BBC Proms #49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony

Prom 49 – Louise Alder, Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Birtwistle Donum Simoni MMXVIII (2018)
Mahler Symphony no.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 24 August 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

The words of Gustav Mahler were never more appropriate than in the context of this exceptional BBC Proms concert, as Sir Simon Rattle and assembled forces from London and Birmingham threw body and soul into a spectacular performance of the composer’s Symphony no.2.

This, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony, puts its listener through the emotional wringer on a journey inhabiting life and death itself. The work has become a calling card for Rattle, too – he marked the opening of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with a memorable performance in 1991, and took his leave of the CBSO with the same piece. Here, as he prepares to step down as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, he was marking the turning of a page through a move to pastures new in Bavaria, where he will become Chief Conductor of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Bavarian Radio Chorus.

The pastures were a standout feature of this performance – but we began in turmoil, the huge first movement funeral march rumbling into gear with lines hewn from granite in the lower strings. Rattle pushes this movement forward much more than he once did, keeping a firm hand on the tiller, but with immediate and full immersion in Mahler’s thoughts. As the first movement took shape the horrors of death revealed themselves – along with hopes of sunnier climes through some beautifully shaded rustic scenes. Yet the chill winds kept returning, ultimately sweeping these away as the movement closed in their bleak acceptance.

Many accounts of the ‘Resurrection’ lose their focus at this point, but not this one. Instead we had a balletic triple time Ländler, danced with grace as the feather-light strings had their charming way. The main theme swelled like a newly budding flower, and although ghoulish reminders of the first movement persisted, this was the abiding impression. As Rattle pressed on without a break, however, the reveries were abruptly quashed by the hammer and tongs of the third movement Scherzo. Here the music twisted and turned sharply, the LSO responding to its conductor with peerless virtuosity in music of fire and brimstone. Percussion, wind and brass were superb.

Then, as the music teetered on the point of collapse, it was time to be borne away with the consoling tones of Dame Sarah Connolly (above, right). A consummate Mahlerian, she sang with compelling strength and grace, a powerful stage presence in league with Rattle, who presided over accompaniment of the greatest clarity. Connolly’s Urlicht was beautifully judged, taking us ever nearer to the wondrous entry of the choir.

Now time stood still. The audience, especially in the arena, were rooted to the spot at the massed choirs of the CBSO Chorus and London Symphony Chorus, singing as one in magically hushed tones. As the finale took shape it was by turns earth-moving and tender. Scenes flashed before the eyes, and an especially vivid episode from brass and percussion in the gallery observed a village-band intimacy. Here the Royal Albert Hall was utilised to its full potential, managing the wide scope of Mahler’s vision to perfection.

At the centre of this apocalyptic finale, percussion depicted the rising of the dead and the release of their chains, Rattle intentionally dragging his feet here to heighten the seismic impact. And then we were free, the resurrection itself met with blazing colours all around as the choirs sang Friedrich Klopstock’s text ‘Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst di’ (‘Rise again, yea rise again, shalt thou’) as though their lives depended on it. Was it fanciful to suggest three years’ worth of pent-up emotion being released at this point? Probably not, when you consider the day-to-day roles of the choral singers themselves – carers, key workers, parents and children alike – with all finding the time and the need to bring us this music of the utmost quality.

Great credit should go to chorus director Simon Halsey for securing such discipline and humanity in the texts, and to soprano Louise Alder (both above with Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Simon Rattle). Alder sang above the masses with perfectly judged dynamics and phrasing, like Connolly fully aware of the scope of her role. Organist Richard Gowers added the icing on the cake, underpinning the throng with ideally judged balance.

This was a performance to talk about for years to come, a throwing-open of the doors to proclaim that music can – really – triumph over pretty much anything, the ‘Resurrection’ symphony, clearing everything in its path.

As an upbeat to the symphony we heard a short gift to Rattle from Sir Harrison Birtwistle, to whose memory the Prom was dedicated.  Donum Simoni MMXVIII was typical of its composer, a spiky and even snarky postcard firing out missives from the (superb) percussion section against barbed comments from wind and brass. Lasting barely four minutes, it served its function well – but for tonight, as Mahler would have wished, the symphony was everything.

You can listen to Sir Simon Rattle’s recording of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony on Spotify below, where the CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra are joined by soloists Arleen Auger and Dame Janet Baker:

In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Antonio Pappano – Respighi & Dallapiccola

Respighi Vetrate di Chiesa (1925-6)
Dallapiccola Il prigioniero (1944-8) {Sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Ángeles Blancas Gulín (soprano – Mother), Eric Greene (baritone – Prisoner), Stefano Secco (tenor – Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor), Egor Zhuravskii (tenor – First Priest), Chuma Sijeqa (bass-baritone – Second Priest), London Symphony Chorus, Guildhall School Singers, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano

Barbican Hall, London

Sunday 5 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse Pictures (c) Mark Allan Photography

This second of the London Symphony Orchestra’s two concerts of Italian music with chief conductor designate Sir Antonio Pappano consisted of two pieces that brought the aesthetic and political divisions of Italy between the world wars into acute while always productive focus.

It might have originated in piano pieces written for his wife, but Respighi’s Church Windows duly emerged among the most opulent and evocative of his orchestral works. That both title and subtitles were postpriori additions does not lessen their relevance – not least as concerns The Flight into Egypt, its tense understatement a telling foil to the ensuing Saint Michael the Archangel with its warlike images rendered graphically by brass and percussion, before climaxing in one of the most theatrical of tam-tam crashes as Satan is banished from Heaven.

Not that Respighi was averse to gentler expression as appropriate, The Matins of Saint Clare featuring orchestration of unfailing finesse on its raptly expressive course. Inevitably, it is the magisterial finale of Saint Gregory the Great when this composer comes most fully into his own – its cumulative fervour drawing on all aspects of the sizable forces for what becomes a heady apotheosis. Music, indeed, that needs to be realized with discipline and focus to avoid overkill, which was certainly the case in a performance where the LSO left nothing to chance.

The London Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Chorus conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano perform Ottorino Respighi Church Windows Luigi Dallapiccola Il prigioniero In the Barbican Hall (Ángeles Blancas Gulin Mother, Eric Greene Prisoner, Stefano Secco Gaoler / Grand Inquisitor, Egor Zhuravskii First priest, Chuma Sijeqa Second priest ) on Friday, 3 June 2022. Photo by Mark Allan

Whereas Respighi pays (indirect) tribute to Italy’s cultural greatness, Dallapiccola exposes its darker recesses in his one-act opera The Prisoner. Composed over several years that span the decline and fall of Mussolini’s Italian empire, its libretto is drawn from the novel by the late 19th century author Villiers de l’Isle-Adam whose title Torture by Hope became subtitle for this opera by intimating the culmination of a scenario set during one of the grimmest periods in the Spanish Inquisition. By this time, Dallapiccola had evolved that distinctively personal brand of serialism which served him thereafter, but his knowledge of and devotion to Italian opera meant that those more methodical or systematic aspects are harnessed to an emotional fervour as makes for a consistently powerful and often moving while harrowing experience.

The performance was a compulsive one – centred upon Eric Greene’s assumption of the title-role that built gradually to an apex of elation suddenly and cruelly denied. The opening stage is dominated by the Mother – rendered with unfailing charisma yet never wanton melodrama by Ángeles Blancas Gulín, and Stefano Secco brought hardly less conviction to the twin-role of the Gaoler whose urgings to remain steadfast assume a chilling tone when he is revealed as the Grand Inquisitor. There were telling cameos from Egor Zhuruvskii and Chuma Sijeqa as the Priests, with the London Symphony Chorus and Guildhall School Singers combining to potent effect in offstage Psalm settings – the final one a climax of sombre grandeur. Pappano directed with absolute assurance an opera he doubtless, and rightly so, ranks with the finest.

It brought this enterprising and superbly executed concert to an impressive close. One only hopes Pappano will have the opportunity to programme further such music over the coming seasons: the enthusiastic response suggested an almost full house would be there it hear it.

To read more on the London Symphony Orchestra’s current season, visit their website. For more information on the artists involved, click on the names for Antonio Pappano, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Eric Greene, Stefano Secco, Egor Zhuravskii and Chuma Sijega

In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Antonio Pappano – Petrassi, Puccini & De Sabata

G. Gabrieli Canzoni – primi toni a 8; duodecimi toni a 8 (c1597)
Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins in B minor RV580 / Op.3/10
Petrassi Concerto for Orchestra No. 5 (1954-5)
Puccini Capriccio sinfonico (1883)
De Sabata Juventus (1919)

Benjamin Gilmore, Julia Ungureanu, Julián Gil Rodríguez, Thomas Norris (violins), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano

Barbican Hall, London

Thursday 2 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What better way to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee than with two concerts providing a decent overview of Italian orchestral music with the London Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor designate Sir Antonio Pappano. That relatively little of this music has managed to enter the standard repertoire only makes revivals such as these the more worthwhile.

Tonight’s programme began off-stage with two Canzoni by Giovanni Gabrieli played by LSO brass from the centre of the lower circle – Pappano facing the audience to conduct. Although a more spacious and terraced acoustic would have presented these to better advantage, their hieratic grandeur as well as intricately contrapuntal texture was an admirable foil to Vivaldi‘s Concerto for Four Violins which followed onstage. Published in his ground-breaking collection L’estro armonico, its bracing outer Allegros frame a brief while unpredictable Largo whose disjunctive contrasts of tempo and technique brought the best out of a quartet drawn from the LSO front desks and notably well-matched in temperament.

From the early 18th to mid-20th century was less of an aesthetic wrench than might be thought, the Fifth Concerto for Orchestra by Goffredo Petrassi embodying various of those facets as set out by his musical antecedents. Written for the Boston Symphony and long-serving director Charles Munch, this is arguably the most representative of its composer’s eight such works in its amalgam of technical virtuosity with that personal adaptation of serial thinking which Petrassi pursued during the post-war era. Moreover, its outwardly simple format of two movements each following a slow-fast trajectory belies a subtler and more organic evolution – such that an atmospheric prelude intensifies into a capricious scherzo whose provisional close makes possible what follows. Here, an increasingly restive intermezzo elides into a Dionysian toccata with brass and percussion to the fore – then a pensive epilogue returns the music to the inwardness from which it had emerged. A superb performance from the LSO, and a timely revival of this not so minor masterpiece.

His operas brought the orchestral component of Italian opera to a new level of sophistication, but Puccini wrote little for orchestra alone. Essentially his graduation exercise, Capriccio sinfonico is equally a ‘statement of intent’ with its unfolding from a sombre opening (later to be redeployed in Edgar), through an energetic central phase (its main idea familiar as the opening of La bohème), to a modified reprise of that first section which brings about a gently fatalistic close. Pappano duly guided the LSO through an assured reading of music known ‘by default’, making one regret that Puccini’s later focus on opera to the virtual exclusion of all else left no comparable orchestral work from his maturity.

Much the same might be said of Victor de Sabata (above), whose international career as a conductor from his late thirties left him with little time or inclination to compose. A sequence of symphonic poems from around the early 1920s confirms sure mastery of the orchestra, and if Juventus is hardly the deepest of these, its dramatic flair and gestural immediacy are not to be gainsaid. Here, too, there is a three-part structure – the vaunting aspiration of youth becoming subsumed into the trials and setbacks which come with experience, before a revival of those earlier convictions ensures a close of blazing affirmation. Other composers might have invested such a sequence with a dialectical sense of change and attainment, but de Sabata is content to take these implications at face value – while investing his music with a greater subtlety and resourcefulness than it has often been credited for (not least by the writer of this evening’s programme note). This was certainly evident in Pappano’s take on a piece which could yet attract plaudits for other than its name.

As if mindful of the context in which this concert was heard, Pappano opened the second half with a rendering of the National Anthem – somewhat to the surprise of an audibly bemused audience, and presumably not to be repeated for Sunday’s follow-up programme that features Respighi and Dallapiccola at their (very different) communicative best.

To read more on the London Symphony Orchestra’s current season, visit their website

Radu Lupu – An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood

Yesterday was a particularly sad day in the world of classical music, and over the next few days Arcana will be paying tribute to three musical figures.

Sadly the death of Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (above) was announced, at the age of 76. A full tribute can be found on the Gramophone magazine website, where Lupu’s standing as an artist of great repute and dignity can be fully appreciated.

I did not see him perform live, sadly, but have looked back over Lupu’s relatively small and perfectly formed discography to choose a few personal favourites. I have chosen purely solo piano music, as this is where I have encountered his wonderful storytelling most often – and include music by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Here the extent of his storytelling ability can be witnessed – not to mention his instinctive musical phrasing.

Bernard Haitink – An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood

Last week we heard the sad news of the death of Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink at the ripe old age of 92.

Haitink was a special man indeed, seen by many as the last in a long line of ‘old school’ conductors. He was an artist of great craftsmanship and elegance, who earned the respect of his peers through an incredibly long career that only ended in 2019.

The tributes flooding in from ensembles the conductor worked with say everything about Haitink as a man. The Salzburg Festival declared, “The music world has lost one of its very greatest. His aim was never to triumph; probably that is why his interpretations became such triumphs.” The Berliner Philharmoniker praised how “He always impressed and inspired us with his qualities – his great craftsmanship, his perfect knowledge of the score, his warm, noble bearing.” From Sir Simon Rattle, an insight borne of personal experience: “He was one of the rare giants of our time, and even rarer and more precious, a giant full of humility. My dear Bernard, we keep you deep in our hearts.”

Like many people I have had the pleasure of listening to Haitink’s recordings for many years, but my first live memories go back to the first ever BBC Proms concert I attended in September 1997. There he conducted the European Union Youth Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony no.7, following a sensitive account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 where the soloist was Emanuel Ax. By coincidence the same works and soloist featured at Haitink’s last Prom in 2019, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic.

I also saw Haitink at the Proms in 2005, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra as soloist Hélène Grimaud performed the Ravel Piano Concerto. After the interval, Haitink gave a characteristically poised account of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, which left its mark on this particular listener for days:

I remember too a very special pair of Proms in 2011, Haitink and Ax united once again for Brahms with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, one of several ensembles with which the conductor forged a special relationship.

As a recording artist, Haitink gave us a vast array of special symphony, concerto and opera recordings. He recorded multiple symphony cycles of Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann, not to mention landmark collections of Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams symphonies with the Concertgebouw and London Philharmonic Orchestras, and fine cycles of Rachmaninov and Beethoven piano concertos with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alfred Brendel respectively. That’s before we even get to opera! There he delivered much-loved recordings of Mozart, Wagner, Richard Strauss and Britten to highlight just a few.

I have delved into the discography for a set of recordings with personal significance – which can be accessed on the Spotify playlist below. They include Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich and begin with Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is safe to say that Bernard Haitink will occupy a special place in the heart of many a musician and listener, and this gives just a small number of reasons why: