BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams and Beethoven begin the festivities

The first night of the BBC Proms is a watershed moment in the summer of a classical music lover. Yet increasingly the festival is working on being more inclusive, and some of this year’s BBC Proms Youth Choir (seen above the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner) had not even sung in public before, let alone attended the festival.

Such is the uniting power of one of Britain’s favourite summer institutions, and once again it was off to a flyer with the customary big choral work (John AdamsHarmonium) a world premiere (Tom Coult‘s St John’s Dance) and a high profile solo contribution from Igor Levit, whose account of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 met and surpassed its heady expectations.

Both Levit and Coult had political undertones to their work. Coult’s new composition depicted the madness of the Middle Ages, people possessed by an all-encompassing dance of death that drove them into dangerous physical and mental situations. A parallel, you might think, for today’s superpowers and the shocking news they bring on a daily basis. Whether these references were intentional or not, it was good to have a new piece that started quietly, with a deliberately fragile violin solo, and built to its bigger moments.

Levit (above, at the piano) also had quiet asides, but his were absolutely spellbinding – the first movement cadenza and slow movement introduction in Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 both cases in point. Here we could easily have been back at the Wigmore Hall, witnessing a solo sonata performed to a select few, such was the intensity of his communication at a quiet dynamic. When he was with the orchestra the intensity subsided a little, not least because the balance favoured a coarse timpani sound. That said, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra woodwind was particularly beautiful under Edward Gardner’s watchful eye.

Levit had great things to say, his mind clearly at one with Beethoven’s moods and melodic invention. His use of silence was keenly sensitive, the tension evident in a brooding opening movement and deeply thoughtful Largo. The Rondo finale freed itself from the confines, skipping to a more obvious beat – but then Levit delivered a deeply felt encore, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (from the Choral Symphony finale) reduced to first principles and played to emphasise its role as an anthem of European unity. It was a provocative statement of which Leonard Bernstein – who conducted the Choral symphony in the unification concert when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 – would have been proud.

Finally we went for broke, with the 400-strong throng of the BBC Proms Youth Choir, brilliantly drilled and tirelessly rehearsed to deliver a moving and colourful performance of John AdamsHarmonium. Here too there were powerful statements in settings of the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and Edward Gardner ensured they were delivered with great clarity and breadth. The thrill of Adams’ colourful music as it generated momentum was as strong as ever, and the percussionists of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in particular deserve great credit for their dexterity, rhythmic power and definition.

As a side note, what a shame to lose the ‘Further Listening and Reading’ section from the Proms programme this time around. It has been my ‘go to’ page ever since I started going to the Proms, and to not have it there feels like an unnecessary omission, even with the introduction of a new Listening Service – Tom, that is. Books are important in classical music, and so are recorded statements. To lose them from the programme is disappointing.

That said – how great  it is to have the festival back, confirming the ascent of summer in thrilling style. Eight weeks of great music lie ahead!

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou)

This year Arcana will once again have two different approaches to its coverage of the BBC Proms. There will be a few straight ‘reviewed’ concerts, but the focus of our coverage will be on taking people to the Proms who have not been before.

To that end our reviews will come from first-time punters chosen from a pool of friends and contacts – many of whom will see things that us regulars do not! Most reviews will be from the Arena, which is the ultimate Proms experience – and which to my knowledge is the best part of the Royal Albert Hall for sound quality and atmosphere.

No other source reviews from here as far as I am aware…so stick with Arcana in the weeks ahead, particularly through August. We will look to bring classical music to new audiences on a weekly basis!

BBC Proms – BBC Singers & Ensemble Intercontemporain: Boulez, Elliott Carter & Bartók

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Baldur Brönnimann conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the BBC Proms on Friday 2 September, in a Prom also featuring violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer, IRCAM computer music artists Andrew Gerzo, Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henrot, and the BBC Singers. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 65; Royal Albert Hall, Friday 2 September 2016

Bartók Three Village Scenes (1926); Boulez Anthèmes 2 (1997); Carter Penthode (1985); Boulez Cummings ist der Dichter (1970)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s late Prom suggested a certain nostalgic element in that the composers performed were at the forefront of these concerts from the late-1960s to the early 1990s, since when the evolution of contemporary music has increasingly become divorced from notions of progress.

Not least in the case of the Three Village Scenes that Bartók wrote in response to a hearing of Stravinsky’s Les noces, and that essentially freed his music from any vestige of late-romantic rhetoric. Not heard at the Proms for over three decades, these concise pieces alive with vitality and (in the second of them) pathos responded well to the poise and precision accorded by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (who gave this piece with Pierre Boulez in 1974 and ’79) – with the BBC Singers conveying the abrasiveness and humour of the vocal writing in like measure.

Although among his late works, Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 looks back via a brief solo predecessor to the Stravinsky memorial tribute a quarter-century earlier. Less encompassing in its musical scope than his other electro acoustic pieces, it brings to a head Boulez’s preoccupation with a cumulative s verse-and-refrain format unfolding as continuous variations in sound and space. Ably as the three IRCAM engineers facilitated this latter, it was the playing of Jeanne-Marie Conquer (below) – a world-class soloist if she chose to be – which took centre stage in every respect.

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A rather different side of Boulez’s composing was evident with Cummings ist der Dichter – a work which, for all that its title came about by accident, represents an oasis of conviction from an era beset by creative uncertainty. How much of this is due to harmonic enrichment brought about by the 1986 revision is arguable, though the manner in which the text emerges out of its syllabic and parenthetical austerity to assume unexpected textural richness and intricacy was inherent from the outset, and the present account left little doubt as to this music’s eloquence.

Between these works came Elliott Carter’s Penthode, not heard at these concerts since being premiered here 31 years ago and that could not then have been heard as merely an instalment in a creative odyssey still having over two decades to run. The five paths of its title taken by five ‘broken’ ensembles, the piece unfolds as a single-movement chamber symphony whose slow underlying pulse is increasingly overridden by music of a quizzical and often humorous demeanour; not least when directed with evident verve and assurance by Baldur Brönnimann.

An increasingly familiar figure in the UK, Brönnimann is in a line of conductors – stretching back to Boulez and beyond – as ensures this music retains its relevance for later generations, such that tonight’s Prom could never be mistaken for a nostalgic look back to a lost future.

Richard Whitehouse

Proms guide – First Night: A tale of two Belshazzars

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Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

Prom 1 – Christopher Maltman, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b062nrdk/bbc-proms-2015-season-first-night-of-the-proms

Sibelius’ suite begins at 57:45; Walton’s interpretation at 1:18:36.

The Biblical tale of Belshazzar’s Feast, where the downfall of Babylon is predicted by a human hand writing on the wall during a lavish party, inspired three very different responses. The first, from Handel in 1744, took the form of a large scale sacred piece, but the second half of this Prom threw together two very different responses by twentieth century composers.

Sibelius wrote a score of ten scenes, condensing it into a suite of four for concert performance. It finds the composer in typically economic form, though it is a surprise to note the exotic Oriental Procession, colourfully rendered by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Finnish conductor is an expert in this music, and found the emotional depths of the stark Solitude and the emotive Nocturne, where flautist Michael Cox spun a delectable web of notes. The finale, Khadra’s Dance, signed off in typical style.

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The massive forces assembled for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Walton, on the other hand, throws everything at his 35-minute tale, including the whole story in a choral dramatisation that at times threatened to take the roof off the Royal Albert Hall. With 256 singers (give or take one or two on the naked eye count from the Arena!) this was a massive scale on which to play out the story, and Christopher Maltman did a sterling job in the baritone solo role.

The chorus were the stars, though, and the combined forces of the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales were absolutely superb; hair-raising, even. Their shout of “SLAIN!” when Belshazzar finally perished was terrifying. No less chilling was the macabre percussion used when the hand appears.

Yet the epic climax of the piece, with Babylon’s redemption trumping the empty jubilation of the feast, was the crowning glory. Brilliantly marshalled by Oramo and superbly sung by the assembled BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, this was a piece to fire the starting gun on the 2015 Proms with maximum power. Here’s to the next 75!

Further listening

If this is your first encounter with the music of Walton, a strong recommendation goes to the composer’s Symphony no.1, his finest orchestral composition:

Sibelius‘ incidental music is curiously elusive – so here is some more in the form of his score for the play Pelléas et Mélisande. You will doubtless recognise the first movement, At the Castle Gate, as the music used for the BBC’s The Sky at Night:

If your curiousity is aroused for the third of the Belshazzar interpretations, this Spotify link gives you Handel‘s oratorio in its entirety:

This BBC Prom also included Nielsen’s ebullient overture to Maskarade and Mozart’s masterly Piano Concerto no.20, with soloist Lars Vogt. They are also on the iPlayer link above