BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams and Beethoven begin the festivities

The first night of the BBC Proms is a watershed moment in the summer of a classical music lover. Yet increasingly the festival is working on being more inclusive, and some of this year’s BBC Proms Youth Choir (seen above the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner) had not even sung in public before, let alone attended the festival.

Such is the uniting power of one of Britain’s favourite summer institutions, and once again it was off to a flyer with the customary big choral work (John AdamsHarmonium) a world premiere (Tom Coult‘s St John’s Dance) and a high profile solo contribution from Igor Levit, whose account of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 met and surpassed its heady expectations.

Both Levit and Coult had political undertones to their work. Coult’s new composition depicted the madness of the Middle Ages, people possessed by an all-encompassing dance of death that drove them into dangerous physical and mental situations. A parallel, you might think, for today’s superpowers and the shocking news they bring on a daily basis. Whether these references were intentional or not, it was good to have a new piece that started quietly, with a deliberately fragile violin solo, and built to its bigger moments.

Levit (above, at the piano) also had quiet asides, but his were absolutely spellbinding – the first movement cadenza and slow movement introduction in Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 both cases in point. Here we could easily have been back at the Wigmore Hall, witnessing a solo sonata performed to a select few, such was the intensity of his communication at a quiet dynamic. When he was with the orchestra the intensity subsided a little, not least because the balance favoured a coarse timpani sound. That said, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra woodwind was particularly beautiful under Edward Gardner’s watchful eye.

Levit had great things to say, his mind clearly at one with Beethoven’s moods and melodic invention. His use of silence was keenly sensitive, the tension evident in a brooding opening movement and deeply thoughtful Largo. The Rondo finale freed itself from the confines, skipping to a more obvious beat – but then Levit delivered a deeply felt encore, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (from the Choral Symphony finale) reduced to first principles and played to emphasise its role as an anthem of European unity. It was a provocative statement of which Leonard Bernstein – who conducted the Choral symphony in the unification concert when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 – would have been proud.

Finally we went for broke, with the 400-strong throng of the BBC Proms Youth Choir, brilliantly drilled and tirelessly rehearsed to deliver a moving and colourful performance of John AdamsHarmonium. Here too there were powerful statements in settings of the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and Edward Gardner ensured they were delivered with great clarity and breadth. The thrill of Adams’ colourful music as it generated momentum was as strong as ever, and the percussionists of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in particular deserve great credit for their dexterity, rhythmic power and definition.

As a side note, what a shame to lose the ‘Further Listening and Reading’ section from the Proms programme this time around. It has been my ‘go to’ page ever since I started going to the Proms, and to not have it there feels like an unnecessary omission, even with the introduction of a new Listening Service – Tom, that is. Books are important in classical music, and so are recorded statements. To lose them from the programme is disappointing.

That said – how great  it is to have the festival back, confirming the ascent of summer in thrilling style. Eight weeks of great music lie ahead!

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou)

This year Arcana will once again have two different approaches to its coverage of the BBC Proms. There will be a few straight ‘reviewed’ concerts, but the focus of our coverage will be on taking people to the Proms who have not been before.

To that end our reviews will come from first-time punters chosen from a pool of friends and contacts – many of whom will see things that us regulars do not! Most reviews will be from the Arena, which is the ultimate Proms experience – and which to my knowledge is the best part of the Royal Albert Hall for sound quality and atmosphere.

No other source reviews from here as far as I am aware…so stick with Arcana in the weeks ahead, particularly through August. We will look to bring classical music to new audiences on a weekly basis!

The Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and Stéphane Denève in Beethoven, Guillaume Connesson and Respighi

brussels-philharmonicBrussels Philharmonic Orchestra (above, picture courtesy of Samsung)

Richard Whitehouse on a visit from the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor to the Cadogan Hall, offering a rare chance to hear the music of Guillaume Connesson.

Cadogan Hall, Thursday 29 September 2016

Beethoven Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Connesson Flammenschrift (Letters of Fire) (2012); E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare (And clear in the valley the river appears) (2015)

Respighi Pini di Roma (1924)

Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra / Stéphane Denève

This evening’s concert brought a welcome visit from the Brussels Philharmonic and current music director Stéphane Denève, his advocacy of new music evident in the inclusion of two recent pieces by Guillaume Connesson which were performed on either side of the interval.

Now in his mid-40s, this French composer conjures a wide range of influences from François Couperin, via Wagner and Strauss, to Dutilleux and the film music of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams (a pity the programme book included no biography either of Connesson or the orchestra – while being dominated by an absorbing if, in context, overly detailed note on the Beethoven).

These pieces are the first two parts of a symphonic trilogy, with Flammenschrift both an evocation of Beethoven and a tribute to the ‘golden age’ of Germanic music. Strauss does indeed make a fleeting appearance during the more lyrical central episode; otherwise, it is the incisive neo-classicism of Honegger that comes most readily to mind, with the relentless rhythmic drive generating an impetus maintained right through to the effervescent final pages.

Taking its title from lines by the early nineteenth-century poet Giacomo Leopardi, E chiaro nelle valle il fiume appare is ostensibly the slow movement of this sequence – its alternately ethereal and passionate manner recalling the later music of Roussel (notably the Adagio from the Third Symphony), with Connesson proving hardly less adept in controlling the expressive momentum of music such as borders on without quite spilling over into overkill. Presumably the questioning tone on which it ends is answered by Maslenitsa, the final part of this trilogy.

Make no mistake, Connesson is a composer in which formal security is allied to an orchestral sense of considerable flamboyance. Interesting that, along with older contemporaries such as Nicolas Bacri, he should draw inspiration from an earlier era of French music – bypassing the serial complexity of Boulez or the harmonic intricacy of Grisey or Murail. Accessible without being facile, his music may yet gain regular hearings here, and there could be no doubting the conviction with which orchestra and conductor presented it to tonight’s appreciative audience.

Nor was the Brussels orchestra found wanting in the familiar works which opened and closed proceedings. A viable first half in itself, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony did not fit into its present context: Denève secured a fluent if rarely insightful reading, as its best in an animated take on the first movement and appealingly jaunty scherzo, but there was a lack of inwardness and repose elsewhere; while an almost complete absence of vibrato from the strings gave their playing an unyielding quality emphasized by the forward ambience of the Cadogan acoustic.

More successful overall was Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the second and most enduring part of a ‘Roman triptych’ by which he remains best known to posterity. Denève found humour amid the frenzy of the ‘Villa borghese’ then drama in the sombre musings ‘near a Catacomb’. The sensuousness of the ‘Janiculum’ saw an amusing cameo from the percussionist operating the gramophone record of a nightingale, whereas the crescendo of the ‘Appian Way’ brought a frisson of excitement abetted by offstage brass and organ that fairly brought the house down.

The Brussels Philharmonic performs the final part of Connesson’s trilogy on 9 April, 2017. Further details at the Cadogan Hall website

Meanwhile further information on the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra can be found from their website

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tim Squier on Beethoven, Dutilleux and HK Gruber

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
gruber-buskingThis is the continuation of a series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Tim Squier gives his thoughts on Prom 34.

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion), Mats Bergström, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Dutilleux Timbres, espaces, movement (1990)
Gruber Busking (2007)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor (1804-1808)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Tim, what was your musical upbringing?

It was my mum that brought me up, and in terms of music it’s not worth going there really! It was very middle of the road – Cliff Richard, some of The Beatles. I discovered most things myself pretty much, she would have the radio on sometimes – but when I first discovered my own music it was via an alarm clock, an FM radio that she gave me. It was all the pop of the time in 1984-1986 – Madonna, Prince, A-ha, your Now 1984. Certainly in my early years there was Band Aid – and I wasn’t particularly cool. There wasn’t anything of a classical background in there!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Harold Budd is a big one for me. I do love my ambient and he doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong really. He just seems to have a certain emotion and style where you can just get lost in it. It can be background but it can be foreground as well. I can work to it, and not be fully tuned in, or I can be sitting down and listening to it and it works just as well.

I’m going for artists who have been with me for a long time, and Fleetwood Mac are an act that I could never really get enough of. They’ve gone through different phases like the 1980s pop side but I can also do the Peter Green stuff, and the Stevie Nicks especially. I just keep discovering new things off the albums too, like Oh Daddy from Rumours recently. Stevie Nicks solo – just brilliant, too. Not every single track but she’s the sort of person you can see her rehearsal footage on YouTube and it’s amazing. I’m watching it thinking it’s better than the album version!

For the third one I’ll go for someone electronic – Carl Craig. Certainly between 1990 and 1996 where he couldn’t put a foot wrong. He could do an ambient track, a banging techno track, stuff that doesn’t all into a genre – something for the dancefloor, something for the home. Carl recorded a lot of that on cassette tape, it didn’t sound very good but still did the business!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I think almost unintentionally my first experience of anything like classical music would have been through film scores. One of my best friends in London has been responsible for playing me some classical music but not so much for a long time now. I have been to one Prom before but it was a long time ago and I can’t remember the actual pieces – but I know I enjoyed it. I quite enjoy listening to it but I don’t know much about it. I’ve heard some Ravel before, and quite enjoyed that.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

The Royal Albert Hall is always a joy, it’s a great venue – and the acoustics are really good for classical rather than pop I think. I really rated the first piece (the Dutilleux) and enjoyed that the most I think.

What did you think of the Dutilleux?

It was thoroughly enjoyable, I’m a real sucker for that deep sound from the lower strings – there is a certain orchestral sound I really love, the lower frequency, and you get a lot of that in film scores. There was a lot of that coming through and it flowed really well. I wasn’t bored at all, I really loved it.

What did you think of the HK Gruber?

It started out interesting, and the introduction was good, but the trumpet was too much of a focal point and I found myself drifting out. I was trying to listen to the background more but because of the positioning I was trying to hear what was going on my right hand side, but every time I tried I could hear the trumpet. There was a variety of devices going on (the mutes and three different trumpets – Ed) I’ll always give things a chance, and I tried but it didn’t work out!

And the Beethoven?

That was really enjoyable, a nice take on it – it’s been a while since I heard the entire piece and I think it really worked. There were some quirky moments, it was great watching the whole orchestra. There was one really young player who really stood out (oboist Henry Clay), he was really good. Another thing going back to the first piece, the Dutilleux – the percussion was great. With the Beethoven I loved the whole thing and there was a really nice stereo effect coming through, the clarity was there more and I could pick up on certain things, especially being a bit of an audiophile.

There are bits you forget as well – you don’t get them played on Capital Radio four times a day after all! It was good to hear those. So I think the Dutilleux first, then the Beethoven, then the Gruber.

Would you go again?

Absolutely, for sure. I’m quite open to new musical experiences and will try most things but would do this again!

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can read Arcana’s review of the whole Prom here – and you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

BBC Proms 2016 – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven’s Fifth, Dutilleux & HK Gruber

gruber-busking

Soloists Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion) and Mats Bergström (banjo) pictured during the performance of HK Gruber‘s Busking, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 34; Royal Albert Hall, 10 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Sakari Oramo continues to inspire. His tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to date has been characterised by imaginative programming and excellent performances, and putting an obvious spring in the orchestra’s musical steps.

Last year they delivered a Prom capped by Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, an account that fizzed with enthusiasm and vigour, and these same qualities were on show for the Fifth Symphony here. Oramo’s speeds were on the aggressive side, the slow movement arguably losing a bit of expressive heart because of it, but the faster movements unquestionably thrilling in their verve and forward drive.

Because of this approach, music that could have been over familiar received a new, sparkling coat of paint, and excellent woodwind contributions, particularly from new oboist Henry Clay, elevated the standard of playing. Guest leader Malin Broman set the tone with great vigour.

The first half gave us two contemporary pieces of very different impact. Timbres, espaces, movement became a three-movement orchestral piece when Henri Dutilleux revised it in 1990, and in this performance we could revel in its beautifully shaded colours, its sudden, strident unisons, and its captivating rhythms – all reflecting the painting on which it is based, Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

1280px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

These were expertly delivered by the BBC Symphony percussion, while in the second movement the glorious spectacle of twelve cellos highlighted the genius in the composer’s part writing as well as the deep lyricism of his melodies. This was the third Dutilleux performance of the week, capping a very strong trio begun with The Shadows of Time and the Cello Concerto Tout un monde lointain…

Less obviously successful was the substantial piece by HK Gruber, Busking – a work from 2007 receiving its UK premiere. Again the composer’s inspiration was a painting, in this case Picasso’s Three Musicians:

Picasso_three_musicians_moma_2006

Despite an excellent performance, in which trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger turned various shades of red and purple, all the while staying fully in command of his instruments, this was a piece that unfortunately ran out of steam quite early on.

A very promising beginning, with swaying syncopation brought on by the trumpeter with just his mouthpiece, ultimately lost its rhythmic impetus. Unfortunately the balance between the three soloists also became skewed heavily in favour of the trumpet, at the expense of brilliantly played detail from accordion (Claudia Buder) and banjo (Mats Bergström).

A doleful slow movement briefly evoked a melancholy cabaret, and did so very effectively, but here again the tones of the trumpet dominated, despite Hardenberger’s use of the mellow flugelhorn. This was not the fault of the players – and could also reflect Arcana’s position in the arena – but it was a shame to miss out on the touches of humour elsewhere. By the third movement, where some energy returned, the piece had by that time run out of substance.

That should not count against the overall success of this Prom, however, as the excellent performances of the BBC Symphony Orchestra reaped their just rewards.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear other Dutilleux performances at the BBC Proms by following the links below:

The Shadows of Time with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Tout un monde lointain… with Johannes Moser (cello) and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena

Wigmore Mondays – Ensemble Marsyas and Kristian Bezuidenhout

Ensemble Marsyas, Kristian Bezuidenhout (left)

Ensemble Marsyas (Josep Domènech Lafont (oboe), Nicola Boud (clarinet), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Peter Whelan (bassoon), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 11 July 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07jhwk7

Available until 10 August

What’s the music?

Mozart Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major, K451 (1784) (23 minutes)

Beethoven Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major, Op.16 (1796) (24 minutes)

Spotify

Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Ensemble Marsyas have not recorded this music, but in case the broadcast link does not work the Spotify playlist below gives alternative versions from pianist Stephen Hough and the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, available on BIS:

About the music

Mozart held his quintet in extremely high regard in comparison with the rest of his output. Its first performance was part of a marathon concert that also featured the Linz and Haffner symphonies, but all the composer could talk about was his satisfaction with the new quintet. It does mark something of a departure, being the first work for the combination of piano and wind quartet, and the writing for both is superb.

In some of his early works Beethoven was consciously using instrumental combinations already mastered by Mozart, and applying his own stamp to them. The early string trios, piano trios and this quintet for piano and wind are all examples. Typically he does things his way in all of them, and in the quintet the piano really does take the lead, perhaps betraying the fact that Beethoven was about to publish his first two piano concertos.

It is an ambitious work, with a particularly sizeable first movement, and in the second Beethoven allows each of the wind instruments a chance to shine in a solo capacity.

Performance verdict

There is something about the sonic combination of piano and wind that is enormously comforting, either as late night / early morning listening or in a concert experience. To say it was invented by Mozart may be stretching things a little far, but it is seemingly the earliest work to put the combined forces together, followed by Beethoven in his early ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mode.

The two make a good concert coupling, especially when the performances are as good as these. Kristian Bezuidenhout is a musician who easily dispels the fears among some concert goers that the fortepiano is a tinny instrument of little sound quality. He gets his phrases to really sing, especially in quiet moments, and throughout the more graceful parts of both pieces he played several melting passages of music.

The wind players were every bit as good, led more obviously in the Mozart by oboist dfgd or in the Beethoven by the bright timbre of clarinettist Nicola Loud. Alec Frank-Gemmill wrestled manfully with the difficulties of natural horn to produce a lovely sound, while on occasion the bassoon of Peter Whelan had a timbre resembling a baritone saxophone. When all four played together it was a beautiful sound, sometimes rough around the edges in a most appealing way, reminding us that there is such a thing as over-polished performance!

One of the most enjoyable Wigmore concerts of the 2015-16 season, closing the series with a flourish and well worth hearing. As a postscript, it is worth noting Ensemble Marsyas were formed as a result of relationships formed in the European Union Baroque Orchestra. Would such a thing be possible after the UK leaves the union? Very unlikely!

What should I listen out for?

Mozart

2:02 – a slow introduction, where the tonality of E flat is established – but where the sonorities of the wind instruments are also made clear, as though Mozart were introducing the new idea to his audience. Then at 4:08 we hear the start of the allegro, introduced by the piano then passed over to the winds. This is a genial piece of music, like listening to a conversation between musical friends, and Mozart develops his ideas comprehensively, a good example occurring at 8:44.

12:05 the slow movement, a beautifully restrained introduction followed by solos for clarinet, oboe and then horn, Mozart giving each of the treble instruments their chance to shine. The fortepiano – reclaiming melody at 13:28 – is very much part of the ensemble. The horn gets a bigger solo at 16:08, part of a central section deeper on feeling.

19:37 – the fortepiano begins the finale with a detached and relatively simple theme that gains more colour when the woodwind repeat it. This tune becomes more of an earworm as the piece progresses.

Beethoven

28:15 – a subdued fanfare signals the beginning of the quintet from the wind, answered by a profound statement on the piano. This is a slow introduction, and a grand one at that, before the fast movement proper gets underway at 30:51, with some lively exchanges between the instruments and a number of tricky runs on the piano.

41:02 – a gentle start to the first movement, the fortepiano playing a figure that sounds like a lullaby. The sonorous tones of the wind instruments are soon in play with the same material, before solos from all four. The piano returns to the lullaby material at 45:12.

47:17 – the finale starts with a tune on the piano that you know is going to be whistled by the end of the concert! It is a perky and optimistic melody, often assigned to the bright clarinet timbre. When piecked up by the wind its dance character comes through, and for the rest of the movement it is developed and repeated.

Further listening

Not too long after the pieces in this concert were composed and performed, Rossini wrote six sonatas for string ensemble, published in 1804. Around twenty years later, Frédéric Berr thought these would be suitable when arranged for wind quartet – and so it proved. They make a very enjoyable hour’s music, making absolutely no demands on the listener!