BBC Proms 2016 - Week 6 Islands of Beauty
Prom 46 - The inclusion of a piece by the late Gerard Grisey (1946 - 1998) in any concert is to be applauded but the inclusion of the wonderful Derives as a UK premiere is also something of a sadness. This music is nearly 50 years old and still seems to be novel and modern, but it should have been heard here a long time ago. Enhanced by a some of the sentiment around a composer who died too early to establish himself in the concert hall. Derives is set up for amplified ensemble and orchestra in either a difficult conversation between parties without mediation or in direct opposition. What is wonderful about so much to the music of this period is how wonderful and interesting it sounds. The narrative is constantly shifting between the parties, but the landscape perpetually reveals delights in texture as well as aspect. It's a marvellous piece and wonderfully done with patience by Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner made her Proms debut with Mahler's Rückert Lieder: it was a very good performance and she has a marvellous rich voice filling that daunting space and holding the Prommers in rapt silence. So wonderful to find such a strong mezzo voice on an English stage - she has sung Judith and the Nurse in FROSCH and most recently Fricka in Stuttgart and Chicago. I hope she comes back soon. These songs were not conceived as a set and Baumgartner chose to end with "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" which to my ears - jaded admittedly - ends the piece on it's most saccharin of notes. That's of little import for those who love it so they swooned at here singing and Mahler's maanerisms. Volkov and a starry set of soloists and the excellent BBC Symphony Chorus gave us one of the most beautiful performances of Mozart's C Minor Mass I've heard. Technically very clean and precise but also ravishing especially Louise Alder and Carolyn Sampson who convinced me of the merits of the soprano fireworks in this liturgical piece. It was a new edition to me and I felt Volkov's approach had a deal more authenticity about it than many of the HIP performances which we have had in the last 30 years. Balanced, measured and yet vocally thrilling and dramatic. A wonderful Prom to hear great singing and a unjustly under-played composer - let's hope we don't have to wait until 2046 to hear more Grisey at the Proms.
Prom 47 started with Piers Hellawell's new piece has 5 parts and whilst he acknowledges it's darkness he says it wants to lift our spirits. It was played with amazing fluency by the Ulster Orchestra under the baton of Rapheal Payare, a Venuzelan, former horn player in the SBVO and hot talent on the block. Payare stood in for Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the BRSO in Munich a couple of months ago and I was very impressed with his Brahms Fourth - not least because it saved it's powder until the last movement and then delivered it with steely aim. The Hellawell piece isn't hard to take in or indeed to take on and it is effective in a sense but I found it lacked a sense of cohesion (but I'm only two auditions in). There is a great fragile beauty in the slow movement but we are - thankfully - not encouraged to dwell there for too long. Like his countryman, Gustavo Dudamel, Payare is not always to the fore and seemed to me to be an excellent accompanist with Anderszewski in Munich. Same here with the marvellous Narek Haknazaryan on cello - a Radio 3 New Generation Artist dispatched the first Haydn Cello Concerto with a facility and elegance which made me wonder why more cellist just don't get on with it and let Haydn speak for himself in this work. Payare stuck to him like glue and the Ulster Orchestra players especially the wind players were wonderfully sympathetic. Haknazaryan provided unique cadenzas (his own) and then delivered a Sicilian piece for cello and voice, Lamentatio by Giovanni Sollima which brought an ecstatic house to the boil. It was the third vocal cadenza - after Gabetta and Kuuisto of the season. After the interval the Ulster Orchestra were given chance to shine - which they fully deserved after their dreadful year of uncertainty. The Radio 3 announcer Andrew MacGregor tweeted that they played their socks off - as though they were a group of worthy 6th formers. The orchestra's efforts were a good deal more nuanced than that. It was a unhurried, intimate reading of the symphony - which didn't lack punch but drove home only when the music reached it's heights. I loved the woodwind interplay and the careful crafting of balance - and for once one could hear that Tchaikovsky was a ballet composer throughout the piece - from memory it had many of the qualities of Dudamel's reading but was more transparent than the SBOV recording. There is no way that the UK and the people of Northern Ireland should be without this orchestra - they are a band of very fine musicians who deserve better treatment than they have had. And on the evidence of the two concerts I've heard from Payare they have a great conductor who will put any question of their future beyond doubt.
Proms Chamber music hasn't had a lot to hold my interest so far this year but Louis Lortie is a pianist of suave sensibility and a great showman so this concert PCM 6 wasn't to be missed. His programme for this hour began with Lizst channeling Rossini - two of the latter's Soirée musicales and ended with the more substantial and satisfying Venezia e Napoli a supplement to the second Annee de Perigranage. In between we had Poulenc's Napoli a work of fierce energy and virtuosity arising from a visit to Italy: Lortie was dazzling and fluent and fluid in this seemingly slight tribute in three movements. Lortie loves Faure and it showed in the gentle caress in two Faure Barcarolle which weren't out of place in this Italian themed concert. I tend to think that Faure's lack of programmatic titles is both weakness and strength for his works - he fits in here with the bright light of Italy but equally these works could describe the joy of something much more intimate. He ended with Liszt's famous portrait of two Italian cities of marvellous colour and vivacity. Throughout Lortie provokes admiration not least for his commitment to the pieces and to interesting programmes and to his remarkable sensitive virtuosity.
Prom 50 was an odd one - Vedernikov in his Proms debut though he has been doing concerts with the BBC Symphony through last year. I couldn't have been more bored with Tchaikovsky's Hamlet - though this was mostly the fault of the composer. Stephen Hough despatched the Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with style - unsurprisingly a show stopper - though I found his way sometimes disrupted the flow. The Prokofiev Third symphony was low warming up - the orchestra and conductor perhaps not quite on the same wavelength but it is a magnificent work and it was great to hear it instead of Symphony No 5. As for whether this is a promising partnership - I'm not sure I heard enough exploration on this occasion but then who would blame any conductor at their proms debut who decided to play it safe.
Prom 53 - I liked Emily Howard's scintillating Concerto for Orchestra called Torus a lot but it took a little while to engage because I got distracted. I blame Radio 3, who do some composer's a disservice by asking them to speak about the piece before it's played. I have no doubt that no composer is going to stand there and tell an earnest announcer that they just sit and write the notes that come into their head, so every piece must have a compelling backstory or at least a high minded one. Torus is derived in one sense from the composer's imagined concept of being on the surface of a torus: a mathematical figure and notion popular in the field of particle acceleration. For most of us the form of a torus will be most familiar as a doughnut (with a hole in the middle). Clearly it would never do to say that this confectionwas an inspiration - so high minded mathematics are invoked. I spent too much time thinking about this bizarre alternative view than I did on engaging with the piece initially. On a further listen, it is a marvellous soundscape and thanks to their great relationship with the composer it was very well presented. Kudos too for Alexey Stadler who took on the Shostakovich first Cello Concerto from Truls Mørk at short notice. It's hard to believe in the years that Petrenko has been at the helm in Liverpool he has changed them into an orchestra that sounds more idiomatic in Shostakovich than any on the planet including all the Russian pretenders. The concerto was a highlight of this concert. I wonder why RLPO get to visit only every other year - they are clearly now one of the best orchestra's in Europe and attracting start names this coming season. The BBC could easily drop one of the concerts by the overworked BBCSO and give them an annual voice. I will not comment on the second half - Rachmaninov's Third Symphony - it's music I don't enjoy.