BBC Proms 2016 - Week 4 - first halves are best!

Prom 27: Thomas Dausgaard has reputation for descaling the great works of the romantic repertoire - his Schumann symphony cycle uses a chamber orchestra of less the 40 and the same partnership has tackled Beethoven, Tchaikovsky 6 and Bruckner 2. Here with a slimmed down BBCSSO and a sympathetic soloist he shrank back from the excesses of gigantic orchestras to present Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.  A more intimate - and to my ear - much more appealing way of dealing with the piece. The similarly ambitious soloist was Finnish virtuoso Pekka Kuusisto, pre performance he made important points in his R3 interview about how people don't listen if you shout all of the time, so his idea is something which occasionally drops to a whisper.  Beneath that veneer of perception of how it ought to go, shorn of that bombast, the concerto comes over as an elegant and attractive work and suddenly much more emotional at this scale.  I hope Dausgaard and Kuusisto record it. I hope Kuusisto comes to the Proms again soon - his Finnish folk song "My Darling is Beautiful" encore had 6000 strong audience participation. His gags and demeanour were  delightful also all of a piece with attempts to make the Proms more accessible (catch it here ).  Stravinsky's Petrushka was sadly given in it's less exotic 1947 version. It was well executed but without the mystery of some or much of the feeling of ballet.

Prom 27 and Prom 30 contained two halves of Helen Grime's new work "Two Eardley Pictures": a tribute and celebration of the art of Joan Eardley (1921 - 1963) who worked on the East Coast of Scotland depicting the austerity and the powerful images of both landscape and people.  The paintings "Catterline in Winter" and "Snow" can be seen here
Grime's work has sometimes evaded me but these two pieces (even before I saw the paintings) reminded of me of some cold winters when visiting friends in this part of the world.  The music is as powerful as the visual representations which though dark are shot through with highlights and colour. Catterline in Winter has oppressive episodes mixed with a brilliant glistening light - but these are shards of light - attracting the ear but never staying around long enough to warm the soul. It's a essentially muted landscape where the eye is drawn to warmth of mankind, resilience and passing light as the sun is freed for a moment from cloud.  "Snow is unsurprisingly another winter scene so of the same aural landscape transfers from its companion piece.  The painting is more far sighted with distant dark woods against a setting sun.  As with it's companion piece, two different textures abut against each other - pulling out the elements of contradiction in the paintings - man against nature, cold against warmth etc.  Both pieces have Scottish traditional tunes in their culmination but I'd be hard pressed even after three auditions to say much more about the melodic content.  But together these pieces make an abstract hostile landscape - illustrated with fierce honesty by Eardley and Grime - into a world of community, homeliness and warmth.

The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland were in the capable hands of Ilan Volkov for Prom 30 which was the ensemble's sixth appearance at the Proms since 1988.  They gave the second half of the new Grime diptych which I cover above. It was wonderfully played - atmosphere aplenty - changing the Albert Hall into a Scottish snow scene at sunset.  That was followed by Tchaikovsky's Second Piano concerto - nowhere near as subtle as the hushed violin concerto two nights before.  The soloist was Pavel Kolesnikov - a Radio 3 New Generation Artist - he played with gusto.  The concert ended with a strong reading of Stravinsky's full version of The Firebird, testing at times for the young players, but full of fine solos and a strong line.  Good to hear this orchestra and let's hope we hear them more often than every 5 years which was the pattern for their first 20 years of Proms exposure..

Prom 31 started with a luxurious and steely reading of Prokofiev's answer to the Le Sacre de Printemp, the Scythian Suite.  One can never really tell how much of this is down to the conductor, but there was very welcome verve and confidence in the opening bars.  The majority of the piece was bright and superbly paced but I felt that Dausgaard missed a trick in the finale - where Gergiev drags the sunrise out for an age and to the maximum orchestral volume - it seemed cooler in the Scandinavian's hands (perhaps not so in appropriate).  The Tchaikovsky First Piano concerto (inaccurately billed as the first or original version by the BBC) was the first revision of the concerto, not the posthumous version we regular hear (if we listen to it at all).  Gerstein made a good case for it as a much less mechanically and musically gigantic.  Though I still struggled to enjoy it.  I don't know the numbers involved but everything including the orchestra seemed more intimate - perhaps less successfully than in the fiddle concert o earlier in the week.  I think piano writing by Tchaikovsky  struggles if it goes beyond the intimate into the declamatory.  The final piece was another Proms favourite that needs a rest - everyone seems to do Le Sacre de Printemps nowadays.  It's losing it's edge and it's shock value.  Though to be fair, the BBCSSO acquitted themselves very well - nicely delivered though some of the soloists didn't take the opportunity to shine quite so much (admittedly hard to do in the RAH).

PCM4 was one of those occasions where you hear musicians doing what they love and a mixed programme of works by Brotsröm, Weill and Gruber were well mixed and Håkan Hardenberger and Gruber led us through with relaxed performance of the highest quality - a Gruber piece crowned the hour.
Prom 32 began an extremely harrowing account of Schonberg's A Survivor from Warsaw.  This performance was immediate, arresting and for me very disturbing.  It did a thing few performances do to me nowadays - planted me in the immediate emotional world of the composer.  Horrifying and intensely personal and angry, it threads a course to the Hebrew prayer Sh’ma Yisroël: a gut wrenching reminder of the fortitude of so many in the face of death and the power of their faith.  I can't commend the quality highly enough - but superficial praise is not appropriate here.  It had a heart stopping immediacy and commitment from all sides which left me in tears.  When I reflected later I thought our world does not seem to have learned a thing.  The Philharmonia orchestra were conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen narration by David Wilson Johnson and the men of the Philharmonia Voices: it simply must be heard. I'd say the same about the second piece 'Shadows of Time' by Henri Dutilleux - played with superb concentration by the Philharmonia who were on hot form for this Prom.  The piece reflects on the great barbarism of the Nazis and poignant adds a deeply moving section for three treble soloists - such thought accentuated by the beauty of what Dutilleux wrote.  Something about this concert was special: Salonen and his orchestra working with a crystal clear precision and full bodied but subtly inflected sound.  The sounded like the Philharmonia of my youth and it was hearty re-assurance that at least one of the London orchestra's is putting quality over quantity.  Mahler's first symphonies is one of my least favourites - it was beautifully played and balanced but I only learned more about my levels of distaste for it's material and structures.  But the first half was a once a season experience - red hot.

Mark Simpson's new piece Israfel, inspired by a poem by Edgar Allen Poe (also used by Leonard Bernstein in Songfest) about this mystical angel.  It's a very attractive and inviting piece with which opened Prom 33.  I can't use "accessible" with new music because it's become a euphemism for easy listening in some circles - though in the real sense of the word, this piece can be picked up by anyone.  Popular appeal is something which some advocates for new music, especially those we most hear on Radio 3, seem to despise, but we shouldn't be distracted by that cabal.  Mena and the BBCPO gave it's London premiere with some aplomb - the weight and power of this angel who in the Koran, though unnamed, has the sweetest voice and breathes life into other angels.  Mark Simpson's music has an immediate energy and a propulsive quality.  That's not to say he doesn't inject a delicate, ethereal lightness into the piece too.  Another marvellous atmospheric new music again in the season's Proms.  Johannes Moser was the soloist in Dutilleux's 'Tout un monde lointain ...' - his cello concerto for Rostropovich.  It’s a deeply beautiful piece - you can probably say that about all Dutilleux's music to be honest - he was a composer supremely interest in those aspects of harmony and texture which are most immediately alluring.  It was a another very fine performance from the orchestra which seemed surer footed than in the previous week.  Dutilleux is old new music now - mainstreamed at the Proms and we hope unlikely to go through a 50 year wilderness like composers in the 20th century had to endure.  Speaking of a 50 year wilderness….Elgar's First Symphony could be rightly counted as the most popular by an Englishman if such things were assessed by the number of performances in it's first year worldwide.  But that doesn't cut any ice with me.  As I listened carefully to the beautiful playing of the BBCPO and the earnest affection Juanjo Mena lavishes on every drop of the piece, I still find myself repelled by it's language.  They did it well: there are 500 symphonies I'd rather have heard to be honest.  But another great crop of concerts from the BBC Philharmonic this Proms season.  Before the Elgar they played a most touching tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies "Sir Charles His Pavan" itself written as tribute at the death of Max's great early advocate Sir Charles Groves.

Prom 34 was another outing for the BBCSO under Sakari Oramo.  First up was the final piece in the Proms mini tribute to Dutilleux 'Timbres, espace, mouvement' just illustrated three things a) there are some great advocates for Dutilleux's music amongst conductors of our great orchestras (more so when you look at previous performances of Dutilleux's works at previous Proms), b) the four pieces I've heard so far really aren't enough  and c) how wonderfully varied and exquisitely beautiful this man's writing is.  Oramo put real soul into the line of this piece and the BBC Symphony were incredibly secure.  There have only been 20 performances of Dutilleux's music at the Proms overall including 4 of the cello concerto and 3 of Shadows of Time - more needs to be explored, but as tributes go - this was just a taster.

HK Gruber "Nali" wrote Busking (2007) for Hardenberger as soloist (he had also commissioned it's old sibling, the Trumpet Concerto 'Ariel' from 1998-9) but the new work is for string orchestra and banjo and accordion duo played by Mats Bergström and Claudia Buder respectively.  These works by Nali - especially when he addresses ground he had already traversed - reveal the fertility of his mind and the strength of his writing.  Here he starts with the soloist just using the mouthpiece, moves on to the E flat trumpet for the rest of the movement.  The evocative pairings of flugelhorn with banjo and accordion just reach across so many musical traditions and cultures it seems to me to some of the most evocative writing around.

In a week where first halves were often more interesting than second halves, the pattern continued with Oramo leading his orchestra through Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  It must be hard for conductors with the weight of tradition bearing down on any new approach but I find Oramo's Beethoven a bit too powerful, pushing always to the next landmark in the drama.  There's no want of detail or indeed speed, but there's something amiss in terms of weight of purpose.  Which is a clumsy way of saying "it's not for me".


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