Arcana at the Proms – Prom 72: Aurora Orchestra & Nicholas Collon – Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

Prom 72: Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Mathew Baynton (actor), Jane Mitchell (stage director / scriptwriter), James Bonas (stage director), Kate Wicks (production designer), Will Reynolds (consultant designer), Cydney Uffindell-Phillips (movement consultant)

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique Op.14 (1830)

Orchestral theatre staging; script by Jane Mitchell;
excerpts from Berlioz’s Mémoires translated by David Cairns

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 12 September 2019 (first of two evening performances)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photography credits Mark Allan

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

One of the aims of the Proms must surely be to attract new audiences to classical music, while enhancing the experience of the existing crowd. Both those aims were met with room to spare by this educational and often dramatic ‘orchestral theatre staging’ of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, given by Mathew Baynton, the Aurora Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon.

As in previous seasons the Aurora were playing from memory, a great achievement when you consider at least 70 performers had to memorize not just the notes but the directions on how to shape them. Given the composer’s scrupulous markings in this area it is up for debate as to how many of these the performers would have been able to commit to memory, but judging by their performance – and Collon’s conducting – the answer would seem to have been a great deal.

It is worth remembering that Berlioz – commemorated this year in the 150th anniversary of his death – wrote the Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. Coming just three years after the death of Beethoven and Schubert, that is a staggering achievement and shifting of musical parameters, even though Collon’s assertion that it was the first ‘programmatic’ symphony could be called into question alongside Beethoven’s sixth, the Pastoral.

That is a quibble for another day, however, for this was a brilliantly weighted blend of drama, history and music. Mathew Baynton played Hector Berlioz himself, communicating the story of the composer’s first encounter with Harriet Smithson, the woman who initially spurned his advances and was the muse for the Symphonie fantastique, but who eventually became his first wife. The story was told with an attractive arrangement by Iain Farrington of the composer’s La belle voyageuse from his Neuf Mélodies Op.2, played by soloists from the orchestra.

It helped that Baynton even resembled the composer slightly, and his dialogue with Collon examined the moods and innovations of Berlioz along with the trials and tribulations of his spurned love. With this background established they examined some of the main themes of the piece and its innovations with orchestration, the audience effectively eavesdropping on a conversation that revolved around Berlioz’s ‘Idée fixe’. This was the main theme of the symphony, its music helpfully projected onto behind the players, so while we heard it in example form from the violins we were able to witness the close attention the composer paid to its phrasing and shaping.

The performance itself was helpfully pointed and often dramatically lit. The innovative orchestration was also spotlit, the four harps placed front of stage for the second movement, Un Bal, in the way Berlioz suggested. This movement ended with a wonderful effect from three glitterballs, held by the percussionists, bringing a starry night to the Royal Albert Hall. The woodwind were also brought forward at opportune moments, with the bassoons a threatening presence at the start of the March to the Scaffold.

In a very striking third movement, Scène aux champs, Patrick Flanaghan projected the shepherd’s theme out over the arena from his cor anglais, the answering call from fellow oboist John Roberts coming back to him from the stalls. This proved incredibly effective; even more so when the theme recurred at the end of the movement. With no answer forthcoming from the oboe, there sounded ominous distant thunder from the timpani.

This led us into the March to the Scaffold, where the brass – with more than a nod to historically informed performances – were superb. Yet the keenest drama was saved for last of all, each player donning a mask for the Witches’ Sabbath.

This final denouement showed the composer at his darkest and most vulnerable, the bells delivering the telling Dies irae from the gallery in another masterstroke of placement. With everyone in masks and the lights a dull red the Tolkien parallels were irresistible, especially when the percussionists were striking their instruments like orcs going to war. It would have been scary for any kids in the audience, for sure!

The planning for this occasion was extremely effective, the experience breathing new life into the Symphonie Fantastique for those who have seen it on several occasions, but also enticing new concertgoers through a much more audience-friendly approach, as you will see in our own Ask The Audience feature to come on Arcana.

It was a fitting way to complete the Proms commemorations of the Berlioz anniversary, with one of his most revolutionary scores made to sound like the ink was still drying on his page.

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 59: Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique & Sir John Eliot Gardiner – Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini (1836-38)

Opera in two acts (four scenes)
Music by Hector Berlioz
Libretto by Léon de Wailly, Auguste Barbier and Alfred de Vigny
Semi-staged performance, sung in French with English surtitles

Benvenuto Cellini – Michael Spyres (tenor)
Teresa – Sophia Burgos (soprano)
Fieramosca – Lionel Lhote (baritone)
Ascanio – Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano)
Giacomo Balducci – Maurizio Muraro (bass)
Pope Clement VII – Tareq Nazmi (bass)
Pompeo – Alex Ashworth (bass)
Innkeeper – Peter Davoren (tenor)
Francesco – Vincent Delhoume (tenor)
Bernardino – Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Perseus – Duncan Meadows (actor)

Stage director Noa Naamat
Lighting designer Rick Fisher
Costume designer Sarah Denise Cordery

Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (above)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 2 September 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The Proms has witnessed some memorable (and innovative) Berlioz performances – with this evening’s account of Benevento Cellini, itself the culmination of Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s Berlioz project leading up to the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death, an undoubted highpoint.

Not a little of its success was the effectiveness of this ‘staged concert performance’ – directed by Noa Naamat so as to make resourceful use of the Royal Albert Hall platform (who would have thought that singers hiding behind – antiphonally divided – second violins made so deft a theatrical conceit?), with unfussy costumes from Sarah Denise Cordery in keeping with the late-Renaissance setting and lighting from Rick Fisher as vividly expanded on the latter-day Proms procedure of illuminating the stage area. A presentation serving the opera admirably.

At least as significant was Gardiner’s pragmatism over just how much of the opera to include. Even at its Paris premiere in 1838, what was heard of Benvenuto Cellini was already distinct from what Berlioz had written; an issue further complicated by versions presented at Weimar during 1852-6. Taking the Urtext published in the New Berlioz Edition, Gardiner has arrived at a compromise which encompasses all the music one would reasonably hope to hear while vindicating this opera as an overall dramatic concept. Recklessly ambitious in its technical demands as it may have been, Cellini was always practicable as a dramatic undertaking and – akin to Prokofiev’s War and Peace a century later – giving a convincing shape to this excess of material is at least half the battle in ensuring its theatrical as well as its musical success.

Not the least of those technical demands is on the singers, and this cast did not disappoint. As Cellini, Michael Spyres (above) evinced all the necessary panache without buckling under some stentorian vocal requirements. He was ideally complemented by Sophia Burgos as a pert yet never too coquettish Teresa; her naivety thrown into relief by the machinations of her suitor Fieramosca, given with suitably hollow bravado by Lionel Lhote, and cynicism of her father Balducci – tellingly rendered by Maurizio Muraro. Adele Charvet made for an appealing and sympathetic Ascanio, with Alex Ashworth exuding appropriate pomposity as Pompeo. Peter Davoren’s cameo as the unctuous Innkeeper was matched by that of Tareq Nazmi as the self-aggrandizing Pope. The Monteverdi Choir brought off its crucial contributions with aplomb.

Inevitably it is the orchestra which so often steals the limelight in a work by Berlioz, and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique accordingly rose to the challenge. Of course, any performance of this music on ‘authentic’ instruments must contend with his assertions that the development of instrument-making and instrumental practice (notably within Germanic territories) was a necessary one. That said, he may have been reconciled to those limitations had his work been rendered with such timbral brilliance and intonational accuracy as here.

In building an ensemble of such consistency Gardiner takes especial credit, the more so as his performance demonstrably channelled its authentic credentials towards the spontaneous and creative reassessment of a masterpiece now receiving its due – even if many decades too late.

On record – Tabea Zimmermann, Stéphane Degout, Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth: Berlioz: Harold en Italie & Les Nuits d’été

Berlioz
Harold en Italie (1834)
Les Nuits d’été (1840-1841, orch. 1843 & 1856)

Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Stéphane Degout (baritone), Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth

Harmonia Mundi HMM 902634 [70’28”]

Recorded 2-3 March 2018 at Philharmonie de Paris

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Released earlier this year, this disc from Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth marks the 150th anniversary of the death of composer Hector Berlioz by looking at two of the composer’s biggest innovations. The ensemble use instruments of the period to create a sound similar to that which the composer might have heard.

What’s the music like?

Described as a ‘symphony in four parts with viola obbligato’, Harold In Italie is one of the first obvious ‘tone poems’. In it Berlioz uses the viola soloist to represent a traveller, but one who travels with others – in this case the orchestra, for the instrument operates alongside rather than in front of them. Harold is tuneful and fun, a spirited affair full of incident, enjoying the companionship between orchestra and solo viola, played here by Tabea Zimmermann.

Alongside it is one of the very first song cycles with orchestra, Les Nuits d’été. This collection sets five poems by Berlioz’s close friend Théophile Gautier, and was originally intended for more than one voice. Now they are more commonly heard with a mezzo-soprano soloist, but on this occasion Les Siècles are joined by baritone soloist, Stéphane Degout who sings the composer’s own adaptation.

Does it all work?

Yes. Despite quite a reverberant recording, Harold In Italie benefits from the brilliant playing and lean orchestral sound of Les Siècles, whose sharp edges are a real asset in dramatizing this work. The violin tremolos are sharp, the wind and brass sounds clear but with an appealing grit to them.

Zimmermann gets the balance just right, her virtuosity beyond reproach but her phrasing totally in keeping with the orchestra. Her first thoughts, just over three minutes in to the first movement (Harold aux montagnes), are the theme that will dominate the piece, and are ideally weighted against the harp, responding really well as the music becomes more energetic. As the travelling picks up speed, Les Siècles and Roth sound terrific in full flow.

When Zimmermann accompanies the Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (March of the Pilgrims) there is a too and fro between the jovial theme and the horns’ distant chime, which sounds like a warning. Zimmermann’s spidery string crossing half way through is particularly good, before the music disappears evocatively into the distance at the end.

The third movement Sérénade has an airy start before slowing for a theme initially heard on mellow cor anglais. The thrumming of the harp half way through lulls the listener into a lovely reverie, after which the sudden loud note to start the finale, Orgie de brigands, will make you jump! Roth’s relatively broad approach is capped here with music that really blooms under his direction, and as the finale veers out of control, Harold under the influence in a tavern, the swaggering discords are brilliantly achieved by Roth before the story rights itself, the sense of homecoming heightened.

Les nuits d’été (Summer nights) is enjoyable albeit with a slightly cooler temperature. The ear adjusts easily to the less common male protagonist, which in several songs means the music is sung lower than in the mezzo-soprano versions.

Stéphane Degout has an attractively rich, slightly nasal tone and a very clear diction, bringing a relatively carefree approach to Villanelle, with intimate strings. The voice really comes into its own in a warm account of Le Spectre de la rose, with shadowy figurations from the strings. Their lean tone adds an edge to the beginning of Sur les Lagunes, whose sombre beginning leads to a passionate outburst from the soloist. Absence and Au cimetière, Clair de lune are richly atmospheric, while the final L’Île inconnue is a cheery and optimistic affair.

The tempi are on the nippy side – second song Le Spectre de la rose, for instance, is more than a minute quicker than Dame Janet Baker’s celebrated account – but the phrasing still feels natural.

Is it recommended?

It is. Roth and his charges always bring a fresh approach to the music they play, and in Zimmermann and Degout they have two soloists ideally suited to the task. Zimmermann leads Harold en Italie with style and panache, while Degout’s rounded tones offer a new shade for Berlioz’s song cycle.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats visit the Presto website

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!