The 2016 BBC Proms are go! Here’s what happened in Prom 1…

proms-2016

The national flag of Argentina waves in response to Sol Gabetta‘s account of the Elgar Cello Concerto

(c) Ben Hogwood

The BBC Proms are go!

The 2016 season is underway, and in a packed Royal Albert Hall this evening we were treated to the first of 75 Proms. As is traditional Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave us a flavour of the season, but also a substantial second half in the form of Prokofiev‘s cantata and film score, Alexander Nevsky.

To begin, a sad reflection of the world’s troubles could be keenly felt in La Marseillaise, the Proms showing solidarity with France after the horrors in Nice. After such an event music can feel inconsequential but it can also bring people together and provide some sort of comfort – and in the big, swooning tunes of Tchaikovsky‘s Romeo and Juliet Oramo provided just that. The woodwind chorale on the approach to the end was particularly moving.

Sol Gabetta then stamped her own personality on Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, taking a few liberties with the tempo – but none of these were for personal gain, rather reflecting her own interpretation of the music. The pauses at the end of some of Elgar’s phrases were unexpected but profound, while the silvery accompaniment of the BBC SO spoke of Autumn rather than our supposed high summer. Gabetta’s encore, Dolcissimo by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, found her singing as well as playing cello, reducing the Royal Albert Hall to reverent silence.

Things got even colder for Prokofiev‘s film score Alexander Nevsky, though there were thrilling moments when the massed choir of the BBC National Chorus of Wales – just over 200 in all – let rip. The basses reached their lowest notes with commendable accuracy, while the Battle On The Ice, where Nevsky faces his German and Estonian foes, was thrilling and immediate.

Yet the show was stolen by Olga Borodina, the Russian mezzo-soprano ghosting onto the stage for a keenly felt account of The Field of the Dead near the end. Her emotion was first hand, and Oramo’s sensitive hand on the tiller encouraged a similarly heartfelt response from the orchestra.

It was a concert that bodes well for the season – and this year Arcana is planning 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 of Proms will not be by experts, rather by first-time punters chosen from a pool of friends and contacts. Further to that, all reviews will be from the Arena, which is the ultimate Proms experience – and which to my knowledge is the best place for sound quality, let alone atmosphere.

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

Ben Hogwood

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

skride

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

Wigmore Hall, London, 2 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

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

Available until 31 May

What’s the music?

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

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

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

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

Spotify

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

About the music

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

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

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

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

Performance verdict

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

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

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

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

What should I listen out for?

Sibelius

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

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

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

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

Vasks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rautavaara

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

Nielsen

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

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

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

Encore

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

Further listening

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

On record: Vasks: Orchestral Works (Wergo)

vasks

“I consider empathy for the sufferings of the world to be my works’ point of departure”. This quotation from the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks sums up his approach to his music, making a specific reference to the horrors endured by the Latvian people in the wake of the Second World War.

It also infuses the orchestral music on this disc, played by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra conducted by Atvars Lakstīgala.

What’s the music like?

These three orchestral pieces are certainly borne from Vasks’ statement, to the extent that his music incorporates both the suffering and paranoid trepidation of Shostakovich and the national pride of Sibelius. Crucially there is room for his own style too, and as Sala begins there are beautiful solos for clarinet and flute. That said it is the one assigned to the cor anglais that really sets the mood of contemplation, being the most substantial and leaves a lasting impact.

The show of strength from the strings to open Musica appassionata illustrates just why Vasks’ music has achieved its popularity, for his prowess in orchestration is immediately clear, as well as a capacity for instantly setting a scene and generating emotion.

Perhaps not surprisingly the spiritual aspects of Vasks’ writing are at their most concentrated in the Credo, which harnesses a massive battery of percussion at its climax points. This is relatively slow moving music but at these points the amount of energy unleashed is truly impressive, and would work especially well in the concert hall. Here it is very well played by Latvian forces.

Does it all work?

Largely, yes. For those who want a route into tonal contemporary music, Vasks is a good way to start, for he writes in a direct manner that makes an immediate if not wholly lasting impact. These orchestral works capture the deep feeling of pieces by Shostakovich and Sibelius, as mentioned above, if not quite containing the memorable melodies those composers were capable of writing.

Is it recommended?

Yes. For the age in which we live, Vasks captures the mood of appreciating strength and beauty in the face of adversity and atrocity.

Listen on Spotify

You can hear this disc on Spotify here: