Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC SO / Sakari Oramo – Schmitt, Franck, Ravel & Sibelius Symphony no.3

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 27 October 2017

Schmitt Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.137 (1957)

Franck Variations symphoniques (1885)

Ravel Piano Concerto in D ‘for the Left Hand’ (1930)

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1907)

You can listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking here (available until 26 November)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Sakari Oramo‘s Sibelius cycle continued as part of a judiciously balanced programme which opened with a rare revival of the Second Symphony by Florent Schmitt. This continues the French symphonism of Roussel and Honegger; albeit with a quirkiness of melodic thought and virtuoso handling of sizable forces to confirm Schmitt as no mere epigone. Indeed, the angular wit of the first movement suggests his willingness to confront post-war modernism head on, and if the central Lent admits warmer and even tender emotion, the finale resumes the assaultive mood with an unremitting intent through to its scabrous close. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had the measure of this unsettling piece throughout; their responsiveness underlining that Schmitt was not one to accept the passing of his own era with even a hint of good grace.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (below) then joined the orchestra for two staples from the French concertante repertoire, separated in time by almost half a century. Good to see that Franck‘s Variations symphoniques has now re-established itself in UK concert programmes, as this unlikely yet successful hybrid of elements from symphony and concerto, as drawn into the pithiest of its composer’s cyclical designs, has a substance more than equal to its entertainment. Bavouzet and Oramo were especially fine in the expressive contrasts of its opening minutes, and if the rhapsodic musing at its centre seemed a little inflexible, then the effervescence of its final section too forcefully projected, there was no doubting the coherence and the ingeniousness of its composer’s response to a piano-virtuoso tradition he spent much of his life despising.

That the Franck outlines a ‘three movements in one’ formal design makes it a more than likely precursor to Ravel‘s Piano Concerto in D major, the most enduring of those left-hand works written for the redoubtable (if frequently wrong-headed) Paul Wittgenstein. Not the least attraction of tonight’s performance was its emphasizing the canniness of the balance between soloist and orchestra, such that the former was never less than audible in the context of what is the most overtly rhetorical and combative of all Ravel’s works. Add to this Bavouzet’s limpidity in the eloquent theme which returns intensified in the cadenza, not to mention Oramo’s control of momentum in the jazz-inflected animation of the scherzo, and what resulted was a reading attentive to every aspect of this masterpiece: one that justifiably brought the house down.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is easy to underestimate as a transitional work poised between overt romanticism and renewed classicism. It was to Oramo’s credit that elements of both aesthetics were not only evident but also reconciled – not least in an opening Allegro which moved between fervency and incisiveness with no mean purpose. The highlight came with a central Andantino whose quasi allegretto marking may have been minimal, but whose opening-up of emotional space made for a riveting listen. The final movement was hardly less impressive in its purposeful equivocation between scherzo and finale, Oramo teasing resolve out of uncertainty so the hymn-like theme that eventually emerges built to a powerful apotheosis. A gripping performance, reinforced by the conviction of the BBCSO’s response.

For more concert information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to their website

You can hear a recording of the Florent Schmitt made by Leif Segerstam on Spotify below:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Rob Chung on the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Sir Andrew Davis

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms

Last year Arcana went on a charm offensive, introducing friends to the BBC Proms, some for the first time. For the 2017 season we will continue to bring the festival to people in this way, discovering fascinating musical facts and insights as we go. For our first visit we chose the concert commemorating Sir Malcolm Sargent, one-time conductor of the Proms in the 1960s. The program replicated his 500th Prom, given in 1966 – and to offer an appraisal we invited Rob Chung (above)

Rob is DJ Chug, a drum ‘n’ bass DJ who runs his own Elements night in East London, and he has releases forthcoming this summer on Soul Deep and Co-Lab Recordings. Yet, as he revealed to Arcana, he has a classical past.

Beatrice Rana (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

arr. Sir Henry Wood The National Anthem; Berlioz Le carnaval romain Overture, Op.9 (1844); Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.54 (1845); Elgar Cockaigne (In London Town) Op.40 (1900-01); Walton Façade – Suite No.1; Popular Song (1922-28); Holst The Perfect Fool – Ballet Music (1918-22); Delius On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912); Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34 (1945)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Rob, what was your musical upbringing?

It was quite an extensive one – mainly from my sisters, when I was little. They would have anything from Duran Duran to Wham!, the big pop hits of the 1980s. My parents had a bit of Motown on vinyl, then as my sisters got older the influence came into early ‘80s R&B, swing, hip hop, De La Soul, Public Enemy, a lot of gangster rap – and then some jazz – Courtney Pine, Julian Joseph. And then it was on to drum ‘n’ bass, to Goldie and 4Hero, that kind of stuff. So that was the influence from my sisters, and then because there wasn’t any local radio in East Anglia – it was just Radio 1 or nothing, no pirate radio – I used to listen to a lot of dance DJs in the evening, such as Dave Pearce, Danny Rampling and Tim Westwood. I used to record Tim Westwood’s shows every Saturday, and fell in love with hip hop basically!

My sister came to university in London, and used to record all the drum ‘n’ bass in London, off the pirate radio stations, and she used to send me the tapes back. From there I learned what was going on in London. Then at about 15 or 16 there was a new pirate station in Norwich, of all places, called Flight FM, so I used to listen to that all the time. A lot of local DJs were playing garage and drum ‘n’ bass, and that’s when I discovered UK garage, and bought my first set of decks. I was buying anything and everything – house music, hip hop, drum ‘n’ bass, and it all went from there.

At the same time I played the piano and violin as a kid, at school. I played the violin from six years old to 18, and I was in an orchestra – I got to grade seven. I was in an orchestra at school, we used to play in the chapel and the cathedral, which you take for granted now. I have this recurring nightmare about playing on the second desk of the violins, losing my place and trying to pretend I was playing for the next hour or so. It still haunts me to this day, and I still bring it up with my school mate whenever I see him!

Have you had any other classical music experiences beyond orchestra?

Not really. I used to go to the odd concert with my parents, at Christmas carol time, otherwise not really. Not since school days.

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

Currently, Robert Glasper – a great jazz pianist, fusing hip hop, R&B and jazz, three forms I really like. He’s an amazing musician and great live. I’ve seen him about five times now, he blows me away every time.

Stevie Wonder I think is the greatest musician I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen him at Glastonbury, and at Hyde Park last year. He’s got an amazing repertoire, great albums and a great voice. He plays any instrument amazingly well, he just blows me away.

For the third one…a drum ‘n’ bass producer called Serum, who is absolutely smashing it on the drum ‘n’ bass scene at the moment. He covers all styles, has in your face, stupid jump up tunes. Anything he releases at the moment I would listen to it and probably buy it.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I would give it 10/10, it was awesome – amazing. Everything about it, the experience, the sound, the crowd, the quality of the orchestra, the conductor – it was a really good experience. I forgot what it was like to be at a concert but the stereo width of the sound blew me away, following the music. I was really impressed with it, and it was the Royal Albert Hall of course. The sound was crystal clear, not loud but you could hear every single thing. It was really impressive.

What was your favourite piece?

I haven’t actually decided on that yet…probably the Elgar piece…or the Schumann, with the piano. I’ll go for that one, I liked the call and response between her (Beatrice Rana) and the orchestra, with the clarinet and the cellos, going back and forth. I really enjoyed that and she was pretty special. It took you all over the place but she was the focal point as well.

You mentioned how you knew it was Elgar during the piece.

Yeah, I don’t know why – and the same with Britten as well. It feels like an English tune, I don’t know what it is. They always used to play Nimrod at the end of every year at our school, and I think it was the harmonics or the chord progression, as soon as they started playing – and how the strings come in and out, with a slow attack.

What was your least favourite?

I think it was The Perfect Fool. I got a bit lost, and couldn’t keep up with what was going on. That was the intention, right?! I couldn’t really follow it. I liked the Walton piece though, it was a bit of fun in the middle, and the fact you could get a crowd laughing at a random ending, that was pretty special. That was where the percussion came out and were really getting into their element.

What did you think of the Delius piece, On hearing the first cuckoo in spring?

I quite liked that, again – spring, the strings coming in, it was a nice, short, to the point piece.

Do you think in terms of the length of the pieces some was too long?

It’s hard to keep up for that length of time. Some of the Schumann I struggled with a bit at the end, but at the same time in the Walton when it was short and sweet I sometimes felt it was too short, a little poem rather than a chapter. It was a nice change, a bit like listening to a Disney score.

It can be quite mentally tiring trying to take all of the music in, you start wandering. But I was comparing tonight to when I saw James Blake play at Shepherd’s Bush, and it was a sensory overload with all the lights and everything, there was a lot to take in. it was like that tonight, with lots of different things going on and trying to keep up – it was a good workout for the brain.

I thought it was also interesting how someone in the orchestra can have just one small part in 30 minutes, but when you come in you can’t miss a place. The Elgar piece I felt a lot of tension building, the Walton piece – I forget you can have things in triple time. These days everything I listen to is in four!

What did you think of the concert as an experience?

It was a lot more informal than I was expecting. I enjoyed the laid back atmosphere, it seems very open – which is not what I expected at all. We had people reading their books, people lying down, a guy reading along to the music which I thought was quite cool. I liked the crowd involvement – not a lot but traditional, it was really nice. The National Anthem at the start threw me a bit (and me! – ed) but at the same time it is nice to do these things, it doesn’t happen very often.

The acoustics vary differently where you are, it’s interesting to compare down in the Arena with up in the gods. I would be interested in how they mic everything up and do the soundchecks. There is the depth of sound as well, you really feel the depth with the violins to the tuba. I liked how the organ just snuck in during the Elgar too. Nobody was out of sync, either! I was trying to spot someone…but not gonna happen!

What we said about the conductor, how much control he has over everything – I was impressed with that, how he sped it up, slowed it down and brought people in. I forget how much hard work that must be. You’ve got to know the pieces inside out, and it was very impressive.

Was there anything you would change about how the concert was staged or presented?

Not really. I guess I’m used to having members of the band introduced, pointing out a certain lead – but I guess that’s done in the programme notes. I don’t think I would change anything.

Would you go again?

Definitely, I would happily go.

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

BBC Proms 2017 – Malcolm Sargent tribute: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Beatrice Rana, BBC Symphony OrchestraSir Andrew Davis

arr. Sir Henry Wood The National Anthem

Berlioz Le carnaval romain Overture, Op.9 (1844)

Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op.54 (1845)

Elgar Cockaigne (In London Town) Op.40 (1900-01)

Walton Façade – Suite No.1; Popular Song (1922-28)

Holst The Perfect Fool – Ballet Music (1918-22)

Delius On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912)

Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 24 July 2017

Sir Malcolm Sargent holds a prominent place in Proms history, especially so for those Prom goers of an older vintage. It was therefore only right that in the 50th year since his passing there was a concert commemorating one of English classical music’s favourite sons. Sargent lived in a flat opposite the Royal Albert Hall, a blue plaque marking this clearly visible from Door 4 of the auditorium.

Calling Sargent a ‘favourite son’ is a statement that needs to be qualified, for not everybody held him in such high esteem. For orchestral players he could be anything but, being a hard taskmaster, but he was hugely popular with Proms audiences, boosting the profile of the festival and the Last Night in particular, to an art form fit for television. As tonight’s conductor Sir Andrew Davis recounted in a glowing tribute, he also knew how to get the best out of large choral and orchestral forces. Davis was a prommer in the 1960s, and held fond memories of Elgar, Shostakovich and Britten under the Sargent baton.

Davis himself is now 73, but still a sprightly figure who lovingly led his BBC Symphony Orchestra charges in a wide variety of English music, recreating the program given for Sargent’s 500th Prom in 1966. We ducked and dived through Berlioz, and his Le carnaval romain overture, before a glittering account of Schumann’s Piano Concerto from Beatrice Rana, herself in glittering green (above). Her quiet moments were especially profound, and she took charge of the more tempestuous passages of the outer movements with impressive control and expression. Balance is often a problem between piano and orchestra in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall acoustic, but here it was nicely achieved, and with phrases that were fleet of foot (and hand!) Rana showed why she is a highly coveted soloist.

Davis (below) came into his own for the second half. An English music expert whose interpretations are now virtually unrivalled, he brought forward the bustling streets of London for Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, balancing the organ with the orchestra impeccably as he did so. The big tunes were affectionately wrought and great fun, as they were in Walton’s mischievous music for Façade, an entertaining suite where the percussion section, led by the ever masterful David Hockings, came out on top form.

Holst’s ballet music for The Perfect Fool was treated to a delicately shaded performance, sonorous trombones underpinning a rewarding orchestral sound, with dances of great character. Meanwhile Delius gave us a sunkissed reverie, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, temporarily overriding the clouds outside.

Finally we moved to Britten, and a performance of the Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra that was as much fun to watch as it was to listen to. The composer’s clever navigation of each orchestral section is a great introduction for new listeners but also reminds the older ones of the colours and expressive techniques each instrument can produce. Davis handled the twists and turns to great effect, and this hugely entertaining evening reached its peak with all sections combined, Purcell’s original theme now refracted through Britten’s technicolour lens.

It was a great way to finish and a fitting tribute to Sargent, who conducted the work’s world premiere back in 1946. He would surely have been proud of Davis and his charges, who sent the crowd away smiling – something Sargent himself achieved on countless occasions.

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Ben Hogwood (plaque) and Chris Christodoulou (performances)

Stay tuned for the first in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where drum ‘n’ bass DJ Rob Chung will give his verdict on the Malcolm Sargent Prom. Coming shortly!

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!

On record: Colin Matthews: Violin Concerto, Cortège, Cello Concerto No. 2 (NMC)

matthews

Colin Matthews: Cortège (1988)*. Cello Concerto No. 2 (1996)**. Violin Concerto (2009)***

***Leila Josefowicz (violin); **Anssi Kartunen (cello); *Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly; BBC Symphony Orchestra / **Rumon Gamba and ***Oliver Knussen

Summary

A welcome (and timely!) release of three major pieces by Colin Matthews, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year and whose involvement – as producer and promoter – in British contemporary music has sometimes obscured his considerable contribution as a composer.

What’s the music like?

The three works offer a viable overview of Matthews’s orchestral output over two decades. Earliest is Cortège – written for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and its then Music Director Bernard Haitink, and a notable instance of the Mahlerian strain in this composer’s thinking. Unfolding over an inexorable tread, this diversifies incrementally for a convulsive central section as duly brings an intensified resumption of the initial music and an explosive culmination before subsiding into nothingness. Under Riccardo Chailly, the Concertgebouw gives an impressive account of a ‘processional’ such as has featured prominently in modern British music (Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time and John Pickard’s Channel Firing come immediately to mind), and which here sustains its monumentality with impressive purpose.

Although by no means an understated piece, the Second Cello Concerto is appreciably more varied in mood and diverse in its formal construction. Its five movements play continuously – the angular central ‘Scherzo’ framed by two ‘Song without text’ movements of an arioso-like expressiveness; these, in turn, are flanked by a ‘Declamation’ whose recitative-like austerity is transmuted in the final ‘Resolution’ towards an incisive resolve. Written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich (whom memory recalls played it rather poorly), the piece finds an admirable exponent in Anssi Karttunen, who audibly appreciates the underlying subtlety of a conception more ‘concertante’ than ‘concerto’ in its emphasis. Hopefully this belated release will encourage further hearings of one of the finest such works from the past quarter-century.

The most recent piece here, the Violin Concerto (2009) was commissioned by Birmingham’s Feeney Trust, whose portfolio amounts to a fair conspectus of post-war British music – one to which this concerto is a notable addition. Its harmonic basis may stem from Mahler and Berg but its rhythmic incisiveness, notably the tensile solo writing, recalls Prokofiev and Walton. The first of two movements elides twice between slower and faster material with understated intent, so allowing its successor to open-out expressively via an acceleration from measured intensity to headlong propulsion at the close. The work is finely realised by Leila Josefowicz, her rendering of a solo part virtuosic for all its lack of display highlighted against an orchestra which features a diverse percussion section and duly yields an enticing interplay of sonorities.

Does it all work?

Yes. Matthews has long been a composer fighting shy of stylistic straitjackets, with the result that his diverse output sometimes lacks focus or consistency. Not so the three pieces featured here, demonstrating a keen handling of form and an equally well-integrated expressive range.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound leaves little to be desired, while the booklet notes are informative and not unreasonably enthusiastic. A pity, even so, that it has taken so long for at least two of these recordings to be made available: musicians and listeners alike need to be aware of this music.

Richard Whitehouse

Further information at the NMC website