BBC Proms 2016 – Pekka Suusisto, Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto High Res 6 - credit Maija Tammi

Pekka Kuusisto (c) Maija Tammi

Prom 27; Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2016

You can watch this Prom from its BBC broadcast – the Grime and Tchaikovsky here and the Stravinsky here

For sheer musical enjoyment this Prom took some beating.

Right from the start it was clear the players of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were at the Royal Albert Hall to enjoy their Friday night, and in Pekka Kuusisto they had a more than willing accomplice.

It was Kuusisto’s first appearance at the festival, and as he arrived onstage he gazed in wonder at the full hall, taking in its scope and bidding a cheery ‘hello’ to the front ranks of the Prommers. At that moment you sensed his performance, even before he played a note, had gone up a gear.

Sure enough, his performance of Tchaikovksy’s Violin Concerto was dazzling, but he was careful not to let technical feats overshadow the core of the music’s emotion. As the longer first movement unfolded so did the ardent, lyrical phrases, until we reached the solo cadenza, where just a flick of the eyes and arms were enough to get the audience laughing. Kuusisto plays a lot of his music as though for the first time, the childlike innocence (not to mention his boyish face!) a combination of pure enjoyment. The audience, wrapped up in the occasion, applauded as though he had finished, fully aware there were two more movements to come.

These were the doleful Canzonetta, reminding us of the serious circumstances in which the piece was composed (Tchaikovsky’s disastrous and shortlived marriage, made in spite of his convictions around his homosexual orientation) and a finale that brushed all that aside, its main tune from the violin scampering all over the orchestra as they tried to keep up.

Both violinist and orchestra rightly received a rapturous ovation, but Kuusisto was not done, returning for a traditional Finnish song. Following Sol Gabetta’s lead from the First Night he did the singing, while BBC SSO leader Laura Samuel gamely added a rustic accompaniment. Even the audience were involved, singing one of the phrases as Kuusisto brought the house down.

Even after that the enjoyment was yet to peak, for Thomas Dausgaard – who had shaped Tchaikovksy’s phrases rather beautifully – led them in a vibrant account of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The composer’s second ballet is perhaps his most tuneful, full of Russian folk song references as it tells the tale of the ultimately doomed puppet. The colours of this performance were given by the BBC SSO at their very best, with superb contributions from Mark O’Keeffe and Eric Dunlea (trumpets), a beautiful, child-like solo from flautist Charlotte Ashton, and wonderful contributions from solo woodwind, brass and percussion alike – not to mention the brilliant efforts of pianist Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch on celesta.

Dausgaard was enjoying himself, and although on occasion the music was a little fast it was never less than energetic, the players relishing the shades of colour in The Shrovetide Fair, and the irresistible hooks and dance rhythms Stravinsky threads through the music.

Dausgaard is due to take over full time as chief conductor of the orchestra in the autumn, and on this evidence the two look set for a fruitful musical relationship.

eardleyCatterline in Winter (c) The estate of Joan Eardley.

Beginning the concert was the first part of Helen Grime’s Two Eardley Pictures, a new piece commissioned by the BBC and with its second part today. This one, Catterline in Winter, portrayed the fishing village of the North of Scotland, capturing it in steely, metallic colours – reflecting the dark grey sky and the icy blasts of a seemingly ever present wind. It is always difficult to appraise a new piece on first hearing, but this was an impressive and brightly lit score that is well worth hearing for a second time – preferably in the company of the second, Snow.

Ben Hogwood

BBC Proms – Of Land, Sea and Sky…

prom-15

Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra

(c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 15; Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 27 July 2016

Tchaikovsky The Tempest (1873)

Anthony Payne Of Land, Sea and Sky (2016) [BBC commission: World premiere]

Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor (1866) (Ray Chen, violin)

Vaughan Williams Toward the Unknown Region (1906)

The focal point of this evening’s Prom was a first hearing for Of Land, Sea and Sky, the latest work from Anthony Payne and a BBC commission to mark his 80th birthday in a week’s time.

Taking its departure from a description of white horses in the Rhône Valley as they seemed to merge into the surrounding water, this piece comprises eight continuous sections in which the relationship between image and illusion is considered from numerous perspectives.

Payne evidently looked at various texts before deciding to write his own: what resulted is functional in the best sense, each of the choral sections conveying its appropriate imagery without any superfluous literariness. Choral writing is less certain in that it often feels more of a textural gloss on, than integrated into orchestral writing whose clarity and resourcefulness continues from Payne’s previous large-scale works; indeed, the piece as a whole seems to unfold as a sequence of variations on the motifs set out in the opening pages, with an orchestral postlude effecting a final synthesis as the very notion of illusion is rendered in suitably elusive terms.

Of Land, Sea and Sky is typical of Payne in that its approachable (and recognizably English) while never derivative idiom is likely to yield any number of subtleties on repeated hearings. The present performance seemed an assured one, Andrew Davis securing a committed response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in music whose intricacy benefited from the cushioning resonance of the Albert Hall acoustic. This also marked the fourth Proms collaboration between conductor, orchestra and composer, and will hopefully not be the last.

The programme had opened with a hearing for The Tempest, Tchaikovsky’s still relatively unfamiliar symphonic fantasy inspired by, yet by no means indebted to Shakespeare’s play. The framing seascape music, with its sombre horn writing, resonates long after the music has ended, and if what comes in-between – notably the eloquent but unmemorable ‘love’ theme – finds the composer at less than his best, this was perhaps reinforced by a reading that lacked nothing in cohesion without sustaining a cumulative momentum across the piece as a whole.

After the interval, Ray Chen made his much-heralded Proms debut with Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. A little histrionic, the preludial first movement was vividly and at times ardently projected, with a heightened transition into an Adagio whose fervency was purposefully held in check. Nor, other than a slightly hectoring edge in passagework, was there much to fault in the final Allegro; despatched with a flamboyance continued in the encore – Paganini’s 21st Caprice in A, which provided ample means for Chen to display his meaningful virtuosity.

The concert ended with a welcome revival for Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region, the composer’s first major success and a piece whose impression is greater than its modest length. If the rapt inwardness of the first half feels more successful than the fervency of what follows, Davis ensured a cumulative tension such as made the final pages – the BBC Symphony Chorus giving its all and the Albert Hall’s organ enhancing the resplendence – a fitting testimony to Walt Whitman’s conviction as to the soul’s tangibility in death as in life.

Richard Whitehouse

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 – Michael Collins and the Borodin String Quartet play Mozart

borodin-quartet

Michael Collins (clarinet) and the Borodin String Quartet (above) (Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 25 April 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07866f4

Available until 24 May

What’s the music?

Tchaikovsky, arr. Rostislav Dubinsky – Album d’enfants, Op.39 (1878) (29 minutes)

Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581 (28 minutes) (1789)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below, including a recording of Rostislav Dubinsky’s arrangement:

About the music

Tchaikovsky’s Album d’enfants follows in the footsteps of Schumann’s collection for piano of the same name, yet this set of 24 piano miniatures is designed to be played by children as well. It includes dances, children’s pieces, portraits and flights of fancy, with most pieces little more than a minute and a half in length.

In it the composer allows his inner child to run free, in the same manner it was to do later in life in the ballets The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. This arrangement for string quartet was made by the Borodin String Quartet’s previous first violinist, Rostislav Dubinsky.

michael-collins

Clarinetist Michael Collins

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is probably the best known work for the combination of clarinet and string quartet, and it was written late in his life – 1789 – for the clarinettist Anton Stadler. It is written in A major, the same key the composer was to use for his final orchestral work, the Clarinet Concerto, and is notable for its sunny mood.

Performance verdict

This was a charming concert, though the Borodin String Quartet did take quite a serious approach to even the most infantile of Tchaikovsky’s character pieces. They were effective in their arrangements, and the quartet played with charm, delicacy and poise.

The Clarinet Quintet enjoyed a similar performance – serious but enjoying the work’s abundance of melody, although the decision not to employ the repeats Mozart marks in the first two movements changed its dimensions rather. Michael Collins was a good match, allowing himself a freer rein at times in the solo part, and while the quartet and clarinettist did not exchange much in the way of glances during the performance, theirs was an account notable for its unity. When played as beautifully as it was here, the Clarinet Quintet is as vivid an evocation of spring as you could wish to hear!

What should I listen out for?

Tchaikovsky

1:20 Morning prayer a charming, contented slow piece

2:42 A Winter morning – quite a blustery one by the sounds of it! Quicker interplay between the instruments

3:32 The Hobby-Horse – a quick portrait of a horse that seems to be difficult to capture!

4:17 Little Mother – soft and reassuring music that speaks of safety and warmth

5:55 March of the Wooden Soldiers – the title sounds like something out of The Nutracker, and the tune is similar. A crisp march.

6:49 The Sick Doll – the mutes are on for this fragile, mournful portrait, which sinks despondently into its minor key.

8:20 The Doll’s Funeral – the doll has now died, and this movement marks its passing with plaintive pizzicato.

9:49 The New Doll – the funeral has passed and a relatively quick and brief waltz, the face of the new doll lifts the mood from the doldrums.

10:29 Old French Song – A solemn piece, but with elements of warmth too. A beautifully scored movement, this has a lovely unison between first violin and cello.

11:48 German Song – this cheery dance has a jagged rhythm and opens out into quite a knees-up! The viola (I think) can be heard tapping its strings rhythmically half way through.

13:00 Italian Song – this has a lovely warmth, and the full part writing allows us to hear a lovely, rich quartet sound, with the cello plucking underneath.

14:15 Neapolitan Song – here the peasant is playing a form of concertina – and it sounds a lot of fun from the cello plucking and the sprightly tunes from the quartet!

15:24 Waltz – this has a lovely, simple tune for first violin, with the other instruments mostly off the beat.

16:52 Mazurka – a grand introduction from the cello with multiple stopping (playing more than one string at once), taken over by the violin

18:10 Polka – a charming, brief dance, lively and with some imaginative violin harmonics at the top end.

19:21 Russian Song – a solemn intonation from each instrument in turn, taking on the form of a canon but then settling to a relatively calm finish

20:21 The Peasant Plays His Ziehharmonika­ – the instrument effectively portrayed here is the concertina, the quartet playing as one.

21:05 Popular Song (Kamarainskaya) – this is brilliantly sent up by the violin especially, with squeaky high harmonicas like an old creaking chest of drawers

22:28 Sweet Dreams – a sentimental tune where Tchaikovsky allows some indulgence

24:43 The Old Nurse’s Tale The scratchy strings here give a lovely impression of old age, and the tale itself is lightly humorous.

25:40 The Witch: Baba-Yaga Even more scratchy is the old witch, played with the bows right close to the finger board for a more scary sound.

26:22 Song of the Lark The lark makes a beautiful sound here, thanks to the first violin over warm string accompaniment.

27:52 The Organ-Grinder Sings – over the held chords of the organ the first violin sings in a rather small voice.

29:02 In Church – a solemn finish to the cycle, given by the quartet in very subdued and rather eerie tones.

Mozart

27:07 – the first movement (marked Allegro) begins with the strings, a restful series of chords that are actually the first theme, a support for when the clarinet rises through the texture. Then, a minute later, the clarinet enjoys a tune that rises through the texture, floating gracefully. At 30:06 Mozart develops his ideas, the main theme coming back at 31:18.

34:01 – the second movement is marked Larghetto. In the key of D major, it is notable for its restraint and beautiful, spaced out melody heard on the clarinet at the outset. The melody returns at 37:50 in an even softer guise, peaceful and rather moving.

40:44 – a stately Minuet for the third movement, led by the clarinet but egged on by the strings. Mozart includes two contrasting ‘Trio’ sections – the first in the key of A minor (42:01). The Minuet section is repeated at 43:59 before a second trio at 44:40, another graceful dance led by the clarinet. The Minuet returns for the final time at 47:00.

47:47 – the final movement consists of a perky theme from the strings, embellished by the clarinet – and then five variations on it. The first (48:36) gives the clarinet a free reign, the next (49:30) hands over the baton to the first violin in an energetic section. The third (50:25) moves into the minor key and a brief shadow falls over the music, before 51:36, where the clarinet joyously lets itself go in the fourth variation. Then the music pauses, almost in an operatic sense, with a complete freedom of tempo as the clarinet leads the movement towards a close – where the perky theme reappears (54:36).

Further listening

Having heard the Borodin Quartet in sympathetic versions of Tchaikovsky, it makes perfect sense to expand that to the composer’s three published string quartets, which are relatively rare in concert these days. They are extremely enjoyable works. The First is notable for its slow movement, the Andante cantabile, which Tchaikovsky arranged for string orchestra, while the Third is a particularly poignant piece of work. As a bonus the album below includes the Souvenir de Florence, the composer’s String Sextet:

Friendly Fire – Shakespeare 400: London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda

gianandrea-nosedaFriendly Fire – Simon Trpčeski, London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 25 February 2016

Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague to a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. Our second ‘reviewer’ in the series is John Earls, a family man from Harrow & Wealdstone who works as Head of Research at Unite. He shares his thoughts on a program of music inspired by ‘Shakespeare 400’ – with works by Smetana (Richard III), Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet), Richard Strauss (Macbeth) and the seemingly unconnected Piano Concerto no.2 by Liszt. The artists are pianist Simon Trpceski and the London Symphony Orchestra under newly announced guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

john-earls

Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?

John: I didn’t do that much in the way of preparation, other than see what the four pieces in the concert were, and whether I was familiar with them. At the time the only one I thought I was familiar with was the Tchaikovsky, but you reminded me I had heard the Liszt before.

What was your musical upbringing?

As a young child, pretty limited. Most of the music I heard from my parents would have been Irish music, then as I went through school I was more exposed to bits of classical music, as I learned the clarinet. In my teens I got more into contemporary music, rock music, new wave – I played in my own band – and became more interested in jazz and classical music as I got older and attended more concerts and read more about those particular types of music. Jazz and classical are the forms of music I listen to most now.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

(almost without hesitation): Miles Davis was a trailblazer and an innovator who has done some very different things throughout his career. He also struck me as a great leader of bands and ensembles, because he was a great talent spotter who pulled some phenomenal musicians together, and it always struck me that anybody who played with him was better for the experience. They tended to be either better musicians or composersafter having gone through the Miles Davis experience, and also his ensembles tended to be greater than the sum of their parts.

I would also go for Christy Moore, who in many ways would be the soundtrack to my development and my life. I think he has a huge amount of integrity, and if you listen to him sing he comes across as somebody who really means it. If you see him performing live you see a gifted songwriter but also somebody who has a mission to transmit the songs he knows. He has a great deal of songs he hasn’t written but he is able to communicate and pass them on.

I should pick a band really…Wire. I saw them last year for the first time in around 30 years, at the Lexington near Kings Cross. They were influential in my formative days in the late 1970s / early 1980s. They were innovative and straddled the artistic side with the punk sensibility, but had the credibility of doing what they wanted to do. To release an album like they did last year nearly 40 years after they first started, and to think they can still do it, was a phenomenal achievement. They are still great live and the songs incredibly well crafted.

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’m not sure I fit your criteria of ‘someone who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert’. I’m actually a regular classical concert goer – all forms and types. Living in London I’ve been able to see some of the finest musicians and orchestras in the world. Many of my most treasured musical moments have been at ‘classical music’ concerts – Mitsuko Uchida playing Schubert’s late piano sonatas, Rattle and the Berlin Phil doing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with Reich himself playing. I also think some pieces are best experienced live – Messiaen’s Turangalila, for example. Had a few disappointments too! But live music is really important to me. 

What did you think of the Smetana?

I thought it was OK – I could see why they had used it as a piece with which to start. Would I have got the Shakespeare connection? Probably not, but having known it I could see there were bits that sounded regal. Some bits reminded me of a royal hunt, with lots of trumpet. Some of it was like a fanfare but there was solo trumpet that was quite ‘angsty’ and personal. I suppose the trumpet has royal connections. Those things came into my mind while I was listening but I’m not sure, as a piece of music, I would be in a huge hurry to listen to it again.

What about the Liszt?

I hadn’t remembered that I had heard it before. I quite enjoyed it, but there were parts where the pianist seemed a bit stroppy and belligerent, reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis! I enjoyed it a bit less than I thought I was going to but the thing that did stick out for me was the cello (Rebecca Gilliver’s solo in the third movement – ed). The sound was absolutely beautiful.

What about the Tchaikovsky?

I was more familiar and knew what to expect. I wasn’t used to being that close to the orchestra! If you heard those four pieces of music and was told there was a Shakespeare link to be honest I probably couldn’t have noticed it, but the one that would be most likely would be that one – and you would probably think Romeo and Juliet because of the tragedy, the romance and the action. You almost feel like you’re in a Bond movie! It’s got everything in it, around 16 minutes, it packs it all in, and it’s Tchaikovsky, who I love.

Finally, what about the Richard Strauss?

I thought that was a good piece to finish on. It had a range of things. I don’t think I would have thought Shakespeare but it was more personal in that it was not necessarily a narrative story – you’re inside somebody’s head. I’ve got ‘magisterial’ written down here, and I felt there was a real tension in it. The offstage snare drum was great, I always like that use of the space, and I’ve not heard the percussion played like that before (the tam tam I think! – ed)

It was more psychological I think, and it was only in that piece that I noticed Noseda’s score was tiny, I’ve never seen one so small! I enjoyed the music, and would go back to listen to it again. I didn’t realise Strauss was 24, that’s quite a phenomenal achievement – not only to put all the instrumentation together but to get the psychological elements at that stage, you would think only an older composer would manage that.

What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?

The only PR I’ve seen was the Shakespeare-related things, and I couldn’t see the link with the Liszt, but I like the idea of linking things in. Sometimes it can be a bit contrived but I think if it’s used as a technique to expose you to different bits of music then that’s fine – like Romeo and Juliet – and it worked for me in the case of the Strauss but not the Smetana.

I think they got the range and order of the pieces right. I’ve been to the Barbican as a venue, and I do like the way it works with an instrument offstage, like they did with the Strauss. I’ve seen that done with vocal and choral pieces and it can work. I think the conductor was quite energetic, not necessarily in a flowing way – quite staccato would be your terminology! There seemed a good rapport between him and the orchestra, the sense they really respect him.

If you could give it a mark out of 10 what would you give?

Probably a 7, but that would be an average. The Tchaikovsky and the Strauss would be an 8 or 9, and the Smetana would drag it down a bit. But it was certainly worth going to!

Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:

The connections between classical music and Shakespeare are many, but the London Symphony Orchestra did really well to present a variety of nineteenth century settings. All fall into the ‘Romantic’ period, where composers were getting to grips with the idea of the orchestra being a storyteller in what was known the ‘symphonic poem’.

Smetana’s Richard III was an ideal curtain opener, though like its subject it had an uneven walk – brilliantly portrayed but still with a sense of a portrait not quite fully fledged.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was different. This was the London Symphony Orchestra on white hot form, Gianandrea Noseda conducting like a man wholly affected by the tragedy. This music surged forward with passion and drama in equal measure, and the hair stood up with the volley of brass and percussion, and the intensity of the love theme on the strings.

Richard Strauss’s Macbeth was equally intense, though even more effective in exploring the minds of the two main protagonists of the story. The lower strings had a steely effectiveness, the double basses brilliantly marshalled, while the drama above unfolded in compelling fashion.

Though Liszt’s Piano Concerto no.2 had no Shakespearian connection it was a relatively sound choice, for he is a composer unable to resist the temptation of telling a story! This one had its moments of drama, albeit fleeting in comparison to the warhorses of the second half.