BBC Proms 2016 - Week 5 Profoundly moving music

Week 5

Prom 37 featured Huw Watkins' new Cello Concerto is a fine piece of work, distinctive in style but not I think overtly going out of it's way to be "modern". It has the right mix of abrasive elements and flowing melody (some gorgeous moments in the latter vein. And as one might expect it was played beautifully by the composer's brother, Paul, as soloist. As one of the three cello world premieres in this year's Proms it was a welcome in addition to the usual suspects, but as we know BBC commissions do not always get the repeat performances they deserve. I hope it is heard more often as it really has some great moments of stillness and beauty. It was preceded by Sir William Walton's Partita which was, unaccountably, getting its first performance since 1969. It's a rather rollicking work in the mood of the First symphony in its outer movements and a nice way to start the concert given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and there new chief conductor Thomas's Søndergård.

Webern's Passacaglia, Op 1 after the interval, is one of those bridging pieces - it was for me a stepping stone into the Second Viennese School and is glorious in it's own right too. It's a complex piece in some ways but very easy to enjoy without an understanding of it's many facets when you know about the form. But it's a pivotal and educational work and for my money it's simply not played enough at the Proms. The piece's London Premiere was at the Proms in 1931 under Sir Henry Wood, twenty three years after its premiere. It was third in a half that also featured Beethoven's Coriolan, "Sound an Alarm" from Judas Maccabaeus and the Wanderer Fantasy by Liszt! It then had to wait until the 1970s for another outing though making up for lost decades it was played 5 times in that one, but since then performances have dwindled to 4 in the last twenty years.

The concert finished with Brahms Fourth Symphony a work that has had 83 performances and yet seems to me to be quite misunderstood (as Brahms and his symphonies often are.). I think it's his one symphonic masterpiece and one of the most complex and forward looking pieces written by the composer, inhabiting world of remorse, self-doubt and missed opportunity - sheer unadulterated tragedy. As such I can barely bring myself to listen to it - Karajan put it up there with Sibelius 4 and Strauss' Elektra as complete tragedy. And yet some try to bring out the same Brahms responsible for the Academic Festival Overture in this work. It requires great inward examination but not too much control, great classical sensibility but the deep psychology of the early 20th century radicals. Søndergård tried to bring tragedy to the reading but in some instances momentum was lost and it became hard graft. It was well played but this is a hugely difficult work to bring off and I know of only two or three conductors who have managed to do it. Give us a break for 10 years and this work will come up afresh.

There's much to explore in the aside from Petroc Trelawny in his concert introduction to Prom 39 that Haydn is a neglected composer at the BBC Proms. The stats are grotesque: Beethoven - 1486 events, Mozart - 1335 events and Haydn - 379 events (even Sir Arthur Sullivan has had more - 420). So the inclusion of a symphony by Haydn which was getting it's Proms premiere wasn't that hard but was more than welcome. It was also wonderful to hear Sakari Oramo's clear sensibility in this music - wonderfully shaped phrases, beautiful balance and élan in delivery from the BBCSO and just that hint of storm and stress in the D Minor symphony No 34. It was a treat and I hope we will hear a lot more of them.

Guy Johnston's playing in Falling in the Fire was almost continuous and Charlotte Bray's woven tapestry of a war zone progressively more intense for it. The work, given it's world premiere here, was prompted by the destruction of the antiquities in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra by ISIS and the death of Tim Hetherington, a great photographer of conflict in Africa. His fate echoed terrible civilian losses and yet his temporary abstraction from the places he was covering brought a contrast important to the piece too. There are moments of great intimacy and calm in this piece - but there's also some of the clamour of war and it's explosive switches between introspect and visceral action. I have to say I found it very hard emotionally and it stayed with me for days especially after the second audition. Guy Johnston brought great strength to the playing and beauty too, but I think his greatest strength was some of the nervy, angry, edgy questioning - why here?, why now?, why me?, why us? Charlotte Bray has done that hard thing of taking current events and seeing the universal message in them and expressing it in abstract form. I commend it - but it is not for the faint hearted, but it is the least you can do understanding what those poor bombarded people suffer. Oramo and the BBCSO were  excellent.

Mahler 5 is a graveyard for so many conductors but Oramo approached it well after many encounters around the world. His approach avoids the obvious pitfalls of sprawling emotions on sleeve stuff and he emphasises the tight internal structure but also a symphony ground plan in 3 parts (with pleasingly the Adagietto as a introduction to the finale. It remains for many a journey from light to dark. He delivered it with aplomb - as did his orchestra (it's the best I've heard them play in this season's Proms). It was deeply involving from the off but so often more so musically than emotionally - something this needs. It has to be said this objectivity remains much more attractive than the opposite.

Prom 41, the Hallé prom, is always eagerly awaited and not without cause this year - a Berlioz rarity, a Matthew's Cradle song for cello and orchestra and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde as the main draw especially with the glorious Alice Coote as a soloist.

For those of us listening on the wireless, Sir Mark Elder went through the ground plan of Berlioz Overture King Lear and emphasised the point when it becomes clear the old King is losing it. Berlioz's acquaintance with music of madness surely helps here and it shows so it's a surprise this music is so little known and played - at the Proms heard only once this century and only 5 times in the last. It's a great theatrical piece from a great dramatic composer. Good it had an outing.

Colin Matthew's Berceuse for Dresdon got it's London premiere with Leonard Elschenbroich as soloist. It is a powerful work and the RAH became as sacred as any cathedral with the acoustic to match the Dresden bells tolling in this piece. It has a terrible resonance with the events it commemorates. It is not just a cradle song for those who are sleeping but also a telling reminder of why they sleep. Elschenbroich was lyrical and eloquent: he described the work as a song for cello and orchestra. It was and a very sad one at that. Following on from Charlotte Bray's piece I was struck by the eloquence of cello and orchestra across the range of expression in these fabulous pieces we have been hearing. It has been a real cello showcase. And in that the tremendous contribution which today's composers are making to the repertoire - not least with the three BBC Commissions in play - pushing the instrument further away from the world of Dvorak and Elgar.

There was more sadness in the second half Mahler - his song cycle/tone poem/symphony/threnody. It is "unique" so said the announcer, though I can think of a couple of works which approach it's variety and grandeur, though none that match of self-elevation. Hans Bethge's text we learnt in the interval talk doesn't bear much relation to the likely Tang Dynasty Chinese poems, but Mahler leapt on them and it became a starry turn in the Mahler circus. I do enjoy it now and again but not so much when it's done like this: there was none of bitterness or resignation of some readings. This had little to do with the singers Alice Coote and Gregory Kunde - both of whom were radiant and sympathetic. Partly it was about Sir Mark's choices of tempi and balance - tough calls I know but the performance left me feeling more angry with Mahler than usual for his self-indulgence. His scoring is so thick in the first movement that Sir Mark asked Colin Matthews to slim it down - as Schonberg had done to the entire score. It helped but I fear this - like much else beside in the Mahler catalogue will be regarded as a trifle silly one day - not yet I'll grant you, the house loved it.

The Late night Prom 42 by The Sixteen under Harry Christopher's direction was an alternation of Bach and the music of Arvo Pärt. It was exquisite. The juxtaposition of pieces and indeed the internal contrasts was revealed rather wonderfully by this choir which shines in all departments and they move as a body and with great equality of weight. The result in the Bach was that some of the counterpoint became a complete revelation and a deep joy given that it was so beautifully sung. The austerity and spare lines of Pärt provided a similar experience of intense pleasure and chastening reflection. Again I found myself more than overwhelmed and listening on the web I found myself pausing the concert and going away to just reflect a while. Quite how it was in the concert hall I can only guess - profound I think is the best word I can muster.

Prom 43: They queued to hear him and her, Barenboim and Argerich - the great showman polymath and the reluctant virtuoso. To be fair these glimpses of the two "childhood friends" are something to be savoured but also a bit of a surprise. In my long 30 years plus of listening to classical music, reading Gramophone and the papers I didn't know they were connected by anything other than country. Collaborations have been a recent feature of Argerich's work and so perhaps we should expect these kinds of concerts more often. The demand is certainly there. The orchestra was the West East Divan Orchestra - Barenboim has brought them here regularly since there debut 6 years ago. I'd love to hear them under a different baton if only to see if Barenboim raises the bar as much as we think and the orchestra members say he does. But they are much improved and they have given us Beethoven and Boulez, Berlioz and much else. This programme is not just a telling musical one but also a political given in their midst are Jewish musicians playing Wagner.

They began with Jorg Widmann's Con Brio - a concert overture based on the con brio movements in Beethoven's 7th and 8th symphonies. It’s a nice diversion - especially for those well acquainted with the source - no strangers to new music the orchestra delivered with the panache of a Rossini overture. Next Argerich delivered the Liszt first concerto - I'm not a fan of the work but it's hard not to be pulled into her astounding delivery which undimmed by oft cited stage nerves: her playing still has a frisson all of its own. The first half drew to a close with an encore for both pianists a work for four hands by Schubert - a Rondo in which Barenboim took the high part and to my ear took his unique way with Schubert: he kinda flattened it, Argerich was also present.

Barenboim gave us a Ring cycle a few years ago at the Proms with the Berlin Staatskapelle - now it was the turn of WEDO. I think I said at the time of the four great operas that sometimes Barenboim's magic is only obvious over the long haul. In the four fragments he ventured to liken to a symphony, some things felt a bit lumpy. The half comprised the Overture from Tannhauser, two pieces of Gotterdammerung and the Prelude to Act 1 of Meistersinger. The first "movement" was one of those pieces that Barenboim deconstructs before your ears. It was great for students looking at how the melody and accompaniment diverge and converge. The Gotterdammerung excerpts were not rushed and were glorious: the orchestra as thrilled as much as they were thrilling, by the sound of it. The Meistersinger Prelude sang out and the orchestra played well especially the woodwind, but there were moments were it still felt a little loose in ensemble. The encores started with the Third Act Prelude to Meistersinger - this is a different kettle of fish and Barenboim led them to a place of richness and tranquillity the concert deserved as an ending. The whole reading was lush in every sense of the word. The WEDO final encore was the Third Act Prelude from Lohengrin - despatched a tad quickly but the prommers loved it. WEDO has come a long way - they are very fine musicians - but I'm not sure we always hear them in the best hands. This concert was televised on 25th August and on iPlayer thereafter.

There's a very interesting Guardian interview/profile with Barenboim which casts a light on the relationship with the orchestra and the man's drive, it's worth reading

He has two more Proms with the Berlin orchestra coming up - we'll see how they fair.


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