In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Simon Rattle: Dutilleux centenary

sibelius-5Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Julia Bullock (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle, live from The Barbican Hall, Wednesday 13 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the music?

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

Dutilleux – Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams) (1983-85) (25 minutes)

Delage – Quatre poèmes hindous (1912) (11 minutes)

Dutilleux – Métaboles (1965)

Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no.2 (1912) (17 minutes)

Broadcast link (open in a new window):

About the music


If you are in any way intimated by newer classical music, Henri Dutilleux (above) is an excellent place to start. ‘One of the most aurally sensual programmes you could ever go through’ is how Sir Simon Rattle describes this concert of orchestral works. Doubtless that statement was made with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé in mind, and also the music of Henri Dutilleux, the centenary of whose birth falls on 22 January 2016.

Dutilleux continues in a line of French orchestral masters whose music is every bit about the overall sound as it is about the melodies and harmonies within. His mastery of orchestral colour owes a lot to Ravel’s influence, and that of Debussy too – as you will hear in the Violin Concerto L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams) and the virtuoso piece for orchestra Métaboles.

The ‘sensual’ description does not apply so readily to Le tombeau de Couperin. The opening Ravel piece is an elegiac suite paying tribute both to his friends who died in World War I and the past generation of French ‘Baroque’ composers, who – Couperin among them – lived and excelled in the 18th century.

Also included are the Quatre poems hindous of Maurice Delage, written just a year after the French composer travelled to India. Delage writes for a much reduced ensemble of just ten instruments to accompany a soprano in four brief but exquisitely realised text responses.

What should I listen out for?

Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin

3:23 – an attractive and slightly reflective Prélude where not a note is wasted. Ravel’s writing for the wind instruments is particularly beautiful, the oboe taking much of the lilting tune.

6:54 – the Forlane­, a dance where Ravel sounds like he’s written the wrong notes – but in fact has written tunes spiced with harmonies that are surprisingly catchy. Again the orchestration is exquisite, whether in the held string chords behind the woodwind tune or the little points of percussion and harp that provide punctuation. There are four more sections that include equally likeable tunes, with the main tune coming back between each one – structured carefully as a French Baroque composer would.

13:01 – the softly scored Menuet, a dance that has its bright colourings but is sorrowful at its heart. It turns darker in its quiet, minor key Trio (14:57), where a shiver of cold where the spectre of the War can clearly be felt. This builds to an anguished climax before the Menuet, now a brighter and more relaxed presence, returns.

18:14 – there is a sense of purpose about the Rigaudon, a brisk dance where Ravel is getting on with things again, in the face of the Menuet’s sorrow. It is a fun quickstep, pausing briefly for a slower middle section with oboe (19:31) before the main material returns, broken off quickly and emphatically at the end.

Dutilleux – Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams)

28:28 – the violin begins this work on its lowest note, and after a thoughtful beginning becomes animated. The orchestral backdrop is beautifully crafted and carefully shaded. The colours are strongly suggestive of a forest, as is the humid atmosphere.

At 30:59 we hear the cimbalom for the first time as part of the orchestral texture. From 33:00 the tempo is faster, and then from 34:44 there is an upward surge to two bell strokes, which bring in the first interlude – and some agitated thoughts from the violin around 36:30. Now the music is energetic, the violin trading musical thoughts with the woodwind, and often using multiple stopping (playing more than one string at once).

Then, with the mute on, the violin disappears into the distance after 39:00. The cimbalom can be heard again – the second interlude – and then the music becomes nocturnal, and it feels as though we are at the heart of both the forest and the work.

From 41:21 we hear the oboe d’amore, part of an important duet, the two instruments close together while the strings and percussion observe from a distance. The colours here, particularly when strings join around 44:00, are especially beautiful. After a bigger passage with full orchestra, the high strings dazzle at 46:05.

Then at 46:37 the violin can be heard tuning – but this is part of the third interlude, Dutilleux not wanting to relax the intensity of the piece. Sure enough the transition to the final section is seamless, the bells prominent again – and an energetic last movement gets into full swing. Then, as the violins hold a high note, a solemn section of chords is heard, bringing in a coda.

At 52:14 a scratchy sound from the violin and cimbalom, then a big, percussive statement from the orchestra brings the piece to an emphatic end.

Delage – Quatre poems Hindous


1:21:33 – Madras – a sultry flute sets the forest scene before the soprano comes in half a minute later. The music has sensual twists and turns, aided by the flute and cor anglais.

1:24:08 – Lahore – the keen ear of the composer for new sounds can be clearly felt here, the cello pizzicato and accompaniment seemingly from another world as they depict the ‘lone tree in the north’. This song – the most substantial of the four – ends with an exotic vocalise from the singer (music but no words).

1:29:03 – Bénarès – the cor anglais is prominent in the accompaniment here, and light percussive effects from the harp and strings vividly set the scene. The coming of Buddha on earth is announced by the excited singer.

1:30:39 – Jeypur – the flute is prominent in setting the scene, before the questioning vocal takes over. The instrumentation is relatively rich but again the flute has the final say.


Rattle describes this as the most perfect ‘bonzai’ concerto for orchestra. There are four movements, and each shows the different parts of the orchestra one by one, bringing them together at the end.

1:40:08 – sometimes with a contemporary composer you can tell just from the first chord what they are about. Métaboles is one such example, with a chord of extraordinary colours starting the first section, a fluid tour de force for the wind players. At around 1:43:30 the strings are much more in evidence, a velvety texture used. A high cello solo emerges from the mist.

1:46:38 – a lower clarinet starts off a new section where the music is quicker and lighter, aided by string plucking and carefully placed percussion.

Then with the full orchestra Dutilleux builds up a huge wall of sound to the finish. The audience reaction suggests this piece is well on the way to becoming one of the most popular in recent times.

RavelDaphnis et Chloé, Suite no.2

This is a shorter suite from the ballet, which lasts around an hour.

1:59:28 – surely one of the most wonderful evocations of dawn in all music. Ravel’s wonderfully mysterious tableau starts by murmuring in the lower reaches of the sky until, with calls from flute and oboe, the sun reveals its glorious light at 2:00:26. The rest of the movement continues with a sense of wonder at the new day until a massive climax at 2:04:06, the metallic glint at the very top of the sound courtesy of the triangle.

BBC Proms 2015 – 10 to try


BBC Proms 2015 – 10 to try

It’s nearly time for the BBC Proms. The world’s biggest classical music festival – which seems to get bigger every year – starts this coming Friday at the Royal Albert Hall.

With so much to choose from Arcana has taken on the task of choosing ten Proms to attend, watch or listen to – which you can read about and preview below. The idea is to mix up a few obvious recommendations and a wildcard or two.

The Arcana coverage of the Proms is going to be a little bit different from your average review site. For a start any Prom reviewed in person will be experienced from the Arena rather than from a seat. This is for two reasons – the Arena has arguably the best acoustic in the notoriously tricky hall, and it’s also the place where the biggest cross section of musical public brush shoulders.

This year in its Proms coverage Arcana will also be focusing on new music, offering an appraisal of each premiere at the festival. This is a surprisingly demanding task, because there are 32 new pieces from the likes of Eric Whitacre, Hugh Wood and even a newly discovered work by Olivier Messiaen. An early interview on Arcana will feature percussionist Colin Currie talking about the new concerto into the open…, written for him by HK Gruber. So here we are then – ten Proms and tasters for you, however you intend to experience them. Happy Promming!

18 July: Ten Pieces Prom (Prom 2 – repeated on 19/7 at 11:00am) (TV)

Ten Pieces is the BBC’s initiative to get classical music into schools – but of course the learning need not stop there! This prom, presented by Dick and Dom, Molly Rainford and Dan Starkey, is comprised of all ten pieces, from John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine through to the end of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. Here’s a link to a preview of all ten pieces:

20 July: Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium (Proms Chamber Music 1)

Once again Proms Chamber Music will visit the Cadogan Hall every Monday lunchtime – but to begin with The Cardinall’s Musick will perform sacred music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad – a world premiere – and the jawdropping Spem in alium of Thomas Tallis, a 40-part choral piece that simply has to be heard. Here is the Tallis Scholars’ conductor Peter Phillips discussing the work:


28 July: Prokofiev – Piano concertos 1-5 (Daniil Trifonov, Sergei Babayan and Alexei Volodin, London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (Prom 14)

Not one for the faint hearted, this! Prokofiev wrote for the piano both as a percussion instrument and a lyrical one, so some of his works feature stabbing but often jaunty tunes. The Piano Concerto no.2 is particularly epic:


3 August: MacMillan – Symphony no.4; Mahler – Symphony no.5 (Prom 24)

The world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s Symphony no.4. Donald Runnicles will also conduct the underrated BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no.5, which promises to bring new life to the old warhorse:


4 August: Monteverdi – Orfeo (Prom 25)

Described as ‘the first great opera’, Orfeo will be sung in Italian and conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who will, to quote the BBC Proms website, ‘transform the Royal Albert Hall into the 17th-century Mantuan court of the Gonzagas with some of Monteverdi’s loveliest melodies and most colourful instrumental writing’. Here’s what we have to look forward to:


5 August: Late Night with 6Music (Prom 27)

Following the successful 6Music night two years back, the station returns – this time with Mary Anne Hobbs at the helm to explore new music from two composers on the Erased Tapes label who write with classical music in mind. These are Nils Frahm

…and the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen:


17 August: Osmö Vänska conducts Sibelius – Symphonies 5, 6 & 7 (Prom 43)

An obvious recommendation perhaps, but if you wanted to see a Sibelius concert and had a choice of conductor, Osmö Vänska would surely be it. His interpretations of the composer are both incredibly detailed and deeply passionate, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra will no doubt fall under his spell for three of the composer’s symphonic masterpieces:


19 August: Elisabeth Leonskaja plays Mozart (Prom 45)

Elisabeth Leonskaja is quite simply one of the best pianists in the world today – and in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.22 her performance should be sublime. Charles Dutoit and the RPO will no doubt prove sensitive accompanists – but in Debussy (the Petite Suite) and Shostakovich (Symphony no.15) they should also be rather special. Here is Leonskaja in solo Mozart:


9 September: Nielsen and Ives (Prom 72)

This intriguing night of music takes two wildly different forces from twentieth century music – anniversary composer Carl Nielsen, born 150 years ago, and the maverick Charles Ives, gradually revealed as one of the most influential composers of modern times. The former is represented by the impressive Violin Concerto, which will be played by the extravert violinist Henning Kraggerud. The latter by Symphony no.4, which really is best experienced in person. It contains a number of hymns, performed by a choir beforehand. Andrew Litton will be the guiding hand.


11 September: Elgar – Dream of Gerontius with Sir Simon Rattle (Prom 75)

Sir Simon Rattle returns for a second night at this year’s festival, leading the Vienna Philharmonic and a starry trio of soloists in Elgar’s magnificent choral work, with Toby Spence, Roderick Williams and wife Magdalena Kožená. Here’s an excerpt from the Berlin Philharmonic:

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.7

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.7, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 13 March


For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Sir Simon has not recorded this piece with the Berlin Philharmonic, but this is a recording he made with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI (track 6):


What’s the music?

(c) Brian Hogwood

Sibelius – Symphony no.7 in C major, Op.105 (1924) (22 minutes)

What about the music?

This symphony is a remarkable piece of work that reveals more and more with each subsequent listen. Initially it can seem too simple in its melodic material or too dense in the sheer amount of ideas, but in fact it is an amazingly self-contained unit, like a single long melody lasting for just over twenty minutes.

Sibelius worked on it at the same time as his Sixth Symphony, hence the reason for Rattle performing the two together without a break – but the recommendation (from here at least!) is to make the most of each piece on separate terms.

In my mind’s eye I often feel as though this piece is a seascape, with the spray almost tangible to the touch. The music is brooding at times, and its complex harmonies can twist the human response, but it is an overwhelmingly positive way in which to finish a symphonic cycle. And how better to finish than with a C major chord, regarded as the purest in all music?

Performance verdict

Rattle’s interpretation of the Seventh would appear to be spot-on tempo-wise, and as is the conductor’s wont it picks apart the structure to highlight all the different themes the composer uses – yet is always moving forward to the next musical ‘signpost’.

In each of the three occurrences of the trombone theme he stresses its heroic quality, and the overall impression of the symphony is a positive, resilient one.

What should I listen out for?

The symphony is in a single section, and though it is possible to break it in to constituent parts, it is so compressed and tightly bound together that is it best to listen to it as a single whole.

1:31:24 – a single timpani roll ushers in an ascending scale on the lower strings. Already the music is noticeably broader than the Sixth Symphony.

1:32:13 – the wind play a relatively distant figure that assumes great importance as the symphony progresses.

1:36:43 – the strings swell to a rousing theme on the trombones, just about rising above the whole orchestra.

1:41:00 – now the music is speeding up, with the strings adopting a similar figure to that found in faster moments of the Sixth Symphony.

1:41:52 – the swirl of the violins gets gradually slower, until 1:42:11, where the trombones return with their tune, now more isolated.

1:43:43 – the quicker theme returns on the woodwind.

1:48:21 – the ascending scale from the opening of the work simmers, but there is a tension between two different speeds before the trombone theme returns at 1:48:40.

1:51:43 – the final section, which ends with what seems the simplest resolution at 1:53:02.

Want to hear more?

After the Symphony no.7 – if you’re on Spotify – keep listening and you will hear another of Sibelius’s orchestral ‘tone poems’ – that is, an orchestral piece that describes a particular story or event. This one, Nightride and Sunrise, is not so well known, but is a descriptive work that draws on an unknown sequence of events for the composer.

For more concerts click here

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.6

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.6, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 13 March


For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Although Sir Simon has recorded the first symphony, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I could not find this for listening. I have therefore inserted a ‘replacement’ version with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä on BIS.


What’s the music?


Sibelius – Symphonyno.6 in D minor, Op.104 (1923) (30 minutes)

What about the music?

The Sixth is often glossed over in the course of the Sibelius symphony cycle, coming as it does between the very popular Fifth and Seventh – but repeated study reveals that musically it is the ideal complement to them both.

The composer himself said it reminded him of ‘the scent of the first snow’, or even, in a wonderful quote, ‘Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water’.

That crisp air is evident right from the beginning of the music, and indeed it is more a succession of feelings rather than obvious tunes that shape the impact of the work. The compact scale of the orchestra recalls the Symphony no.3, but if anything Sibelius goes further in his economical use of the forces available.

In an interview on the radio prior to this performance Sir Simon Rattle draws attention to the panning of the composer’s symphonies by such lofty figures as Theodor Adorno, who regarded him as ‘the worst composer ever’. Each to their own, I suppose, but one listen even to this lesser known symphony shows this is absolutely not the case!’

Rattle chooses to perform the Sixth and Seventh together, without a break, so if you want to hear them individually (which I personally prefer!) you will have to stop listening quickly at 1:31:20.

Performance verdict

This is a brilliantly played and ideally paced account of the Sixth, to my ears, one that captures the outdoors, the listener feeling as though they are stood at an open door catching the air.

The third movement Scherzo is particularly thrilling, but it is the nuances and detail that Rattle captures within the score that ensure each phrase and unit is brought to life.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (marked Allegro molto moderato) (fast but very moderately so)

1:01:45 – immediately there is a serene air to the strings, a cool but bright and refreshing sound. Because the instruments are high the music is weightless, the depth of the orchestra only really heard just over two minutes in.

1:06:25 – a wispy figure winds its way up from the lower strings, the energy levels slightly raised. This leads to a bright, chirpy sequence from the woodwind with more incisive rhythms.

1:09:38 – what feels like a cold wind blows in from the strings and timpani, darkening the music. The end arrives quickly just over a minute later.

Second movement (marked Allegro moderato) (moderately fast)

1:11:01 – a clear beginning to this movement from the woodwind. Flutes and clarinets are prominent in this movement and indeed the whole symphony.

1:12:48 – at this point the music does not have an obvious base, moving around quite quickly with small fragments of melody that are related but seem not to settle, like birds staying on the wing.

1:16:51 – the music labours a bit before the end before quickly breaking up. It is remarkable that Sibelius signs off a piece of music in this abrupt way, effectively adding to his music a firm full stop and a line underneath.

Third movement (marked Poco vivace) (a little lively)

1:17:10 – with Sibelius’s picture of the first snow in mind, this is perhaps the brisk wind on which the snow arrives. Strings swirl around before more detached rhythms assert themselves, and then the brass and timpani add extra depth with sweeping brush strokes.

One of the shortest sections of a Sibelius symphony, this is over in a flash, using a rhythm that rather recalls Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Fourth movement (marked Allegro molto) (very brisk)

1:20:53 – Once again we have an open orchestral sound, with beautifully phrased woodwind figures.

1:22:45 – the strings bring a more vigorous episode into play, harking back to the mood of the previous movement. Despite its positive mood the music still feels restless and unable to settle for long – until 1:23:52, where it takes a stronger root and now has quite a punch through the weight of the string section. There are now some more obvious motifs from the violins in particular.

1:28:16 – a slightly slower and more thoughtful passage from the strings, who come into play much more in this movement.

1:30:55 – the music slows to a pensive close.

Want to hear more?

A good companion piece to the Symphony no.6 is Tapiola, one of Sibelius’s last works – a descriptive piece based on a forest spirit that has an uncannily vivid description of what feels like a passing snow storm.

You can hear it on Spotify here (track 6):

For more concerts click here

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.5

Rattle conducts Sibelius – Symphony no.5, in the last of a three-concert residency from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performing all the composer’s symphonies


Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Barbican Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 February 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 13 March


For those unable to hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify link. Although Sir Simon has recorded the first symphony, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, I could not find this for listening. I have therefore inserted a ‘replacement’ version with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for EMI (from track 4):


What’s the music?


Sibelius – Symphony no.5 in E flat major, Op.82 (original version 1915, revised by 1919) (31 minutes)

What about the music?

This – quite simply – is one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th or any century. It is also one of Sibelius’ best known and loved works, being in a sense the sunrise to the Fourth Symphony’s darkness.

The construction of the first movement has occupied musical commentators for nearly a century now, debating its structure, and how Sibelius joins the music seamlessly from one section to another. All we need to know for now is that this wonderfully positive music.
Sir Simon Rattle speaks of this piece as offering a ‘revolution of rhythm and movement’, and saying how its ability to grow at a steady period of intensity is ‘not from any Western culture’. He likens it to Indonesian or Balinese music, though it is unlikely Sibelius would have heard much if any of these cultures.

The density of the music is striking, but this is not difficult music to listen to – rather it is wide open, a celebration of nature and the outdoors. In the third movement Sibelius specifically celebrates the swans, recalling an instance where he saw a flock of them take flight at once, but also reproducing their calls in music.

Performance verdict

The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is beyond criticism in this Fifth, but now and again questions are raised as to how much the music is actually instinctive for them, for this is music they do not often play (putting my snobby hat on, I would say I prefer this piece given by a Finnish orchestra!)

Rattle gives everything to his interpretation, of that there is no doubt, but there are some moments where the speed drags and the momentum of the music is harmed.

This issue comes up most prominently right near the end, as the tempo slows – but at no point do the orchestra lose the conviction of Rattle’s thoughts, and the ending itself is thoroughly convincing.

What should I listen out for?

First movement (which has a whole host of tempo markings)

4:25 – the wide open textures of the music are immediately obvious in themes from horn and woodwind. A serene, outdoor atmosphere is set.

5:50 – the violins interject with a note that raises the possibility of the music accelerating. There are almost dual speeds at this point, with some fast moving music and some slow. This creates a wide impression of space.

6:44 – a syncopated theme on the violins. All the time the music is building and pressing forward. Still the music builds, the violins coming to the fore – like birds taking off.

11:25 – a big, hugely affirmative statement on unison strings

12:29 – the wonderful climax to this movement, where we hear the theme from the opening on the brass. At this point Sibelius exacts a wondrous transition into a faster section, seemingly without breaking stride.

13:29 – a tangible shift here, back to the ‘home key’* – and a terrific gathering of momentum.

16:45 – the timpani hit E flat and start a whirlwind of phrases all around this note, the music gathering tremendous excitement before rushing headlong over the edge of the cliff at 17:20.

Second movement (again a whole host of tempo markings)

17:48 – the woodwind begin an attractive movement that once again sounds as if from outdoors. The sonorities of the Berlin Philharmonic woodwind in this section are especially beautiful. The flute theme at the beginning forms the basis of the whole movement, which is a theme and variations*

20:42 – a lush and affectionate reference to the woodwind’s theme from the strings. The orchestral texture remains wide open, and the music increases in energy. The same five-note rhythmic figure dominates this movement (from 21:43)

The music speeds up considerable before Rattle puts the brakes on at 23:18. Gradually we arrive at a slow and peaceful close.

Third movement (once more a whole host of tempo markings)

26:14 – a drum roll takes us immediately back to the mood of the first movement, with rushing strings giving the impression of trees flying past on a fast journey.

27:28 – the horns ring out in a theme closely related to the first one of the first movement. Here the mood is more regal.

30:43 – now the music is much quieter and more mysterious. The shimmering violins make reference to the horn theme described previously, like ripples on a lake. Then the music slows rather.

Rattle now slows the music considerably, and the theme sounds again, this time on trumpets at 32:35. The full power of the orchestra gathers again to the ‘home key’:

34:50 – a series of six massive chords end the symphony

Want to hear more?

After the Symphony no.5, the best next port of call is the next in the symphonic cycle, the Sixth – coming up in this series.


*Home key – the base of the music – that is, the note on which the whole of a piece is based. The music may journey a considerable distance from this note, but if a piece is said to be ‘in E flat’, then it would normally be expected to start and finish with music based on those notes.

*Theme and variations – a common tactic in classical music, to introduce a theme and then construct a set of different themes that derive from it.

For more concerts click here