Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev – Prokofiev Symphonies (1)

gergievIt might surprise you to learn that Prokofiev is big business right now! So much so that the forthcoming Robbie Williams single, Party Like A Russian, credits the composer as its inspiration.

It is assumed the source material will be Dance of the Knights, from Romeo and Juliet (otherwise known as The Apprentice theme tune!) but hopefully it will lead to an increase in curiosity around the composer and his music.

With unexpectedly impeccable timing, all seven of Prokofiev’s symphonies are being performed at the Cadogan Hall this week, with the best possible combination of conductor and orchestra. Valery Gergiev (above) has been leading celebrations in Russia of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and for three nights he has welded together a program of the symphonies, the two violin concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra.

A bruising first-night encounter boldly included the Second and Third symphonies, their sheer volume fairly peeling a layer off the ceiling of the hall. Both works are from the 1920s, when, like many composers, Prokofiev was intent on making as much noise as possible, working his ideas in a mechanical fashion with little room for warmth or respite.

Aggression coursed through the Symphony no.2 (1924-25), the piercing brass and biting string lines cutting through the dry acoustic and making a powerful impact. There were brief moments of respite, but even then – such as the first movement’s thump of double basses and bassoons – these were a change in colour rather than mood.

The second movement broadened its scope however, and the soaring tune Prokofiev gives to the violins offered a graceful if cold alternative. The piece is rarely heard in public and it was easy to see why, for its lopsided form and constant attack make it a challenging listen even today – but few could deny its impact.

Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.2.

The Symphony no.3 (1928) is cut from similar cloth, but has a greater dramatic impulse. This is due to its operatic origins, with much of the source material drawn from Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel. Once again the Mariinsky orchestra were superb, but the violins were sensational in their precision, playing their melodies from on high with searing intensity.

The machine of the first movement ground into action but there was deep seated passion here too, and the swooning violins took over the second movement with some weird yet rather sensual portamenti. The third movement packed a punch and led to another bruising but utterly thrilling last movement climax, where Gergiev cajoled every sinew of his orchestra to contribute. Wind and brass – especially bassoons, trumpet and horn – were all at the peak of their form.

Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.3.

Some contrast to all this bombast was welcome in the form of Prokofiev’s Symphony no.1 (‘Classical’) (1916-17). Exquisitely crafted, it is one of his best loved pieces, with not a note out of place as it completes a wonderful modern pastiche of a Haydn symphony. Often Prokofiev’s tunes feel like they have included bags of wrong notes, but they are all so memorable – and with some well-chosen speeds Gergiev brought out the invention if not quite all of the charm.

Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Classical Symphony.

The Violin Concerto no.1 (1917-23) was equally soothing in comparison to its neighbours, and Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti played with assurance, charm and a frisson of attitude when the going got faster. It was the more delicate music that made this performance memorable, however, with some lovely sonorities from the orchestra as together with the violinist they painted a bright, wintry landscape.

Kristóf Baráti Photo: Marco Borggreve

Kristóf Baráti
Photo: Marco Borggreve

With a generous and challenging concert lasting more than two and a half hours you would think an encore would be far from Gergiev’s mind, but no – we were in for a final treat courtesy of Liadov’s shimmering symphonic poem The Enchanted Lake. It was a soothing come down from the emotional highs and lows of the symphonies – and only heightened the expectations for the second and third parts of this so-far exhilarating voyage.

Ben Hogwood

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

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Shostakovich, Copland & Prokofiev

oberon-draperOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of 20th century music from the superpowers, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 11 June

Shostakovich Festive Overture (1954)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Prokofiev Symphony no.7 (1952)

Cosima Yu (clarinet), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

This evening’s concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra comprised three pieces which complemented each other ideally, especially when their immediacy and accessibility as music tends to offset their frequent technical difficulties – albeit for musicians rather than listeners.

Not least Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written in three days to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, whose tunefulness does not make for ease of ensemble; not that this was an issue when the players were as alert rhythmically in the first theme as surely as they conveyed the suavity of its successor, and the grandeur of its framing fanfares emerging without undue heaviness. That Shostakovich struggled to refocus his music in the post-Stalin era hardly lessens the appeal of this piece when so capably rendered.

The sharp stylistic contrasts in Copland’s output may have been determined more by aesthetic than political considerations, yet here again those pieces written for a wider audience are by no means straightforward to perform. One might have expected a testing solo part in the Clarinet Concerto composed for Benny Goodman, but the high and exposed writing in the first movement hardly makes life easy, and it was a credit to the Oberon musicians that they met the challenge while capturing the Mahlerian plangency of this music. The second movement, with its continual syncopation and recourse to jazz idioms, presents difficulties that were less fully surmounted; which in no way deterred Cosima Yu – her elegant phrasing and rhythmic verve much in evidence through to that final and decidedly Gershwinesque upward glissando.

While it has never been neglected, Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is still too often interpreted at face value. A letter to the ailing composer from Shostakovich soon after the premiere betrays a recognition of deeper and more ambivalent emotion behind the outward naivety (something the latter clearly had in mind when writing his final symphony two decades on), and it was this ambivalence that Samuel Draper brought out most convincingly – not least in an initial Moderato of a formal simplicity concealed by the harmonic subtlety with which Prokofiev navigates its searching and often uneasy course. This was no less true of the ensuing Moderato, a waltz-sequence of ingratiating melodies undercut by a rhythmic assertiveness made manifest during a coda whose forced jollity came ominously to the fore.

The highlight was the Andante – easy to glide over when its themes are so simply and unobtrusively drawn, but here given with  a plaintiveness and regret as disarming as is the piquancy of its scoring (not least the melting harp passage toward its close). While the final Allegro was less convincing, this further instance of ‘easy’ expression allied to its fair share of technical difficulties is far from plain-sailing, and if ensemble was not always precise in the cavorting main sections (or the admittedly uninspiring central episode), the return of the first movement’s ‘big tune’ was finely judged and the coda suffused with acute poignancy.

Draper rightly opted for the quiet ending that Prokofiev had initially intended: no matter if   its final pizzicato was not together – the music’s essential fatalism could hardly be ignored.

The next Oberon concert takes place on 17th September 2015, where the orchestra will play the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ symphony and Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes. Here they are in the Tchaikovsky’s Fifth:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

In concert – Barbara Nissman plays Ginastera at Kings Place

barbara-nissman

Barbara Nissman (piano); Hall One, Kings Place, London, 24 April 2016

Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1, S514 (1862)

Bartók Allegro Barbaro, BB63 (1911)

Ginastera Tres Danzas Argentinas, Op.2 (1937)

Prokofiev Piano Sonatas – No.1 in F minor, Op.1 (1909); No. 3 in A minor, Op.28 (1917)

Ginastera Piano Sonata No.3, Op.55 (1982)

Bartók Night Music, BB89 No.4 (1926)

Ginastera Piano Sonata No.1, Op.22 (1952)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although his centenary has been widely reported, the music of Alberto Ginastera has been relatively little heard in the UK so far this year – making this recital from one of his most devoted pupils more welcome. Best known here for a cycle of Prokofiev sonatas a quarter-century ago, Barbara Nissman is a pianist wholly in the tradition of transcendental pianism – though such virtuosity never precludes an enquiring approach to the music at hand, as was evident in the thoughtfulness with which this morning’s programme had been assembled.

Beginning with Liszt’s First Mephisto Waltz was a case in point, as the essence of all that followed is encapsulated in its cunning juxtaposition of unbridled revelry and romantic yearning while Lenau’s decidedly sardonic take on the Faust legend is unfolded. Nissman despatched it with required verve and elegance, then summoned comparable impetus in the brief yet remorseless accumulation of energy of Bartók’s Allegro Barbaro – a repost to those who had doubted the integrity behind the unremitting intensity of his musical idiom.

There is nothing rebarbative about the Danzas Argentinas as were among Ginastera’s earliest successes, the teenage composer delighting in the rhythmic élan yet also insinuating lyricism of ideas inspired by though not beholden to the folk-music of his homeland. If the even younger Prokofiev was at all less assured stylistically when making his compositional debut with his First Sonata, this one-movement amalgam of sonata aspects within a more inclusive design lacks little in the resolve necessary to integrate its wide stylistic remit.

Nissman projected it with relish, then was no less convincing in the Third Sonata that – whatever the derivation from earlier material – brings appreciably greater individuality to bear on its ingenious four-in-one structure and uninhibited yet resourceful display. Qualities which are hardly less apparent in the Third Sonata which the ailing Ginastera wrote for Nissman, its allusion to Scarlatti extending beyond the use of binary form to a rhythmic and harmonic pungency as spills over into the effervescent coda with its curtly decisive close.

After the ‘Night Music’ movement from Bartók’s suite Out of Doors had provided a welcome moment of pensiveness, the recital was concluded by the First Sonata with which Ginastera moved decisively from his earlier nationalism towards a more wide-ranging musical outlook. That said, the spirit of the Argentinian pampas is heard simmering below the surface of the bracing initial Allegro and more overtly in those disembodied rustlings which permeate the Presto. The Adagio must rank among the most eloquent penned by its composer, with Nissman probing its depths as surely as she conveyed the energy of the finale when it surges towards a coruscating close. In its amalgam, moreover, of Classical formal poise with post-Romantic expression, the piece looks pointedly from its own time to that of the present.

A well-planned-recital and a welcome return for Nismann, who introduced each piece from the stage. A pity none of the recordings on her Three Oranges label was available, as these feature a wealth of unfamiliar as well as neglected music, and well deserve investigation.

You can read more about Barbara Nissman at her website, while her Three Oranges Recordings site can be accessed here

Keith Emerson

The sad news today is that Keith Emerson, spearhead of the legendary trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, has died aged 71.

The group could be regarded as the original pirates of classical music, taking pieces by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bach, Bartók and – famously – Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition, reworking them affectionately for rock band and a new audience.

By way of tribute, here they are in their most famous arrangement of all, Copland‘s Fanfare for the Common Man:

A full appreciation of Emerson’s achievements, especially with regard to his use of classical music, will follow in due course.