BBC Proms 2016: Week 2

It's been a notable week of music making at the BBC Proms so I make no apology for noting it.

Cast of Il Barbiere... Prom 14

Prom 9: Week 2 started with a period instrument band who were full of zesty enthusiasm - I usually like that but there was, for me, something amiss here. The programme comprised two symphonies and two Concert Arias by Mozart and Mendelssohn.  The conductor Jérémie Rhorer and the band he co-founded with leader Julien Chauvin, Le Cercle de L'Harmonie are one of a number of French ensembles with charismatic leadership. Whilst many are excellent, I think they all suffer from a need to be different.  Sadly this I think polarises their approaches - too often Historically Informed Performance (HIP) is dry and austere - not that this concert suffered that, but in a drive to be differentiated some ensembles and conductors go a little too far, so it was here.  Mozart's 39th symphony was pulled around at some points to emphasise the HIP but also left very much in modern classical guise at others.  I was surprised when Rhorer didn't repeat the Finale development which meant the final loses it's weight in the symphonic balance: even Bernstein managed that.  The sound was exciting enough though bass lacked definition.  The Mendelssohn was perhaps less mannered though in first and last movements Rhorer demonstrated that if he is a dancer he's very fleet footed.  The concert arias - Mendelssohn's only contribution to the genre included - were sung with beauty and expression by Rosa Feola.  And they gave us the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro as a welcome bright and sparkling encore.  I was left wanting a bit more time to digest on this occasion though.

Prom 13: It is useful sometimes to get the mandatory Beethoven 9 out of the way early.  We hear far too much of it and far too casually prepared in many instances.  Once every five years should be the norm!  I'm a big fan of the energy and presence in Magnus Lindberg's music - it has a gripping immediacy even when as on this occasion, I'm going to need a few auditions to get a grip on the narrative.  It was wonderfully realised and stunningly beautiful, rich and vibrant - matching it's inspiration the Ninth symphony.  Jurowski guided the LPO well through the symphony but there was a want of bite in the first movement, spring in the second, love in the third and ardour and focus in the fourth.  The finale suffered mostly from poorly balanced sound on the radio - there was I suspect too much manipulation (on the fly?). The soloists were terribly backward at first in the tutti and spotlighted in their quartet.  Something odd was happening in the percussion in the latter half of the last movement where something akin to a stick hitting a drum rim was more prominent than the Turkish instruments.  The choir were too often unbalanced in either radio sound or actuality - hard to tell - but if you are going to fiddle with the balance at least do it to beef up weak tenors. When in focus the London Philharmonic Choir were lustrous and very clean in the delineation of lines and text. The orchestra were just oddly in and out of the sound picture.  Jurowski's reading wasn't anything new though his tempi seemed to leave everyone in rush in most of the faster music.  This symphony is hard enough for singers without a series of sprints.  But I was grateful to hear the Lindberg and it, at least, was very well done.

Prom 14: The first full performance of Rossini's Barber of Seville was given on the 200th anniversary year of it's premiere on a pleasant Monday evening.  It was a Glyndebourne Festival production - semi staged to great effect - with a small band of London Philharmonic players and a stellar cast.  The orchestra were conducted by Enrique Mazzola, a bel canto specialist, who was fully involved both on stage and podium.  It was a very jolly affair with some marvellous comic timing and very fine singing from the principals.  The Royal Albert Hall  from Bjorn Burger's Figaro combing of the Henry Wood bust to the antics of the marvellous Bartolo (Alessandro Corbelli) playing to the Prommers and all the cast involving the orchestra and conductor.  Danielle Di Niese (the only singer who filled the hall) as Rosina was a magnetic  and Taylor Stayton had the right air of the vagabond and aristo.  It was a hugely enjoyable night - I shared a box with Lewis the guide dog, a prom regular, who seemed to approve of the feel good factor at the close.

Prom 15 was marred by some terrible programming and some rude prommers who felt it appropriate to leave during the last piece.  Vaughan Williams' Toward the Unknown Region is a much loved early piece.  Some look down their noses at it saying it owes a lot to Tristan - well perhaps musically it does - though there are some great and original moments in the piece.  What it has over Tristan is a more compelling text - Walt Whitman was a poet RVW loved and here set with a great simplicity.  The hushed opening was however interrupted by slamming doors and talking by those leaving the Gallery.  Sir Andrew Davis drew great playing from his old band, the BBC Symphony and great singing from the BBC Symphony Chorus.  He'd earlier guided the same forces through Anthony Payne's fascinating new work "Of Land, Sea and Sky" - getting it's World Premiere.  It’s a highly atmospheric piece, full of exquisitely worked layers of sound and moods of the landscape and the human response to it.  Nice to have to take a piece at face value - I chose to listen without any research or reference to a programme note.  I will hear it again before it disappears of the Radio 3 website and I'd urge anyone with an interest in a distilled sense of place to do the same.  However on the programme started inauspiciously with the tedious Tempest by Tchaikovsky. The evergreen Bruch first fiddle concerto well enough done by Raymond Chen but a less than adventurous piece to open a Proms account.  Frankly with so many great 20th century violin concerti (not to mention a couple of 21st century ones) anyone falling back on this tired old throwback ought to be talking to their manager.  The audience response was hyperbolic.

Ray Chen's conservatism at age 27, was thrown into powerful relief in Prom 16 by Chloe Hanslip, age 28, who gave us a world premiere of Michael Berkeley's Violin Concerto (though strictly for Violin and Electric Violin) a piece of emotional weight that makes the Bruch look very lightweight.  The concerto was written following the death of eth composer's wife and it has a profound sense of the pace and cloying grip of grief and mourning.  I was bowled over by it and hope it becomes a more regularly played piece - it has the tremendous sense of a clear and universal message from the composer to the listener.  His inclusion of the tabla - played by Diego Espinosa made for a stark relief to the Hendrix-like screams of the electric violin, so much more immediately impactful than other pieces for the instrument I've heard.  Espinosa's vocal contributions added to the fascinating sound world around Berkeley's utter convincing public self-examination.  A very fine piece - wonderfully realised with the assistance of Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  The orchestra had given a very fine reading of Dukas' brief ballet La Péri - a delightful, radiant piece.  Time hasn't permitted appraisal of excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet yet.  But whatever you do please hear the Berkeley - it is life affirming in so many ways despite it's origins.

Prom 17 on Thursday 28 July was a sombre affair though most of the music was comfortable.  Robert Levin played the Fourth Concerto of Beethoven and Sir Roger Norrington conducted, this was book ended by a Berlioz Overture (Beatrice et Benedict) and a rather rich Brahms First symphony.  All were well played.  The main issue here though was something far less to do with the Proms.

South West German radio has had two orchestras started immediately post World War Two - one based in Stuttgart the other covering Baden-Baden and Freiburg.  Over the years they have developed their own character and even their own sound - the Baden Baden orchestra was a central vehicle in the modernist movement which was based in that city.  There the likes of Rosbaud, Gielen and recently François Xavier Roth ploughed pioneering furrows with composers such as Ligeti, Stockhausen, Boulez and Schonberg.  At last year's Proms Roth gave us Ligeti, Boulez and Bartok in his orchestra's only Proms appearance - highlighting the quality of their approach to the modernists and security in the mainstream too. ( )

In Stuttgart the orchestra blossomed after Celibadache was appointed principal in 1971 and Marriner, Deneve and this Prom's conductor followed as Principals - Norrington for 13 years to 2011.  Over time the Stuttgart orchestra's quality has been refined to a high level and in a variety of repertoire they have record and toured.  In recent weeks we have watched as both of these orchestras have been put to the sword following a decision four years ago by the broadcaster.  This Prom was the final appearance of the fine Stuttgart orchestra, 11 days earlier Roth had presided over a remarkable concert in Freiburg comprising Ives, Ligeti, Schubert and Stravinsky's Rite. 

In London, the Stuttgart orchestra gave us a fine display of virtuosity and following a Brahms Hungarian Dance the leader gave a moving tribute to their conductor and with a sadness that swept the hall and no doubt all the listening public in UK and in Germany, Sir Roger took them through Elgar's Nimrod. For once, I buckled under the weight of the occasion - I'm sure others did too.  Sir Roger certainly did - and as the orchestra went off he embraced every player.

We are promised a new combined orchestra - if it achieves half the things its predecessors did, borne out of administration and not the ruins of German cities, then we will be lucky. To see an orchestra die is a terrible thing, to suffer two deaths in a fortnight is very hard indeed.


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