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)


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


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

Tasmin Little, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Edward Gardner at the Barbican – Janáček, Smetana, Szymanowski & Eötvös

Ed Gardner
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above) (photo © Benjamin Ealovega)

Barbican Hall, Saturday January 7, 2017

Janáček Jealousy

Smetana Ma vlast: Vltava; Šarka

Szymanowski Violin Concerto No.2 (soloist – Tasmin Little)

Eötvös The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies [UK premiere]

Janáček Taras Bulba

L-R Leoš Janáček (1854-1928); Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884); Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937); Péter Eötvös (b1944)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Edward Gardner returned to the BBC Symphony for this diverse if not wholly successful programme, which opened with the ultimate in terse curtain-raisers. Intended then abandoned as the overture to his opera Jenůfa, Janáček’s Jealousy (1895) has latterly enjoyed a peripheral place in the repertoire. Heard here in the late Charles Mackerras’s realization of the original version, it made for a vivid impression – not least when its alternation between strident brass gestures and eloquent string writing unerringly evokes Sibelius during much the same period.

Next came the second and third instalments from Smetana’s cycle of symphonic portraits, Ma vlast. The performance of Vltava (1874) was a disappointment – its constituent sections rather failing to cohere, with Gardner making little of the visceral ‘St John’s Rapids’ episode and the apotheosis doddering along at a jog-trot.

Šarka (1875) fared better – Gardner exerting a tight grip over its scenario of female retribution, with felicitous playing from solo clarinet and horn prior to the fateful close. In context, these pieces sounded curiously adrift, suggesting that a different selection (Šarka, then From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields maybe?) might have proved more effective. Even better to opt for one of those early ‘Gothenburg’ symphonic poems that are rarely revived, of which Wallenstein’s Camp would ideally have complemented the Janáček in the second half.

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little

Time was when Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto (1933) existed in the shadow of its predecessor, but this last major work by the composer enjoys increasingly regular revival – its amalgam of luscious textures and folk-inflected harmonies underpinned by a formal cohesion where elements of sonata and rondo forms link hands over a powerful cadenza (by the initial soloist Paweł Kochánski) that Tasmin Little rendered with aplomb.Elsewhere her intonation occasionally faltered as she strove for parity against often dense orchestral writing, though a cumulative impact was rarely less than evident on the way to the affirmative closing pages.

After the interval, a welcome first hearing in the UK for a recent orchestral piece by Peter Eötvös. Written for the Basque National Orchestra, The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies (2012) utilizes not only the quirky rhythmical profile of that region’s traditional music but also its indigenous percussion – two cajóns situated near the front of the orchestra goading the music on with their distinctive timbre. The piece follows an eventful (and suspenseful) trajectory in which the imagery conveyed by the title is amply though subtly conveyed; the typically stratified textures making possible the luminous final stages then an ending which, not for the first time with this composer, suggests a possible continuation just out of reach.

Later Janáček fairly specializes in such oblique endings, and if Taras Bulba (1918) is not one of these, this rhapsody’s graphic yet by no means literal depiction of events related by Gogol leaves no doubt as to its composer’s identification with his subject. Gardner brought fervency then starkness to the respective deaths of Andriy and Ostap, and while the opening stages of the final section were a little temperate, the apotheosis had a glowing inevitability – though some fallible playing was a reminder of this music’s demands for all its relative familiarity.

BBC Symphony Orchestra & Semyon Bychkov – Beloved Friend: Tchaikovsky Project


Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov (above) in the second of their Tchaikovsky-themed concerts

Tchaikovsky Serenade for strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880)

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, Op. 75 (1893)

Taneyev Overture: The Oresteia, Op.6 (1889)

Tchaikovsky Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 24 October

The Beloved Friend series being curated by Semyon Bychkov provides a revealing overview of Tchaikovsky through some lesser performed works. Not the least of which is the Serenade for strings that, though its individual movements emerge frequently on radio, is not so often encountered in concert. Too short to occupy a second or even first half, it makes for a lengthy yet viable opening item when, as tonight, a full-sized string section is deployed with panache.

Bychkov ensured a fervent response in the first movement, its animated main sections framed by the rhetorical motto theme that ultimately returns as an apotheosis, then found suavity as well as elegance in the Waltz. Despite lack of inwardness, the Elegy yielded real clarity in its denser passages, while the Finale proceeded briskly yet characterfully to its resolute close.

kirill-gersteinNext followed a rare revival of the Third Piano Concerto, itself reworked from an abandoned symphony and what would doubtless have become a three-movement entity had Tchaikovsky completed its Andante and Finale to his satisfaction prior to his death (these latter, as realized posthumously by Taneyev, make an effective whole – as Alexander Markovich demonstrated in a Royal Festival Hall account eight years ago).

As a stand-alone piece, the Allegro brillante (best known in its ballet incarnation by George Balanchine) unfolds a quirky and characterful sonata design – its themes distinctive for their emotional restraint, with a stealthy interplay between piano and orchestra that Kirill Gerstein (above) audibly relished. Momentum faltered marginally after a scintillating cadenza, but the final pages strode onwards to a decisive if peremptory ending.

Overall, a convincing account of music which warrants greater exposure. Hopefully Gerstein will yet tackle this work’s three-movement incarnation: for now, he returned for a reading of Méditation – the fifth of Tchaikovsky’s Op. 72 collection – that oozed eloquence and poise.

More discussed than played in the West, Sergey Taneyev was as least as much a composer as pedagogue; a notable output of orchestral and chamber music capped by his ambitious opera The Oresteia. Beginning life as this latter’s introduction, the present overture expanded into an autonomous entity that surveys the opera’s dramatic content and is an eventful symphonic poem in its own right. Its complementary halves representing an archetypal ‘war and peace’ in dramatic as well as musical terms, the piece is harmonically questing and often texturally adventurous – not least in its extensive though never self-conscious writing for harps. Some 15 years after Taneyev last enjoyed a fair measure of exposure in London, Bychkov directed a fastidious performance to remind listeners that they are the poorer for this music’s neglect.

Even in an era intent on ‘concerto and symphony’ programming, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini has never lacked for performances – this symphonic fantasia mingling drama with pathos to a heady degree even for this composer. Bychkov accordingly upped the ante in the tempestuous opening, then secured a suitably rapt response from woodwind and strings in the central section depicting Paolo and Francesca. Its balletic continuation drifted as is often the case, but the final pages portrayed the hapless lovers’ descent into hell with unerring ferocity.

Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast in Afternoon on 3, and available for 30 days thereafter via the Radio 3 website

BBC Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins – Havergal Brian’s ‘Sinfonia Tragica’ + Rubbra & Grøndahl


Richard Whitehouse on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins (above) in a concert recorded at the orchestra’s home in Maida Vale

Rubbra Symphony No.11 Op. 153 (1979)

Grøndahl Trombone Concerto (1924)

Brian Symphony No.6 Sinfonia tragica (1948)

Jörgen van Rijen (trombone), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Maida Vale Studios, Tuesday 11 October

The BBC Symphony continues to schedule some of its most distinctive concerts at its Maida Vale studios, and this afternoon saw Martyn Brabbins at the helm for a sequence of English and Danish music – all being pieces that are rarely, if ever, encountered in UK concert halls.

When Edmund Rubbra’s Eleventh Symphony received its premiere at the 1980 Proms, it must have felt appreciably more distant in aesthetic than it now does. Yet timelessness was central to the composer’s music; nowhere more than this 18-minute summation of both his symphonic and orchestral thinking. Its two continuous sections – a ‘moderate’ Andante, then a ‘calm and serene’ Adagio – offer only incremental expressive change, though the cumulative emotional impact as Rubbra evolves intervallic motifs via a seamless process of developing variation is undoubted; as also his fashioning of alternately diaphanous and granitic instrumentation. This latter was superbly rendered by the BBCSO, with Brabbins attentive to the music’s wealth of detail and its by no means untroubled emergence towards an eloquent plateau of tranquillity.

jorgen-van-rijenNext came a welcome revival for the Trombone Concerto by Launy Grøndahl, best known as a conductor (he premiered Robert Simpson’s First Symphony in Copenhagen) but who, on the basis of those pieces to have been recorded, evinced a modest while appealing compositional talent.

The outer movements of his concerto alternate between trenchant and lyrical ideas, the latter having a deftness to offset the hints of rhythmic stolidity elsewhere, but it is the central Andante – in its initial blues-inflected theme and resourceful deployment of piano – that most readily confirms its composer’s prowess. Here, as throughout the piece, Jörgen van Rijen (above) was unfailingly perceptive – underlining the extent to which Grøndahl, a violinist by training, had mastered the technical range of an instrument whose overall potential remains to be realized.

During the break, Van Rijn performed Slipstream by the German-born composer and metal guitarist Florian Magnus Maier (b1973) – its interplay of live playing and recorded repetition, via a loop-station operated by the musician, affording a fresh twist to Reich-style minimalism.

Brabbins has championed Havergal Brian extensively on disc; his live advocacy so far limited (!) to a revival of the Gothic symphony at the 2011 Proms. At just under 20 minutes, Sinfonia tragica comes near the opposite end (albeit conceptually) of his orchestral output. Envisaged as the prelude to an opera on J. M. Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows that was soon abandoned, it was not incorporated into his canon for two decades, yet its symphonic status is not hard to discern.

The BBCSO duly had the measure of its progress, as unpredictable as it is inevitable – from the fugitive gestures of its opening section, through the (surprisingly?) long-breathed melodic writing at its centre, to the eruptive activity and stoic processional of its final pages. A persuasive reading of a piece that ranks among its composer’s most immediate utterances.

Indeed, this was a persuasive concert overall – one that made light of the turgid accusations sometimes levelled at Rubbra, or the unplayability too often associated with Brian. Hopefully the BBCSO and Brabbins will continue their exploration of this rewarding music at future studio concerts.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during November – further details to follow