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

sarah-connolly

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

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

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 13 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live review – Hannah Hipp, CBSO / François Leleux: Mendelssohn & Berlioz

Hannah Hipp (mezzo-soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / François Leleux (conductor/oboe)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 December 2019

Mendelssohn Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Berlioz Les Nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1840/1, orch. 1856)
Mendelssohn arr. Tarkmann Five Songs Without Words (arr. 2009)
Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (1829-31, 1841/2)

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits François Leleux: © HR/Thomas Kost; Hannah Hipp: Matthew Plummer

No doubt about it – Mendelssohn is still a prime attraction in Birmingham, the near-capacity audience for last month’s Elijah at Symphony Hall matched by that at Town Hall for tonight’s programme in which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by François Leleux.

Oboists turned conductors have a formidable precedent in Heinz Holliger, but even he cannot often have directed from his instrument as did Leleux when, commencing the second half, he presided over a selection of Mendelssohn Songs Without Words in an appealing arrangement by Andreas Tarkmann. Lauded in their day only to be patronized by subsequent generations, the pieces retain a melodic appeal exemplified by Venetian Goldola Song as its centrepiece. Switching adeptly between playing and directing, Leleux certainly relished them to the full.

Prior to the interval, he had partnered mezzo Hannah Hipp (above) in Berlioz‘s Les nuits d’été. Often considered the first orchestral song-cycle, these six songs to texts by Theophile Gautier were only belatedly orchestrated and are linked more by shared expression then any overt thematic links. Nor are they easily encompassed by one singer, but Hipp tackled their highly distinct tessitura with some confidence – moving seamlessly from the whimsy of Villanelle, via the distanced eloquence of La Spectre de la rose to the enfolding inertia of Sur les lagunes; then from the stark anguish of Absence, via the poetic fatalism of Au cimetière, to the impulsive anticipation of L’ile inconnue. For his part, Leleux ensured that those diaphanous and subtly differentiated orchestral textures audibly underpinned the often heady emotional sentiments.

Pieces from Mendelssohn’s earlier and later maturity framed this concert. The overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains a teenage masterpiece by any standards, not least for its evocation of the spirit-world to whose quicksilver elegance the CBSO did ample justice. If the more demonstrative passages sounded a little too generalized in expression, there was no lack of projection overall or doubt as to Leleux’s welding of these elements into an integrated whole. Only the forward ambience of the refurbished Town Hall prevented a true pianissimo.

Dynamic niceties are less of an issue with the Scottish Symphony, its lengthy gestation likely indicating a summative intention on the part of the composer. The first movement’s resigned introduction was superbly rendered, though the ensuing Allegro lacked focus in its trenchant development and surging coda. Not over-driven as often can be, the Scherzo exuded humour alongside its incisiveness, while the Adagio had both grace and suppleness to offset any risk of earnestness or stolidity. Nor did the finale want for energy or purpose, and if Leleux was more insightful during its hesitant transition than the triumphal apotheosis that follows, there was no doubting the underlying conclusiveness with which it rounded off this most inclusive and ambitious of Mendelssohn’s orchestral works – to the evident delight of those present.

A well balanced and immensely enjoyable concert, then, which further attests to the rapport that Leleux enjoys with these musicians. The CBSO is back in Symphony Hall next Thursday for another of the orchestra’s Centenary Commissions alongside music by Elgar and Brahms.

Further listening

With the exception of the Songs Without Words arrangements, the music in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. This includes recent recordings of the Mendelssohn pieces by the CBSO themselves, conducted by Edward Gardner:

For further information on the orchestra’s next concert, under their chief conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, click here

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