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 – Sol Gabetta and Polina Leschenko play Rachmaninov

sol-gabetta

Sol Gabetta (cello), Polina Leschenko (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06gqgpr

on the iPlayer until 11 November

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. Sol Gabetta has recorded all of these pieces, with the pianists Bertrand Chamayou (Chopin) and Olga Kern (Rachmaninov), and, in the case of the Tchaikovsky, in an orchestral version with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Olivieri-Monroe.

What’s the music?

Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op.3 (1829) (8 minutes)

Tchaikovsky: Lensky’s Aria (1879) (6 minutes)

Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata, Op.19 (1901) (34 minutes)

What about the music?

There is something about music for cello and piano from Eastern Europe that communicates directly with lovers of classical music, and in particular smaller scale chamber music. This may be because the cello’s range is like that of a vocalist, which becomes very clear in the arrangement of Lensky’s Aria that Sol Gabetta and Polina Leschenko play here. The cello has a way of portraying the solemn contemplation that Lensky goes through before his duel and inevitable death at the hands of Eugene Onegin.

On a far more cheerful note are the works by Chopin and Rachmaninov. Chopin wrote very little music where the piano was not the starring instrument, and even in this Introduction and Polonaise brillante the piano part is challenging to say the least! Chopin did love writing for the cello though, and showed in this late student piece how his melodic style became very well suited to the instrument. Later in his life he completed a substantial sonata for cello and piano.

The Rachmaninov Sonata is one of the big Romantic works for cello and piano, with a piano part whose difficulty is comparable to that of the piano concertos – and interestingly the composer had only just completed his famous Second Piano Concerto when he got to work on this piece. It is full of big tunes and bold musical statements but has a tender heart too, which we get to see in the third movement Andante. The finale is one of sheer jubilation, the composer moving from the earlier, stormy music of the minor key to bask in the full sunshine of the major key – with a good melody never far from the cello throughout.

Performance verdict

This was a technically spectacular concert from two performers clearly at the top of their game, and thoroughly enjoying their music making.

The Chopin was a delight, all the youthful vigour captured in Polina Leschenko’s grand introduction, with its impressive pyrotechnics in the right hand. Meanwhile Gabetta’s tone was particularly beautiful, an aspect common to the pair’s performance of Lensky’s Aria, the arrangement – apparently completed by cellist Werner Thomas-Mifune – making a seamless transition to the instrument.

The Rachmaninov Sonata was a tour de force, the piano if anything dominating a performance rich in romantic feeling but also keen to impose itself through challenging and fast speeds. This did on occasion become too much and some of the phrases were constricted, especially in the second movement Scherzo, which hurried forward as though late for an urgent appointment, and some of the detail was lost – a shame, as despite its big statements, this piece does have some lovely detail.

The slow movement Andante was lovely, Gabetta’s tone and phrasing ideal, her knack of holding back on some of the phrases just right. The finale resembled pealing bells at times, its sheer exuberance proving irresistible, and here the performance had what felt like exactly the right tempo, pausing for breath half way through.

Even allowing for those slight gripes though, this was an extremely impressive, high voltage performance from two musicians clearly enjoying their craft.

What should I listen out for?

Chopin

1:35 – a grand introduction from the piano, showing off the youthful composer’s impetuosity. The cello, however, is perhaps closer to his heart with a songful and broadly phrased melody above.

4:12 – the Polonaise itself begins, with a distinctive rhythm that speeds up as the three beats in the bar go on (from 1 crotchet to 2 quavers to 4 semi-quavers, for the musos amongst us!). It takes the profile of a florid march, and is passionate and extrovert. The piano leads the rhythm, with power and a little charm, while the cello provides the songful melody. The end, when it comes, is vigorous and like a drink fizzing over.

Tchaikovsky

11:27 – a solemn mood is immediately evident from the pensive piano introduction, with Lensky awaiting his duel with Onegin. The cello picks up on this, reproducing the tenor line with a feeling of imminent dread, especially when the end approaches at 16:58.

Rachmaninov

17:56 – the sonata begins with a tentative slow introduction (marked Lento), as though testing the water, but feels on much firmer ground when the faster Allegro moderato begins at 18:55.

19:58 – the second theme of the first movement, first heard on the piano. This is classic Rachmaninov, combining Romantic thoughts with a melancholic undertone. Then from 21:23 the pair repeat the faster section before an intense development of the main material, the cello now playing lower in its register and the piano taking a hard hitting approach

26:53 – the piano now brings out the second theme in the ‘home’ key, where it retains its original melancholic quality, before the music gathers itself for a final big statement, finishing at 29:21.

29:34 – the Scherzo second movement begins at quite a fearsome tempo, led by the piano. Here the emphasis is much more rhythmic, though there is a distinctive six-note figure that dominates the movement. At 30:16 we hear a second theme, more songlike in nature.

31:29 – the contrasting ‘Trio’ section of the second movement, much smoother in nature. Then at 33:19 the stormy clouds of the Scherzo approach once again, with even greater force this time. The end, at 35:34, is beautifully done – quiet but atmospheric.

35:46 – the slow movement begins, marked Andante (at a walking pace). The piano introduces the tune, which is once again a deeply felt melody of contemplation. The cello takes it up at 36:34, and the theme proceeds to dominate the whole movement.

41:30 – the fourth and final movement bursts out the blocks. The key has switched from G minor, the sonata’s overall key, to G major – and the mood is completely contrary to the previous movement, full of jubilation. The music gets particularly stormy around 44:30, with cello and piano making particularly passionate statements.

A slower, quieter episode gives brief pause for reflection before a restatement of the last movement’s main theme at 46:59. At 49:44 the slower music returns, beautifully shaded by the performers, before the helter-skelter closing pages wrap up the piece from 50:52.

Encore

53:33 – the fourth and last movement of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata. The composer’s spiky approach to this music is stressed in an interpretation that almost spills over into violence at times!

Further listening

The combination of cello and piano was one that 19th century composers loved to use – fuelled no doubt by Beethoven’s success in bringing the instruments forward as equal partners.

One of the most successful composers writing for cello and piano was Brahms – so here is a link to the powerhouse combination of Mstislav Rostropovich and Rudolf Serkin playing his two sonatas for the combination, both of which are known as repertoire staples:

Perhaps less well known but equally glorious are the two cello sonatas by Mendelssohn, also rich in melody and deep feeling. Here they are played by Jan Vögler and Louis Lortie:

Finally Chopin went on to write a Sonata for cello and piano, one that is perhaps best heard in a recording by Johannes Moser and Ewa Kupiec. The companion piece on the disc is the Piano Trio: