment of composers who might want to work with it.

How do you keep Bang On A Can fresh and innovative?

Again, Bang on a Can exists to do the things we are all passionate about – playing new music, building new audiences, educating young composers and performers, commissioning new and stranger musics.  It is the kind of challenge for ourselves that keeps us going.

Do yourself, Michael and Julia have specific skills to bring to Bang On A Can, and what is the dynamic between the three of you?

The three of us have different strengths and weaknesses, and we complement each other pretty well.  Most of all we are close friends, which made it all possible.  I think in the first years of Bang on a Can we would sometimes get exhausted and might have quit if we were doing this alone, but because we were friends we didn’t want to let the others down, and so we persevered.

The Proms program looks to be a very personal one for you. Could you offer a short description of each piece and how or why you chose it?

I don’t know what Michael’s piece is about, so I can’t say how personal that is, but Julia’s piece is an intense examination of an inner terror, mine is a birthday present for my dad, in which I try to made solid a wispy ray of sunlight, and we have pieces by two of our mentors, Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen.  So I guess it is personal!

Does the program reflect how the ensemble has progressed in its 30 years?

I am not sure this program reflects any kind of progression – just challenging music by living composers, played fiercely and really well.  We have been doing that for a long while…

You are performing music by Philip Glass. Do you think minimalism is now a very established part of the classical music canon?

Philip Glass is one of the most successful and influential composers, ever.  And when the question asks if he is now an ‘established part of the classical music canon’ it reveals how odd the idea of that canon really is.  Philip Glass was already the most performed composer on the planet before the classical music world felt comfortable inviting him in.  Isn’t that backwards from the way the world should work?  Shouldn’t classical music be actively refreshing itself, all the time?

Do people look to you to set standards with performances of new music?

I hope so!  The idea of creating an amplified group that is part classical ensemble and part rock band, and that can play lots of kinds of music, including music that is technically really difficult, has been influential in New York and we are starting to see more musicians with a wider range of experiences and abilities.  I wouldn’t claim that we started that trend but we certainly have been a big part of it.

Is it difficult to say ‘no’ to things when new music is involved?

Why would you ever want to say no to anything?  Not just in music, but in life?

What piece of music have you heard recently that you would encourage others to hear?

Me personally, Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi.  I know it is a few years old already but I listen to it all the time.  Layer upon layer of mind-blowing polyrhythms, all played live, built up inexorably over time.  Check it out.

BBC Proms 2017 – Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil with the Latvian Radio Choir

Latvian Radio Choir / Sigvards Kļava (above)

Rachmaninov All Night Vigil (Vespers), Op.37 (1915)

Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 13 August 2017 (late night)

You can listen to this Prom here

Once in a while it is good to be reminded that some of the most moving music does not have to rely on volume to make its point.

Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil is a case in point, sung here by the Latvian Radio Choir in a highly atmospheric late night Prom. This notoriously self-critical and doubting of composers believed in it as one of his very best compositions, and even wanted the central Nunc Dimittis sung at his funeral. Though designed to be performed in the course of a Russian orthodox day (beginning and ending at sunset) it lasts for just over an hour if performed in an unbroken span, and here it created a wonderful spell.

The work has been sung at the Proms three times before, in the Late Night slot each time, and its blend of music for the spirit and the soul is ideal for late night contemplation. That state of mind was easily reached here, in a clean and relatively understated way. Recordings of great Russian choirs performing this music show how great depth and volume can be achieved, but with six singers to each part the Latvian Radio Choir were daringly exposed, and their relative lack of heft encouraged the audience to listen more attentively.

That they did so was an indication of just how well observed this performance was. Delicately controlled by Sigvards Kļava, each section merged almost seamlessly into the next, and yet there was room for each hymn or anthem to breathe. The refrains of the third anthem, Blessed Is The Man, were beautifully observed, by now the reduced forces acclimatised to the cavernous Royal Albert Hall acoustic.

The pacing felt ideal too, so that when the bigger numbers – the Glorifying song of the Resurrection and the Great Doxology – arrived, they did not flag, and the high points of each were unfailingly hit. The longer melodic threads were beautifully phrased, unexpectedly drawing the parallels between this music and some of the big tunes elsewhere in Rachmaninov’s output, such as the opening of the Third Piano Concerto, heard earlier in the evening.

The standard of performance was high throughout, with a level of control and ensemble that never dipped below excellent. The sopranos were relatively bright in sound, and the basses controlled their notes down to the depths beautifully, not least the Nunc dimittis, where the audience were visibly straining to hear their descent. Earlier in this number the tenors showed restraint, but there was emotion in their voices nonetheless.

All these elements contributed to a night that frequently stopped the heart with its subtle but lasting beauty. The text, and Rachmaninov’s response, had a timeless feel that transcended this single concert experience, which will last long in the memory.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear the Latvian Radio Choir’s recording of the Rachmaninov All Night Vigil on the Spotify link below:

BBC Proms 2017 – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Dausgaard: Mahler & Schubert ‘Unfinished’

Prom 36: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (above)

Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, ‘Unfinished’ (1822)

Mahler Symphony No. 10 in F sharp, realized Deryck Cooke (1910; 1959-76)

Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 12 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Having made an auspicious start to his tenure with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard tonight brought the orchestra to the BBC Proms for its most ambitious concert this season – Mahler’s I, given in the ‘performing edition’ by Deryck Cooke.

Left unfinished at Mahler’s death in 1911, the work was partially premiered in 1924 though it was not for another four decades that a complete rendering was heard – Berthold Goldschmidt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in Cooke’s realization. Since when his (subsequently revised) edition has become the preferred option for those tackling Mahler’s last symphony in its entirety. Dausgaard recently won praise for his recording with the Seattle Symphony, and his account this evening proved no less successful as an overall interpretation.

Other than the notably deliberate tempo for the violas’ initial theme, such as made it almost an epigraph to the movement overall, the opening Adagio was flexibly paced; the wrenching theme heard on massed strings finding contrast with the sardonic, waltz-like music as passed between solo woodwind. The development’s polyphonic intricacy was eventfully unfolded, then the climactic dissonance – with its piercing trumpet note – was pointedly drawn into the whole so that the lingering coda evinced a serenity whose fulfilment was at best provisional.

The first Scherzo emerged even more impressively. Texturally the least cohesive movement as Mahler left it, its contrapuntal density allied to elliptical harmonic progressions make it the most radical (the earlier music of Hindemith and Weill tangibly within reach) and Dausgaard expertly integrated its increasingly close-knit sections into a stretto of mounting excitement. The brief, fulcrum-like Purgatorio which follows was a little matter-of-fact for its glancing irony wholly to come through, and Dausgaard ought to have made an attacca into the second Scherzo (the three movements of this second part ideally form a continuous whole). Not that there was much to fault in this latter as it pivoted between anguish and appeasement, before vanishing into that ‘tunnel’ of darkness whose nihilistic overtones were palpably to the fore.

Come the Finale and Dausgaard might ideally have deleted the opening drum stroke, while the climax of the central Allegro really needed underpinning from drums for its intensified reprise of the first movement’s dissonance to make its fullest impact. But these were minor flaws in a perceptive rendering overall – sepulchral opening brass making way for the most eloquent flute melody in the symphonic literature (not least as played by Charlotte Ashton), transformed into a radiant string threnody which brings about this work’s cathartic ending.

An impressive reading was fittingly programmed within the context of Schubert’s Unfinished, of which Dausgaard has made a fine account with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. While his rapid take on the first movement (little ‘moderato’ about this Allegro) did not transfer ideally onto full orchestra (at least in the resonance of the Albert Hall acoustic), the ensuing Andante had no lack of poise: the hushed dynamics of its coda no less arresting than the blissful final cadence in which Mahler’s transcendent leave-taking, 88 years on, was not hard to perceive.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Thomas Dausgaard (c) Thomas Grøndahl)

You can listen to Dausgaard’s recordings of these pieces on the Spotify playlist below: