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


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.


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:


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

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


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

Proms guide – First Night: A tale of two Belshazzars


Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

Prom 1 – Christopher Maltman, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

BBC iPlayer link

Sibelius’ suite begins at 57:45; Walton’s interpretation at 1:18:36.

The Biblical tale of Belshazzar’s Feast, where the downfall of Babylon is predicted by a human hand writing on the wall during a lavish party, inspired three very different responses. The first, from Handel in 1744, took the form of a large scale sacred piece, but the second half of this Prom threw together two very different responses by twentieth century composers.

Sibelius wrote a score of ten scenes, condensing it into a suite of four for concert performance. It finds the composer in typically economic form, though it is a surprise to note the exotic Oriental Procession, colourfully rendered by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Finnish conductor is an expert in this music, and found the emotional depths of the stark Solitude and the emotive Nocturne, where flautist Michael Cox spun a delectable web of notes. The finale, Khadra’s Dance, signed off in typical style.

The massive forces assembled for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Walton, on the other hand, throws everything at his 35-minute tale, including the whole story in a choral dramatisation that at times threatened to take the roof off the Royal Albert Hall. With 256 singers (give or take one or two on the naked eye count from the Arena!) this was a massive scale on which to play out the story, and Christopher Maltman did a sterling job in the baritone solo role.

The chorus were the stars, though, and the combined forces of the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales were absolutely superb; hair-raising, even. Their shout of “SLAIN!” when Belshazzar finally perished was terrifying. No less chilling was the macabre percussion used when the hand appears.

Yet the epic climax of the piece, with Babylon’s redemption trumping the empty jubilation of the feast, was the crowning glory. Brilliantly marshalled by Oramo and superbly sung by the assembled BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, this was a piece to fire the starting gun on the 2015 Proms with maximum power. Here’s to the next 75!

Further listening

If this is your first encounter with the music of Walton, a strong recommendation goes to the composer’s Symphony no.1, his finest orchestral composition:

Sibelius‘ incidental music is curiously elusive – so here is some more in the form of his score for the play Pelléas et Mélisande. You will doubtless recognise the first movement, At the Castle Gate, as the music used for the BBC’s The Sky at Night:

If your curiousity is aroused for the third of the Belshazzar interpretations, this Spotify link gives you Handel‘s oratorio in its entirety:

This BBC Prom also included Nielsen’s ebullient overture to Maskarade and Mozart’s masterly Piano Concerto no.20, with soloist Lars Vogt. They are also on the iPlayer link above

Proms premiere – Gary Carpenter: Dadaville


BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (Prom 1)

Duration: 7 minutes

Watch here (Dadaville begins at 2:29)

Dadaville begins at 11:30

What’s the story behind the piece?

Dadaville c.1924 Max Ernst 1891-1976 Purchased 1983

Dadaville c.1924 Max Ernst 1891-1976 Purchased 1983

Dadaville is a musical response to the painted relief by Max Ernst shown above. What appears to be an iron wall in the imposing structure is actually made of cork, flimsy enough to be kept behind glass.

Carpenter bases his piece on the notes D – A – as in the first two letters of the painting’s name – and uses the nine letters of the word as the basis for the structure of the piece.

The tuba takes a starring role, allocated a nine bar bass line in the middle that the orchestra build on comprehensively, while towards the end of its 180 bars (20×9!) there is a reference to Beethoven’s Symphony no.9.

Did you know?

Gary was the Associate Musical Director on the film The Wicker Man. Among the many instruments he played during the recording of the film are piano, recorders, ocarina, fife and the Nordic lyre. You can read his recollections of recording here

Initial verdict

A piece obviously composed with the First Night in mind, especially if the surprise pyrotechnics at the end were anything to go by! Yet Carpenter largely succeeded in his musical sketch of Max Ernst’s Dadaville, with a piece that was both fragile and robust – just like the painted relief itself.

It was particularly good to see the tuba and bass clarinet given starring roles, making use of a swinging bass line of jazzy syncopations, while some of the string lines recalled Debussy and, at the opening, Britten.

Second hearing

There is an air of tension at the beginning of this piece in the cold string lines, but soon the energy begins to be released. The orchestral textures are crisp and clear.

The piece really acquires its direction once the tuba and bass clarinet are called into action from 6:55, and this low bass line generates the energy for the rest of the piece, which really starts to swing, all the while leading towards the fireworks at the finish. It completes a score with an impressive array of sounds and an appealing, uplifting mood.

Where can I hear more?

From Gary’s Soundcloud page, here is his Saxophone Quartet The North:

The Inextinguishable Fire

The Inextinguishable Fire – The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo reach the Fourth Symphony in their Nielsen cycle, adding Sibelius, Ravel and Zemlinsky for good measure

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (pictured) – Barbican Hall, 19 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 19 March


Those unable to get the BBC concert can follow the same pieces here in appropriate recordings:

What’s the music?

Sibelius – The Oceanides (1914) (9 minutes)

Zemlinsky – 6 Maeterlinck Lieder, Op.13 (1913, orchestrated 1921) (19 minutes)

Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orchestrated 1919) (18 minutes)

Nielsen – Symphony no.4, ‘Inextinguishable’ (1914-16) (34 minutes)

What about the music?

nielsenThe composer Carl Nielsen

This is a carefully picked program of intriguing opposites, part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of 150 years since the birth of Danish composer Carl Nielsen. All four pieces date from the same decade, and inevitably the First World War is an immovable presence, but these are four very different works that look to harness strength in adversity.

Sibelius, in his tone poem The Oceanides, looks abroad for its stimulus. He was on his only trip to America when he wrote the work at Yale University, taking an Ancient Greek legend as his inspiration. The ‘Oceanides’ are daughters of the water that circles the earth – water in all of its forms – and in this piece Sibelius describes the water as ‘a single breaker growing in force’. The version played here is the Yale version, rather than the later (and longer) revision.

Zemlinsky wrote his Six Maeterlinck Lieder while digesting the news that Alma Schindler, a long time obsession, had decided to marry the composer Gustav Mahler. This news upset and angered him, for he was preoccupied with Alma for many years – yet in these elusive and often unresolved songs he found the ideal vehicle for his response. As Anne-Sofie von Otter said in an interview broadcast on BBC Radio 3, the cycle of six songs is ‘not easy to get the balance right’ between voice and orchestra.

The work is ‘elusive and enigmatic. The stories aren’t straightforward!’

Le Tombeau de Couperin worked for Ravel on a couple of levels; firstly it helped him to observe the passing of several close friends in the First World War, while secondly it gave him chance to pay homage to the great composers of the French Baroque (from the 1700s) such as Couperin, held up as a national treasure and regarded as superior to the German equivalents, especially in time of war! It is an elegant piece, revelling in its role as a pastiche composition – using dance forms of the Baroque – but never resorting to imitation. Instead Ravel uses some cheeky and quite spicy harmonies to keep the hint of a smile on the face of the music.

Finally we have the Inextinguishable symphony, Nielsen’s Fourth and best known example in the form. This is a hugely affirmative piece of music, ‘that which is life’. David Fanning describes it as a ‘midlife crisis’ piece, as Nielsen’s life was undergoing a number of changes. It runs without a break, from searing melodies to small evocations of a village band – truly embracing the many forms and sizes of life itself.

Performance verdict

A fascinating and stimulating concert. Sakari Oramo has already gained a reputation for his prowess in Scandinavian music, and he brought Sibelius’ brief tone poem to life with a succession of watery colours. This was in direct contrast to the Nielsen, which was taut and thrilling, the strings producing some piercing lines while the real glory went to the drums, rolling like thunder in the background.

The Ravel, meanwhile, was notable for its glassy clarity, each melodic line clear to the ear and lovingly turned by the conductor. Oboist Richard Simpson was superb throughout, each of his leading tunes beautifully phrased and voiced. In some ways it was the Zemlinsky, the least known piece of the four, that made the greatest impact. Anne Sofie von Otter, ideally dressed in a long burgundy gown, got right to the heart of these poems – as much as you can with verse such as Maeterlinck’s, at any rate!

What should I listen out for?


3:47 – a murky start with very quiet strings and murmuring timpani. The two harps are prominent at this stage. As the music grows louder you can almost feel the water with every swirl of the harps!

6:09 – a trademark figure for woodwinds which falls back to the murky depths of the soft strings.

8:11 – the big wave grows and swells, powered by timpani, strings and woodwind

9:54 – the music settles on a home note and immediately takes on a happier air

12:09 – the big spray of a ‘breaker’ – and a typically concise finish to the piece, courtesy of a single clarinet – whose note resolves right at the end.


16:39 – Die drei Schwestern (The Three Sisters). The music moves with deliberate tread, as though walking carefully. The music moves through a succession of harmonies without stopping, and the singer too is tense – until a brief but meaningful climax which cuts off suddenly.

20:34 – Die Mädchen mit den verbundenen Augen (The Maidens with Bound Eyes). Silvery strings introduce the singer, who initially shadows the cor anglais. Zemlinsky uses the orchestra very deftly, with lots of light and shade, though eventually this song becomes darker and sorrowful.

23:41 Lied der Jungfrau (The Song of the Virgin) The otherworldly sound of the harmonium can be heard at the start of this song in conjunction with a solo violin. Zemlinsky reduces the string section to eight players and there is some truly odd but rather enchanting music here!

26:21 – Als ihr Geliebter schied (When her lover went away) Richly coloured but once again strangely elusive. This is one of the songs Zemlinsky wrote as Alma Mahler, the long-time object of his affections, had a ‘dalliance’ with another man, a year after her husband’s death

28:25 – Und kehrt er einst heim (And should he return one day)­ – the golden ring of the song glints in Zemlinsky’s orchestration for harp and celesta.

31:23 – Sie kam zum Schloss gegangen (She came towards the castle) – this song to me sounded more like Mahler than any of the other five. The oboe and cello paint a ghostly picture to begin with, and as the mysterious story unfolds there is a curious fascination on the part of the listener.


1:03:11 – Prélude – a graceful and slightly furtive solo, beautifully played here by Richard Simpson. The strings offer a silvery melody as a complement

1:06:43 – Forlane – a French dance form that Ravel wanted to make like the tango. In the event he is quite restrained here, but the use of ‘wrong’ notes in the melody makes the dance more exotic. At 1:11:37 the clarinet introduces another section, then at 1:12:12 the melodies become awkward and twisted.

1:13:09 – Menuet – the emotional centre of the work, with a polite if slightly sad melody from the oboe, then a minor key section (1:15:08) where the shadows cast over the work get longer. Again this is beautifully phrased by the BBC woodwind, with harmonics on the strings in the background.

1:18:28 – Rigaudon – here is music of greater hope, a quick and high spirited dance that skips along.


1:25:24 – with a massive heave the symphony gets underway, unleashing a seemingly unstoppable force through the whole orchestra.

1:26:56 – the clarinets duet in what becomes the great theme of the symphony, heard softly at first but then in an affirmation from the whole orchestra at 1:29:31

1:35:15 – the affirmative second theme returns to close off the first movement in joyous spirits, at which point we lead to…

1:36:37 – a small village wind band pipe up with a thoughtful melody. The sound is small compared to the first movement and not rhythmically consistent.

1:40:01 – the village band returns, but the music still feels a little distracted

1:41:29 – the third movement, a tense exchange that begins with piercing high notes on the violins.

1:50:41 – strings hurry around at the start of the fourth movement, exerting a sheer primal force

1:52:35 – rolling timpani, one set of drums each side of the orchestra, dominate the sound

1:56:48 – rolling timpani return, driving forward to a thoroughly affirmative finish where the big theme from the first movement comes back in its crowning glory

Want to hear more?

The Spotify playlist link above also contains some extra items for each composer. These are the short but tuneful Karelia Suite of Sibelius, then the two other movements from Le Tombeau de Couperin that Ravel did not orchestrate, a Fugue and a Toccata. There is Zemlinsky’s highly regarded three movement Sinfonietta, a major work, and to finish the suite written by Nielsen for Aladdin.

For more concerts click here