BBC Proms 2017 – Renée Fleming sings Strauss & Barber – Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Prom 61 – Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Andrea Tarrodi Liguria (2012) (UK premiere)

Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op 24 (194)

Richard Strauss Daphne – Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme – ich komme’ (1937)

Nielsen Symphony no.2, ‘The Four Temperaments’ (1901-2)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 30 August 2017

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

In her previous visits to the Proms Renée Fleming has proved a big draw, and although the arena may not have been full for her latest visit, with regular collaborators Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, it comprised a satisfying and ideally executed program.

Fleming’s contributions grouped into a loose theme of distant light and transformation. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a love letter to the American home, and its dappled evening sunlight flickered beautifully under the hands of Oramo, the composer’s warm harmonies setting the scene for Fleming’s characteristically full bodied interpretation. She inhabited the storyteller’s guise with effortless and instinctive calm, though the animated middle section was also very well judged. With just the right amount of sentimentality, this was an ideal performance, and an aptly chosen encore of the song Sure on this shining night blazed a similar trail.

Fleming’s projection was ideal, particularly in the Transformation Scene from Richard Strauss’s second opera Daphne, where she moved from the front to a well-chosen offstage position for the culmination of the transformation itself, which sees Daphne take on the form of a laurel tree. The extended postlude from the orchestra reached upwards to a serene level of euphoria, and Fleming’s wordless vocalise at the end put the seal on a beautifully judged performance. Again we had an encore, and this was a special account of Strauss’s own orchestration of his best-loved song Morgen, with rapt solo from orchestra leader Andrej Power.

If anything the other two pieces were even more successful. The music of Andrea Tarrodi was new to the Proms, but on the basis of the orchestral piece Liguria this was extremely unlikely to be her only appearance. A colourful account of a visit to the Italian coast, Liguria is a kind of symphonic lettercard, its six scenes recounted in brightly lit orchestrations. The recurring, creeping brass harmonies from the first scene stood out, and reappeared towards the end, but also notable was the assurance with which the Swedish composer works with the orchestra, making original sounds and not resorting to contemporary music clichés. A composer whose acquaintance you are strongly advised to make.

Finally we heard Carl Nielsen’s Second Symphony, ‘The Four Temperaments’, receiving its second Proms performance in three years after the festival’s complete neglect of it in the 20th century. It is a powerful piece, and this account made a strong impression. Although the feverish first movement (Choleric) was convincing and brilliantly played the emotional centre lay in the Melancholic third movement, where Oramo wrought music of impressive angst and depth. Nielsen’s struggles were resolved by the Sanguine finale, where the composer lets rip perhaps a little too easily, but again the structure and the melodic groups made perfect sense. Oramo has built a strong affinity with the Danish composer’s music over the years, and there was something very satisfying in these days of disunity at seeing a Finn conduct a Swedish orchestra in Danish music.

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Leanne Mison will give her verdict on the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Prom. Coming shortly!

BBC Proms – Nielsen Fifth Symphony; Schumann Violin Concerto & Jörg Widmann’s Armonica – BBC Philharmonic / Storgårds

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John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms on Monday 1 August. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 23; Royal Albert Hall, Monday 1 August 2016

Widmann Armonica (2006) [UK premiere] [Christa Schönfeldinger (glass harmonica), Teodoro Anzellotti, (accordion)]

Schumann Violin Concerto in D minor (1853) (Thomas Zehetmair, violin)

Sibelius The Tempest – Prelude (1925)

Nielsen Symphony No.5 (1922)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s Prom brought a first visit this season from the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by its principal guest conductor John Storgårds in a wide-ranging programme which began in ethereal near-silence and ended in a blaze of affirmation rarely equalled this past century.

The relative silence was to be found in Armonica, among the most distinctive pieces by Jörg Widmann in that it features a solo role for glass harmonica – partnered here by the more abrasive sound of accordion in music which emerges into then evanesces out of focus; heard against a backdrop where indebtedness to Ligeti’s earlier orchestral works does not preclude a wealth of imaginative textures, particularly in the opening minutes. Christa Schönfeldinger and Teodoro Anzellotti interacted seamlessly, not least in those overly gestural closing pages.

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Christa Schönfeldinger performs Widmann’s Armonica with and Teodoro Anzellotti, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. (c) Chris Christodolou

Perhaps it was such ethereal sounds that the ailing Schumann heard over the troubled weeks prior to his final breakdown. If so, little of this otherworldliness found its way into the Violin Concerto which was his last major work. Its having been kept under wraps for eight decades, then miraculously relocated near the outset of the Nazi era, has passed into legend. Musically the piece can verge on the routine, not least a first movement whose progress is more than a little dogged due to insufficiently contrasted ideas, then a finale whose underlying polonaise rhythm abets the repetitiveness. Best is a slow movement that revisits Schumann’s ‘romanza’ idiom a last time; its enervated aura exquisitely judged by Thomas Zehetmair and Storgårds – musicians who have (uniquely?) encountered this unsettling work both as soloist and conductor.

The emotional temperature rose appreciably in the second half – first with the Prelude from the extensive incidental music Sibelius wrote for a Copenhagen production of The Tempest. Guardedly admired at first, it has latterly been hailed as a precursor of tonal innovations half a century on. While his account was not lacking for physical immediacy, Storgårds chose to emphasize those modal contours that spread across woodwind and brass as the piece moves beyond its climax towards as tenuous a resolution as any during the first half of last century.

How to wrest resolution from apparent chaos was the goal for Nielsen in his Fifth Symphony, a work that has rightly moved towards the centre of the repertoire over the past two decades. Consistency was the watchword of Storgårds’s interpretation – finding an unarguable ‘tempo giusto’ for the initial half of the first movement, its unfolding across shifting tonal planes as finely articulated as the intensifying ambivalence that suddenly clears going into the Adagio rejoinder. The climax had suitably majestic import, and it was hardly Paul Patrick’s fault if his side-drum ‘cadenza’ was outshone by John Bradbury’s plangent clarinet solo in the coda. The second movement’s propulsive opening Allegro was well judged and if Storgårds risked momentum in the curious bitonal transition, the ensuing Presto had the right headlong energy.

Nor was there any lack of focus in the fugal Andante which gradually works its way to where the earlier resolve can be regained, albeit now with a formal and expressive closure as makes possible a thrilling peroration that was superbly gauged at the end of this impressive reading.

Richard Whitehouse

Wigmore Mondays – Baiba and Lauma Skride play Nordic works for violin and piano

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Baiba Skride (violin) and her sister Lauma (piano, both above)

Wigmore Hall, London, 2 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b078wy1n

Available until 31 May

What’s the music?

Sibelius Four Pieces Op. 78 (1915-17) (13 minutes)

Vasks Maza vasaras muzika (Little Summer Music) (1985) (10 minutes)

Rautavaara Summer Thoughts (1972/2008) (4 minutes)

Nielsen Violin Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 35 (1912) (20 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below. Neither of the Skride sisters have recorded this repertoire before, but there are other versions picked out instead:

About the music

An intriguing program based on the first instrument of composers Sibelius and Nielsen – the violin. While both composers wrote violin concertos that are either extremely well known (Sibelius) or appreciating gradually (Nielsen) their music for violin and piano is almost shrouded in secrecy.

Sibelius wrote a few sonatas but much more in the way of short pieces for violin and piano, many of which were requested as commissions for the salon market. The four here are characteristic examples of a composer who uses economy in his writing, often ending his pieces abruptly but using music of charm and poise – and inventive textures.

Nielsen’s Violin Sonatas are rarely heard, but the second sonata, completed in 1912, is a substantial piece that shows the composer’s ease with dealing in bigger forms of music. The second sonata falls between the third and fourth symphonies in his output.

We also hear shorter pieces for violin and piano by two composers heavily influenced by Sibelius and Nielsen, the Latvian Peteris Vasks and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. The warmth felt in both sets of pieces show how Nordic music is not just about the cold!

Performance verdict

Arcana was not at the concert at the Wigmore Hall, but listening to the broadcast it is clear of the involvement both performers have in these works.

The deep-seated passion running through the third of the Sibelius pieces is striking and intense, with the technical mastery of what sounds like a tricky Rigaudon very stylishly achieved.

If anything the Second Violin Sonata of Nielsen carries a greater impact, for this is an impressive piece of work whose stature grows with each hearing. It is unjustly neglected for sure, and the Skride sisters give it an excellent performance here, the violinist’s tone especially impressive in the longer notes used by the composer for many of his themes.

Providing light for the relative shade are the works by Vasks and Rautavaara, full of charm, warmth and melodic invention. They complete a program with an outdoor feel, and both performers give this seldom-heard music the fresh performances it deserves.

What should I listen out for?

Sibelius

1:57 Impromptu The first piece of the four has a dreamy piano and more energetic violin, which feels free spirited over the relatively static harmony.

4:01 Romance The sweet tone of the romance is carried by the violin’s melody over a calm piano accompaniment. There is a childlike quality to the main material reminiscent of Schumann, but the music becomes more passionate.

7:14 Religioso A heavier feel to this, especially in the piano, which uses more of the keyboard in its part, and the lower register of the violin too. A melancholy piece.

12:55 Rigaudon A French dance that starts commandingly in the major key but then has a brief shadow of darkness (13:19) when it shifts into the minor. The rhythm is often syncopated in a way that suggests the tango, and the piece ends abruptly – as so many Sibelius pieces do!

Vasks

16:42 The opening section of this piece (marked Breit, Klangvoll) sounds like bird calls exchanged between the violin and piano.

17:55 A slow episode (marked Nicht Eiland), sweetly sung by the violin.

19:27 A dance, led by the violin, with a rustic, outdoor feel.

21:10 The music takes a serious tone, moving to a minor key, and appears lost in thought.

23:53 –  a glittering descent on the piano (a glissando) introduces another folksy section, with an outdoor feel.

25:21 – once again we hear the first section, with its bird calls.

Rautavaara

27:14 – Rautavaara’s interpretation of summer is a dreamy one, with a wandering line on the piano, but it gradually gathers its intensity for a passionate middle section, falling back and then gathering once again with the violin holding long, lyrical notes. It then fades into the middle distance.

Nielsen

32:25 – initially the mood is calm, starting on the lowest note of the violin, but the music wanders and soon the violinist is taking charge of a passionate section that includes a grand theme in C major around 34:31. By 37:30 the music is a little lighter on its feet but the exchanges continue to brim with passion. The movement ends with reflection at 39:40.

39:55 – the slow movement begins with a broad melody from the violin. The long notes are countered with a restless piano part. That spills over into a fraught statement at 40:48, after which the music calms down. The piano figure can never be fully shaken off however, and even when the movement ends sweetly at 46:48 it does so with the two note progression the piano used almost all the way through.

47:18 – the third and final movement flows with more serenity, and then the piano at 48:44 introduces a jubilant episode, joined in a high register by the violin. By this point the music has reached E major – the same key Nielsen uses as a home base in his exuberant Symphony no.4 (the Inextinguishable). The music gathers greater energy, and at 51:10 the piano hammers out brittle, percussive notes before the music fades to end.

Encore

53:11 – the Mazurka by Sibelius, Op.81/1, the first of five published pieces. This is a piece with plenty of fire in its introduction, but charm when the theme is heard again, softly, at 53:52. The violin has to move between passionate low register tune and a swift upsurge to the high register.

Further listening

Baiba Skride has recorded both the Sibelius and Nielsen Violin Concertos, and these can be heard in company with Sibelius’ 2 Serenades for violin and orchestra. They are on Spotify here:

On record: Morton Gould – The Complete Chicago Symphony Orchestra Recordings (RCA)

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RCA bring together six discs of largely unavailable recordings made by composer / conductor Morton Gould and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1965 and 1968. The varied repertoire ranges from Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to Ives and Gould himself.

What’s the music like?

Colourful. If you want a slightly random introduction to some very different styles of 20th century music then this is an excellent place to start. Charles Ives heads the bill, with the fiercely patriotic Three Places In New England and bracing Symphony no.2 exploring hometown themes in modernist settings.

Nielsen’s Symphony no.2, The Four Temperaments, is revealed as an emotional tour de force, while Gould’s own Spirituals are heart on sleeve and all the better for it. From the previous century comes a selection of Tchaikovsky waltzes and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar Symphony, whose insistence on an exceptionally catchy tune burns it into your consciousness.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are edge-of-the-seat performances. One of the shortest pieces here, William Schuman’s orchestration of Ives’ Variations on America, is also one of the most entertaining and humourous. The Russian repertoire is punchy and powerful, and including a rare performance of Myaskovsky’s Symphony no.21 a bonus, but it is the bigger Ives works that make this set so worthwhile.

The Three Places In New England are brilliantly played, bringing the homespun melodies through the complicated but invigorating textures, while the two symphonies make the strongest possible impact – even the first, where Ives was still writing conventionally. Here it is fresh and charming, channelling the spirit of Dvořák. If you have not heard the Symphony no.2 before, make sure you listen right to the end, as there is a surprise in store!

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s a bargain – and nicely packaged too, with RCA using the original artwork and some interesting documentation of a brief but meaningful relationship between conductor and orchestra.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here:

Under the Surface at the Proms – Nielsen and The Four Temperaments

Prom 38, 13 August 2015 – London Symphony Chorus Womens’ Voices, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena at the Royal Albert Hall


Fabio Luisi conducts the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in Nielsen at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Helios Overture
http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e4nrzc#b065xhdn

3 Motets, Hymnus Amoris and Symphony no.2, ‘The Four Temperaments’
http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e4nrzc#b065xhds

The Proms and one of this year’s anniversary composers, the Dane Carl Nielsen, are still relatively new friends.

This is because Henry Wood and subsequent directors of the festival did not consider his music worthy of inclusion until very recently – and indeed the Second Symphony, heard in this Prom, was only receiving its second ever Proms performance.

It was the culmination of a thoroughly enjoyable evening that showed Nielsen in several forms. We experienced religious contemplation towards the end of his life in the 3 Motets of 1931, the flowering of spring and love in the Hymnus Amoris of 1897 and then entered the symphonic boxing ring – or so it felt – for the taut arguments of the symphony, modelled on The Four Temperaments. These performances were all authentic, given by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Symphony Chorus and Symphony Orchestra.

The evening began with a sunrise – a magical evocation conjured from almost total stillness by conductor Fabio Luisi. As the Helios Overture took shape he kept a close ear to the orchestral colour, and the shafts of sunlight grew ever stronger thanks to wonderful horn playing.

The 3 Motets were cooler, partly because the choir singing them was relatively small, but if anything this enhanced their purity. In this late trio of works Nielsen pays homage to the Renaissance composer Palestrina in a series of carefully woven lines, though there is room for instinctive joy too – as there was in the final motet, Benedictus Dominus. Yet it was the words of an old man that stuck in the memory from the first motet, Afflictus sum, with its translated text “I am feeble and sore broken”.

We then heard Hymnus Amoris, an early work begun by the brightly voiced Boy and Girl Choristers of Winchester Cathedral before blooming through two additional choirs, soprano and baritone soloists (David Danholt and Anna Lucia Richter) and orchestra. Essentially a journey through life, the 25-minute cantata has a healthy glow and pulse, its treble rich sounds bringing forward the promise of new life and love, despite the onset of old age towards the end. Ultimately triumphant, the work finished in a blaze of colour, following excellent solos from Richter in particular.

If the musical language here carried the enthusiasm of youth, the mood darkened appreciably for the symphony – and Luisi noticeably stepped up a gear in his conducting. Using a subject that has often appealed to classical composers, the Four Temperaments, Nielsen takes us on a voyage of very differing emotions, and Luisi ensured these were clearly signposted but also keenly felt.

The turbulent first movement (the Choleric temperament) has a lot going on, moving restlessly from one cadence to another, but it packs a punch and is ultimately a tale of resolve. The middle two movements (Phlegmatic and Melancholic) reveal more obviously vulnerable sides, and in the third there are dark clouds over the soul as the music spends much of its time brooding in a minor key.

There are tunes to be enjoyed, though, especially a winsome number in the second movement, and Nielsen’s development of his material is notable for its speed of thought. Several listens to each movement are recommended to get a feel for his style, but in the Second Symphony Nielsen really convinces with his emotional arguments. The final movement, Sanguine, is the culmination, telling the tale of struggles won and demons vanquished. In a performance as convincing as this it was easy to be won around, a task made even simpler by a charming encore, the Dance of the Cockerels from Nielsen’s opera Maskarade.

Want to hear more?

The obvious next port of call for Nielsen is his Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable – a powerful and hugely affirmative piece. It can be heard on Spotify here, with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt:

For the charming, rustic side to Nielsen’s character, the Wind Quintet is a charming place to start. Here it is as part of an all-Nielsen album from the Athena Ensemble:

 

The concert also included Nikolaj Znaider playing BrahmsViolin Concerto. More of that in a future post!

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival