In concert – Nicola Benedetti, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Romantics in Exile – Korngold & Langgaard

BBC SO/Oramo & Benedetti - Romantics in Exile

Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Langgaard
Symphony no.1 in B minor BVN32, ‘Mountain Pastorals’ (1908-11)

Nicola Benedetti (violin, below), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Barbican Hall, London
Friday 8 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Concert photos by James Watkins / BBC

Sakari Oramo has certainly blazed a trail for tackling little-known symphonic works during his tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra – witness his recent revival of the Symphony by Dora Pejačević and now that of the First Symphony from Danish anti-hero Rued Langgaard.

One who frequently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Langgaard (below) could not have had a better start to his career than its premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic and Max Fiedler on 10th April 1913, just before his 20th birthday. Its enthusiastic reception was never repeated in his remaining four decades, the composer traversing various stylistic phases while fighting a psychological battle with the Danish musical establishment. With its inspiration in Sweden’s Kullaberg peninsula, this work remains testament to the vaunting ambition of his younger self.

Steering a cohesive course across this almost hour-long piece whose sizable forces (not least four Wagner tubas) is no easy task, but Oramo succeeded more convincingly than on any of the three commercial recordings. Not least in a first movement, Surf and Glimpses of Sun, whose elongated sonata design and increasingly histrionic climaxes could so easily veer into overkill, rather than yielding a recklessly if purposefully cumulative momentum. Mountain Flowers is a slow movement of no mean eloquence, not least with Oramo encouraging the strings to relish the limelight over its opening and closing stages then towards its expressive apex. The undoubted highlight is Legend, less an intermezzo than a dark-hued formal crux whose ominous atmosphere looks on toward those anguished confessionals which lay ahead.

More conventional is Mountain Ascent, a lively and often playful scherzo whose impetus finds ready contrast with the wistful trio at its centre. Rendered here with suitable deftness, this made an admirable foil to Courage – an expansive finale not without its longueurs yet whose development affords some strikingly evocative orchestration, then an apotheosis for which Oramo not only prepared judiciously, but that the BBCSO kept within focus even as the addition of off-stage brass threatened to send those closing pages spinning out of orbit.

An experience, then, such as only a live performance can provide, and which demonstrably played to the strengths of this partnership. Might one hope that Oramo and the BBCSO give Langgaard’s Sixth, arguably his symphonic masterpiece, at a Proms concert in due course?

A thought occurred that had the Danish film industry maintained its promise prior to the First World War, Langgaard might have found as productive an outlet for his abilities as Korngold had for his during the golden age of Hollywood. The latter’s Violin Concerto was not always the familiar item it has now become, and Nicola Benedetti’s rendering assuredly conveyed its essence. Pointing up the discreet contrast between the themes of its opening Moderato, with a trenchant account of its cadenza, she gave a finely shaped if overly generalized account of its central Romance, then projected the final Allegro’s incisiveness and high-flown melodrama with relish. Nor did she undersell the suavity of Jacob Gade’s tango Jalousie – a piece which, 97 years on, confirms what is possible if a composer does not entirely eschew popular appeal.

For further information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here For more on Erich Korngold and Rued Langgaard, click on the composer names – and click on the artist names for more information on Nicola Benedetti and Sakari Oramo

In concert – Vilde Frang, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven Violin Concerto & Dora Pejačević Symphony

Sakari Oramo

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806)
Pejačević
Symphony in F# minor Op.41 (1916-17, rev. 20)

Vilde Frang (violin, below), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Barbican Hall, London
Friday 26 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Pictures (c) Mark Allan

The latter-day uncovering of music from the past two centuries by female composers has not always been determined by its intrinsic quality yet, on the basis of this evening’s account by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony by Dora Pejačević was certainly worth revival.

Born in Budapest and growing up within the Croatian nobility, Pejačević (1885-1923) early on evolved an idiom whose pivoting on the cusp between late-Romanticism and Modernism was well suited to those large-scale instrumental and, latterly, orchestral works that dominate an output curtailed by her death – from kidney failure – at just 37. Certainly, there is nothing at all cautious about her Symphony in F sharp minor, composed during the later stages of the First World War and a piece audibly indebted to though never merely beholden to its times.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with Vilde Frang on violin perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dora Peja?evi?: Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 4 in the Barbican Hall on Friday 26 Nov. 2021. Photo by Mark Allan

Surprisingly, the opening movement is in most respects the weakest – its main Allegro failing to sustain the impact of its impressive slow introduction (Brahms’s First Symphony the likely precursor), in terms of questing harmonic trajectory or purposeful momentum, once the lyrical if rather flaccid second theme has taken hold. The development relies more on rhetoric than motivic ingenuity over its too brief course, followed by an awkwardly modified reprise then a coda whose glowering intensity reveals an intermittent tendency to overscore for the brass.

Such failings are largely absent from what follows. Centred on a soulful melody given to cor anglais, the Andante builds methodically while irresistibly to its pathos-laden climax before subsiding into the lower reaches of the woodwind; while the Scherzo (better placed second in context) utilizes tuned percussion to underpin a progress whose rhythmic vitality is unusual in symphonies from this era. The final Allegro revisits the first movement’s emotional angst, but its relative succinctness on the way to an ultimately cathartic peroration feels securely judged.

Such, at any rate, was the impression left by this performance – the BBCSO responding with alacrity to Sakari Oramo’s belief in music scored, for the most part, with no little imagination for forces including triple woodwind, six horns and four trumpets. If not the masterpiece some might like to believe, Pejačević’s Symphony is evidently worth revival as frequently as, say, that by Korngold – a potent of what this composer would surely have gone on to create. That she enjoyed only a short-lived maturity need not detract from extent of her legacy as it stands.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with Vilde Frang on violin perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dora Peja?evi?: Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 4 in the Barbican Hall on Friday 26 Nov. 2021. Photo by Mark Allan

Despite sustaining a hand injury, Vilde Frang took the stage in the first half for a reading of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (replacing that by Stravinsky) as brought the genial and restive aspects of its expansive first movement into effortless accord; after which, the variations of the Larghetto were exquisitely delineated then the humour of the final Rondo shot-through with an incisiveness through to the emphatic close. Among the most astute of accompanists, Oramo drew felicitous playing from the BBCSO’s woodwind and a reduced string-section.

As encore, Frang gave an eloquent take on Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, Haydn’s theme for the variations in his ‘Emperor’ Quartet. Hopefully those still trying to reconcile the movement-headings of the Pejačević as given erroneously for the Beethoven were not unduly distracted.

For the repertoire in this concert, listen to the Spotify playlist below:

For further information on the concert, click here For more on Dora Pejačević, click here – and for more on soloist Vilde Frang, here

BBC Proms – Timothy Ridout, BBC SO / Oramo: Arnold, Walton, Foulds & Bray

BBCSO_Oramo_Ridout_09_CR.Chris Christodoulou

Timothy Ridout (viola), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Foulds Le cabaret Op.72a (1921) [Proms premiere]
Walton
Viola Concerto (1928-9, rev. 1961)
Bray
 Where Icebergs Dance Away (2021) [UK premiere]
Arnold
Symphony no.5 Op.74 (1960-61) [Proms premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 27 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Sakari Oramo tonight returned to the Proms for the first of two concerts as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in a typically wide-ranging programme of British music as commenced with the overture La cabaret that John Foulds penned as incidental music before it became an autonomous item. For all its vaudevillian aura and unabashed razzmatazz, this ‘Overture to a French Comedy’ throws in numerous stylistic curveballs to point up its intent such as Oramo, given an advocacy of this composer stretching back over two decades, underlined with relish.

Although Walton’s music of the 1920s evinces a not dissimilar extroversion, a very different aspect of the composer is evident in his Viola Concerto – heard this evening in its revision for reduced forces but a notable role for harp. It also brought a Proms debut for Timothy Ridout, his burnished tone and unfaltering intonation much in evidence in the first movement with its smouldering pathos and brief if volatile flights of fancy (qualities which suggest Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto as the most likely model) that were carefully integrated into the whole.

The central Vivo was the undoubted highlight of this performance – Ridout’s passagework unflagging even at the tempo indicated by the revision, not least in those syncopated asides that amply delineate the spirit of the times. By contrast, the finale began reticently then only gradually intensified towards a climactic tutti that brought out the best in the BBCSO; after which, Ridout’s take on the coda made it seem almost parenthetical in its overt rumination, while rounding off the whole work with appropriate inevitability and unforced eloquence.

After the interval, a first hearing in the UK for Where Icebergs Dance Away – the most recent orchestral piece by Charlotte Bray, whose Cello Concerto was a highlight of the 2016 season. Inspired by the icy landscapes encountered on a visit to Greenland, this brief yet atmospheric piece – a faster central episode placing the relative stasis on either side into meaningful relief – suggested qualities of greater organic growth and emotional intensification which deserved to be expounded on a larger scale, while never feeling underdeveloped in the present context.

It may have taken six decades to appear at the Proms, but Sir Malcolm Arnold‘s Fifth Symphony – if not the finest of his cycle, is surely its most representative by dint of those confrontational extremes which, in the opening Tempestuoso alone, pit acerbic irony against expressive angst as threaten to overwhelm the movement’s formal logic. That it failed to do so was testament to Oramo’s acuity in keeping this music’s seeming excesses within relative proportion – not least in the violent irresolution of the closing pages, with their stark withdrawal into silence.

Featuring one of Arnold’s most potent melodies, the Andante brought a rapt response by the BBCSO strings and if Oramo drew less than the ultimate terror from the central climax, the transition to the pensive second theme then return to the initial melody were breathtakingly achieved. Neither was there any lack of malevolence or sardonic humour in the scherzo – its energy carrying over into a finale that was paced superbly to a climactic restatement of the Andante‘s melody and its collapse into nothingness. A fitting close to an impressive reading.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Charlotte Bray and Sir Malcolm Arnold, while for more on Timothy Ridout click here

BBC Proms – Dame Sarah Connolly, BBC SO / Brabbins: Berlioz, Payne & Beethoven

sarah-connolly

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (below)

Payne Spring’s Shining Wake (1980-81) (Proms premiere)
Berlioz Les nuits d’été Op.7 (1840-41, orch. 1856)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 13 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A family bereavement meant that Sir Andrew Davis was unable to conduct this Prom, the baton having been taken up by Martyn Brabbins – whose currently in-demand status is a reflection not least of his broad range of musical sympathies and an inherent ability to ‘get things done’.

Not too many conductors would have taken on at relatively short notice a long-unheard piece by the late lamented Anthony Payne then render it with the familiarity of a repertoire staple. Seemingly unheard for 15 years, Spring’s Shining Wake was a breakthrough piece in several respects: the composer fashioning a ‘contemporary’ yet never esoteric idiom, unencumbered by stylistic precedent, as reflected his love of an earlier generation of English music. Delius’s In a Summer Garden is a focal-point in several respects, but what comes over most strongly in its modest scoring (seven wind, one percussionist and strings) is a sense of organic growth from the overtly static formal framework; textures diversifying and intensifying, yet without changing as to their essential features, in music exemplifying the ‘same yet different’ maxim.

From there to the limpid Romanticism of Berlioz’s song-cycle Les nuits d’été is nearer than might be imagined, this latter being notable for its range of expressive nuance despite (even because of) its pervasive restraint. Certainly, there was no uniformity of response from Dame Sarah Connolly – whose whimsical response to Villanelle contrasting with the wide-eyed fantasy of Le spectre de la rose, and becalmed rapture of Sur les lagunes thrown into relief by the fervent heartache of Absence then the spectral imaginings of Au cimetière; itself finding purposeful response in the animated L’île inconnue with its vouchsafing new imaginative realms. Coordination between soloist and orchestra is paramount throughout, and there was no lack of that in a reading as conveyed this music’s potent sensibilities with acute insight.

Nor was there anything routine about Beethoven’s Pastoral after the interval. Readers may remember a cycle of all nine symphonies which Brabbins (above) gave with the Salomon Orchestra just over a decade ago, and his purposeful if never inflexible take on the opening movement left room for its reflective asides and heady flights of fancy. This was no less evident in the Scene by the brook, with its emphasis on seamlessness of transition and unity of content – not least in the way those bird-calls of the coda were integrated into their textural context.

Unfolding with consistency of pulse, the remaining three movements yielded few surprises but no failings. A touch of blandness in the scherzo was duly countered with the immediacy   of the Thunderstorm and its nexus of accrued emotion whose dispersal makes possible the Shepherd’s Song – less cumulative in its eloquence than others have made it, perhaps, but whose inevitability of progress was sustained through to a close of serene poise; underlining the degree to which any trace of ego has been sublimated in the enveloping cosmic dance.

Some elegant and characterful playing from the woodwind of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a highlight of this performance, a reminder that even a work with a Proms tally running to several dozen never need sound routine when approached with such unaffected reverence.

For further information on the music of Anthony Payne, visit the composer’s website. You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: Symphony no.5 & Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

*Emily Portman (singer); *Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano); *Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), *BBC Singers; *BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)
Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1906)*

Hyperion CDA68325 [66’59”]
English text included
Producer Andrew Keener
Engineer Simon Eadon

Recorded 2 December 2018* & 4-5 November 2019 (Symphony 5), Watford Colosseum, UK

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Martyn Brabbins’s traversal of Vaughan Williams symphonies continues with the Fifth, long the most widely regarded of this cycle, alongside music written for a dramatized production which effectively launched the composer’s lifelong obsession with John Bunyan’s ‘allegory’.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in June 1943, the Fifth Symphony poses a challenge or even provocation through that inwardness all too easily regarded as escapism. A ‘less is more’ concept which Brabbins clearly appreciates – not least in a Preludio as builds incrementally, with little overt rapture going into the radiant second theme or a development understatedly accruing energy, toward a reprise whose climactic restatement of the second theme is (purposely?) less arresting than a coda in which any tonal ambiguity feels the more real for happening almost out of earshot. Easy to skate over, the Scherzo emerges with not a little malevolence in the deftness of its cross-rhythms – the chorale-like aspect of its trio questioning rather than affirming, then the return of the opening music exuding a sardonic quality left unresolved by the spectral close.

That the Romanza is the emotional heart of this work only increases a need for its contrast of moods to be (subtly) underlined. Brabbins achieves exactly so through an adroit interplay of the melodic and harmonic components whose cumulative yet unforced evolution accords the central phase of the movement an encroaching anxiety barely pacified at its culmination, before being more wholly transcended by a coda that is luminous in its simplicity and poise. Often thought unsatisfactory as a formal design, the final Passacaglia seems of a piece with what went before; its theme stated simply while purposefully before the variations build to a resolute central climax – after which, those conflicting elements of negation and affirmation are sublimated into a postlude which reaches out as though at once entreaty and benediction.

As a coupling, Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress could not be more apposite. Written for a staging at Reigate Priory, the 13 short items unfold well as a continual sequence at the outset of an involvement with Bunyan’s novel that resulted in an evening-length drama 45 years on. Highlights are Emily Portman’s disarming take on the ‘Flower-girl’s song’, ‘The angel’s song’ eloquently rendered by Kitty Whately (her contribution an undoubted highpoint of ENO’s uneven 2012 production), Marcus Farnsworth’s fervour in a setting of Psalm 23 as constitutes the Shepherd’s Song, and lusty response from the BBC Symphony Chorus in The arming of Christian (best known as the hymn To be a Pilgrim) then a rapturous Final scene music which also serves as reminder that VW’s Tallis Fantasia was merely four years hence.

Does it all work?

It does. Brabbins’s Fifth may not be the most fervent or powerful but has the work’s measure as a cohesive and integrated entity. The Pilgrim’s Progress ‘Scenes’ makes for a fascinating comparison with subsequent versions in VW’s decades-long quest for a satisfying realization.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is on a par with previous instalments in its clarity and realism, and Robert Matthew-Walker’s booklet note expertly clears up any uncertainty over the genesis of VW’s Bunyan-related projects. Those remaining symphonies will hopefully not be long in coming.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read Arcana’s interview with the conductor here