Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Jamie Sellers on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony, Lalo & Falla

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Jamie Sellers gives his verdict on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Prom of French and Spanish music.

Prom 40: Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Bell (violin), Cameron Carpenter (organ), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Dutoit

Falla El amor brujo (1914-5)

Lalo Symphonie Espagnole (1874)

Saint-Saëns Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 (1886)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 17 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Jamie, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

Lots of early exposure to my elder sibling’s 1960s pop records, which they kindly left behind minus covers when they left home. At the age of seven I started to buy vinyl singles, and that was around 1972, the glam rock era. For two or three years I was listening to exclusively white rock and pop records, and it was only sometime later that I started to listen to any other music.

Did you have any exposure to classical music early on?

None whatsoever! I’m not sure what my first exposure to classical music would have been, knowingly – probably the popular classics that I would hear on TV ads, such as Carl Orff selling Brut 33 or cheap wine! For a long time – and I suspect this is true for a lot of people – you would hear only a minute or two of a much longer piece that had become famous, and those pieces would be marketed as such. You would be able to go to a petrol station and buy a ‘best of classical’ or something like that.

With your love of film, did you almost come into a lot of music that could be described as classical through soundtracks?

Yeah, definitely. Before I was even teenager I would be listening to the John Barry James Bond soundtracks, and the Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtracks. I would think what amazing music it was, but it wasn’t pop music of that era, it was obviously informed by something else. It was only much later when I started to buy soundtracks, and listened to 40 minutes of music that was just a series of cues for a film, some of which were quite ambient and instrumental and others which were hooky, almost pop-classical, that I started to listen to music in that way. I started to listen to Bernard Herrmann and Lalo Schifrin, and similar people. I got the impression that most of them were frustrated classical composers who got sidelined into making film music!

Could you name three musical acts you admire, and say why you admire them?

Off the top of my head, I would say The Beatles, Bobby Bland and Hank Williams, because they all came from different aspects of popular music and were very ground breaking in their own way, whether it be in pop music – The Beatles – or country music – Hank Williams – or blues in Bobby Bland. They all made music that has been hugely influential to subsequent generations.

Turning to the Proms, how would you describe your experience tonight?

It wasn’t totally alien to me, because I have been to a number of orchestral events, usually with the soundtrack composers involved and occasionally pop performers with orchestra. To listen to a piece for half an hour or 45 minutes that is a considerably classical piece is quite different I suppose, and when you don’t know that work as well. It was mixed overall, but I really enjoyed the first piece, with what little I knew about it! I knew Manuel de Falla the name, and knew that he had something to do with flamenco. I love a lot of Spanish music and knew that he was one of the forefathers of Spanish music. Listening to it I couldn’t hear much of that, but if I was looking for references I would …I could hear a few undercurrents of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, which is probably a very broad brush to paint it with (ed – Jamie has identified the use of Will o’ the Wisp, one of the movements in the ballet, on the album).

The second piece with the violin lead I struggled with. Obviously Joshua Bell was brilliant, and everyone was brilliant, but it didn’t do a lot for me. It struck me that at the end of each movement the music petered out in an almost accidental fashion. It wasn’t until the end of the third part that it had a very definite ending, which incidentally was my favourite part of the piece. The first two parts just seemed to end in a very sudden fashion which I found a bit strange. I didn’t get on with that too well.

I wondered what the etiquette was, whether we were supposed to stay quiet for the whole performance or whether we could clap at the end of each movement, because it happened after the third movement of this piece. It’s a bit like going to a play for the first time and clapping at the end of each act, or do you wait until the end of the play?

What did you think of the Saint-Saëns?

It wasn’t quite what I expected! It’s funny, the name and the most famous theme or melody from that piece that appears in the Babe film, sung by some mice, I knew it was a pop record before that as well, a really sentimental song that was a strong ballad (If I Had You). I really enjoyed most of it, it was melodically very accessible I thought, as was the Falla. I think if I was going along to hear some classical music for the first time I might try this because most of it was very accessible, and at one point when the music really picked up it really soared a few minutes in. I was watching two banks of strings either side of the conductor, and they looked like rowers on a slave ship or something. It was visually impressive. I thought the organ would be all-encompassing but it didn’t dominate the piece as much as I expected it to.

Thinking of your experience of the Proms, what appealed to you about the visit?

The fact that we were in the stalls area and people were standing, and it was a very mixed audience, it felt much more accessible than I was expecting – I thought it would be more elitist than that. That was good.

Would you change anything about the experience?

Apart from the bar prices?! I don’t think I would change anything particularly – maybe something in the way of an introduction, but then everything was covered in the brochure we had anyway.

Would you consider going again?

Definitely, yes.

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ Symphony; Joshua Bell plays Lalo

Prom 40: Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Bell (violin), Cameron Carpenter (organ), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Dutoit

Falla El amor brujo (1914-5)

Lalo Symphonie Espagnole (1874)

Saint-Saëns Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.78 (1886)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 17 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

On paper, a sultry Prom for the middle of summer, capped by a colourful French symphony. In reality, even more substantial – a concert whose tuneful demeanour and performance panache really lifted the spirits, bringing new perspectives to works we might have erroneously pigeon holed as over familiar or under performed.

Into the latter category falls most of the music of Édouard Lalo, whose Symphonie espagnole, a passionate five movement work for orchestra with violin soloist, is the one work to really gain a foothold in the Proms. Lately however it has fallen out of favour, and Joshua Bell was bringing it back for the first time in 15 years. His evidence was persuasive, a performance full of character, wit and commitment that showed the French composer’s Spanish persuasions in a very positive light. The first two movements were a little on the chaste side, but that only heightened the bravura of the Intermezzo, where Bell was really able to let his hair down.

The finale was also a winner, its tune (memorably upgraded by Keith Emerson and The Nice) leaving an impression long after it had departed, and completing a convincing performance of a substantial work. It would be good to see more Lalo revived to the repertoire, for he is a composer of tuneful appeal with colourful orchestration. Bell (above) gave us a substantial bonus in a gorgeously floated encore of Massenet’s Méditation from his opera Thaïs.

Manuel de Falla also fulfils those two qualities, though his way with a melody is if anything even more exotic. El Amor Brujo (Love, The Magician) is packed full of memorably scored dance music that played right into the hands of a skilled interpreter such as Charles Dutoit. Under his baton the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra swooned and sighed, though unfortunately the contributions from mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac (above) were not ideally balanced from our vantage point in the Albert Hall, her notes falling short of the back of the Arena. Because of that the dances were easily the high point of what was otherwise a high quality performance.

And so to Saint-Saëns, and his Symphony no.3 – the Organ symphony, billed on account of the instrument’s role in the final movement. It was surely the last ten minutes of this work – elevated by pigs in the film Babe – that caused such queues for the arena and gallery, but it was particularly satisfying to be reminded of the work as a whole and its inventiveness.

This was surely the first occasion an organ had been used in this way before, and not just that – a piano too, the four handed part beautifully incorporated by Dutoit into the whole. Dutoit ensured the rhythmic invention of Saint-Saëns was to the fore in the first movement, the strings’ lines shimmering in the half light, while the second movement bloomed in a wondrous shade thanks to well-chosen settings by organist Cameron Carpenter (below) for his accompaniment of the strings plaintive but increasingly powerful theme.

A quickfire third movement brought rhythmic impetus again, the motto theme drumming its way firmly into the consciousness, and then it was the finale, where the balance between organ and orchestra was ideal. Dutoit, who has conducted this work for well over 30 years, relished the drama of the chorale theme and the orchestra’s rapturous response, but also brought forward the inner workings that Saint-Saëns uses to drive it forwards.

A final, personal note on Charles Dutoit, receiving his Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society before we heard the Saint-Saens – which incidentally was commissioned by the same body in 1886. In his recordings with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Dutoit has made some very special insights into French music that are I’m sure on the shelves of many a classical collector today. Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc and Ibert are just five of the composers to benefit from his special relationship with the orchestra – and provide just some of the reasons behind the ever-adventurous conductor’s modest receipt of the medal. He may be 81 but the creative fires still burn very keenly!

Ben Hogwood, with pictures (c) Chris Christodoulou

Stay tuned for another in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Jamie Sellers will give his verdict on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Prom. Coming shortly! Meanwhile a Spotify playlist celebrating Charles Dutoit is below, containing some of the music from this concert.

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Sibelius, Liszt and the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

oberon-orchestraOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of Sibelius, Liszt and Saint-Saëns, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 17 September

Sibelius The Swan of Tuonela Op.22/2 (1895)

Liszt Les préludes (1854)

Sibelius Valse triste Op.44/1 (1903)

Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’ (1886)

Andrew Furniss (organ), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

Tonight’s concert (the fourteenth) from the Oberon Symphony had a strong element of Liszt running through it – not least a welcome revival of the symphonic poem Les préludes which, while its historical importance is undeniable, retains only a marginal place in the repertoire.

Although it started out as the autonomous overture to settings of Joseph Autran’s Les quatre éléments (the connection with Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles méditations poétiques was made later and its reasoning remains unclear), Les préludes is essentially an abstract reflection on the passage of life from aspiration to fulfilment, and Samuel Draper rightly emphasized the cyclical evolution of its themes as these outline a viable sonata design whose introduction and coda confirm the emotional distance travelled. The secondary themes are among Liszt’s most appealing and were eloquently rendered; if the stormy central development seemed inhibited, a convincing momentum was maintained from the ethereal interlude through the reprise then on to an apotheosis whose grandeur was shorn of bombast or unnecessary grandiloquence.

These latter qualities, wholly extraneous to Liszt’s thinking, had by the mid-twentieth century reduced this piece to little more than caricature: harmlessly in the case of its soundtrack to the adventure series Flash Gordon, but offensively so when the final bars were used to announce Nazi bombing successes during the Blitz. In stressing purely musical virtues, a performance such as this can only abet the work’s and the composer’s cause; hopefully Draper will have an opportunity to include another of Liszt’ s symphonic poems in these concerts before long.

When Saint-Saëns (retrospectively) dedicated his Third Symphony to the memory of Liszt, the latter’s reputation was still intact – not least in terms of its cyclical form, making this work the harbinger of an intrinsically French take on the genre that prospered over the next century.

Draper assuredly had the measure of this stealthy evolution across two parts. After a plaintive introduction, the Allegro took time to intensify towards the climactic reprise of its first theme, but the transition to the Adagio had the right expectancy and the latter movement was almost ideal in blending seraphic poise with a lucidly unfolding variation. Andrew Furniss ensured that the organ timbre was fully integrated into that of the orchestra – the Oberon being heard at its best in a scintillating account of the scherzo; after which, the finale was taken firmly in hand so that its big tune (did those smiles among the audience betray knowledge of its use as the 1977 hit ‘If I Had Words’?) emerged unhackneyed, while the fugal and pastoral episodes were drawn into a tight-knit and cumulative progression towards the resplendent peroration.

Prefacing each of these pieces in either half was music by Sibelius. For all its popularity, The Swan of Tuonela is among its composer’s most introspective statements. Draper brought out a sustained anguish in the strings, ideally complemented by plangent cor anglais playing from Bruno Bower. If the fraught climax of Valse triste was a little diffuse, the elegiac opening and close were tellingly rendered – underlining why this miniature rapidly became a worldwide success, and thus making the composer’s signing away of its copyright the more regrettable.

The next concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with a selection of Mozart’s arias and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (soprano Anousheh Bromfield) is on Saturday 21st January 2017

Watch the previous concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with Cosima Yu as soloist in Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber

Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber perform an intricate sequence of portraits of literary figures by Wolf, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Hahn and Duparc

christiane-karg-gerold-huberChristiane Karg and Gerold Huber – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 9 February 2015. Photos © Steven Haberland / Albert Lindmeier

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051zyhb

on the iPlayer until 8 April

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

For those unable to hear the broadcast I have put together a Spotify playlist. Christiane has recorded the Strauss songs but nothing else from the program, so I have chosen suitable available versions:

What’s the music?

Wolf4 Mignon Lieder (1888) (15 minutes)

Brahms and Richard Strauss – Ophelia Lieder (interspersed – the music is Brahms’ 5 Ophelia-Lieder (1873) and Strauss’s 3 Ophelia Lieder Op.67 (1918) followed by Saint-SaënsLa mort d’Ophélie (1857) (14 minutes in total)

Hahn – 3 songs (Lydé (1900), A Chloris (1916) and Séraphine (1896) (8 minutes)

Duparc – 2 songs (Phidylé (1882), Romance de Mignon (1869) (9 minutes)

What about the music?

wigmore-portraits
Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection. His painting influenced the image in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

This is a really well chosen program from Karg and Huber, justifying the singer’s burning of the midnight oil (in the announcer’s anecdote!) to come up with some vivid character portraits that draw the casual listener in through the links between the songs. This is surely how a song recital should be structured.

Thanks to their enterprise we get an interesting blend of Romantic Lieder – that is, nineteenth century song writing that is much more obviously expressive. German composers are strongly represented, beginning with Wolf’s four settings of Goethe, and his poems on the tragic figure of Mignon.

Then our gaze turns to Ophelia, by way of five early Brahms Lieder and three late, eccentric interpretations by Richard Strauss – before a French alternative from Saint-Saëns.

Finally the heady fragrance of three sublime songs from Hahn and two more substantial, meaty efforts from Duparc clinch a consistently engaging recital.

Performance verdict

On this evidence – listening on the radio rather than in the hall – Karg and Huber are ideally matched. Their delivery is especially emotive during the Wolf, where the soprano inhabits a lot of the distress and strife handed out to Mignon.

It is a great idea to fuse the portraits of Ophelia in this way, and anyone approaching Brahms songs for the first time would be surprised at the brevity and simplicity of them. They contrast nicely with the Richard Strauss examples, where Karg shows a lot of vocal agility without ever losing control.

The French songs are sumptuous, especially the Hahn, throwing open the doors to let in some Spring light.

What should I listen out for?

Wolf

The words for these songs can be found here

1:55 – Heiss mich nicht reden (Bid me not speak) – the first Mignon setting moves in unexpected harmonic directions, never really sure of itself as Mignon seeks peace ‘in the arms of a friend’. Judging by the piano postlude this is not found.

5:04 – Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only those who know yearning) – a sombre minor-key opening from the piano.

7:25 – So lasst mich scheinen (Let me seem to be an angel) – a cold piano sound and a distracted vocal. Again the harmonies move restlessly, as does the melody, the song in a dream state but not at rest either.

10:47 – Kennst du das Land (Do you know the land)– a rather more positive outlook in this relatively relaxed song until a sudden outburst from the piano, which on its second appearance follows a particularly fraught passage from the soprano.

Brahms / Richard Strauss

The words for the Brahms can be found here, and for the Richard Strauss here

18:57 – the first of five very brief Brahms songs – this one a thoughtful melody with singer and piano together.

19:42 – the second Brahms song, a mere 20 seconds!

20:06 – the first Strauss song inhabits a weird world of a piano part seemingly cut loose from its moorings, and a melody that doesn’t have an obvious resting point. Mysterious but intriguingly so.

22:37 – the third Brahms song, a much brighter affair.

23:12 – the second Strauss song trips along in a state of high agitation but is perhaps too short to make a sustained impact.

24:44 – the fourth Brahms song, another incredibly brief number – but beautifully delivered here.

25:32 – the fifth Brahms song – even though it is a minute long there is still a distinctive melody here.

26:49 – the third Strauss song, and a deeply mysterious one that casts its spell immediately through the piano line, broken momentarily by outbursts in the middle and at the end.

Saint-Saëns

29:58 – an urgent song from the French composer, with the high soprano voice doubled by the left hand of the piano.

Hahn

The words for the Hahn songs are to be found here

35:04 – Lydé – a much more positive outlook is immediately evident in this song, with an open air texture and bright vocal. There is a grand piano postlude, and what sounds like a wrong note.

37:50 – A Chloris – a twinkling piano introduction has a melodic ornamentation that takes its lead from Bach’s AIr on the G string before the soprano arrives in a lower register. A contemplative song, one of Hahn’s very best, this is beautifully sung by Karg. The interaction with the piano is ideal.

40:33 – Séraphine – a calm and radiant atmosphere runs through the third Hahn song.

Duparc

The words for the Duparc songs can be found here

43:28 – Phidylé – Karg sounds imperious in her control of the fuller melody that makes the second part of this song. The exotic musical language is very much in thrall to Wagner, and reaches its peak with high notes and turbulent, stormy piano writing.

48:15 – Romance de Mignon – another perfumed song, but this is an early song suppressed by the composer. Duparc writes so well for the voice.

Encore

54:00 – Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade – going back to the first composer to write about the ‘mad woman’ Mignon, as Karg describes her. Huber shapes the piano part superbly under Karg’s urgent vocal.

Want to hear more?

It is difficult to suggest another step after such an intriguing and well-thought program, but underneath the songs of on the Spotify link above are further possibilities – including Wolf’s remarkable Prometheus, Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, in a legendary recording from Jessye Norman, and to finish some more Duparc.

For more concerts click here