BBC Proms 2016 - Week 7

Prom 55: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla took the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for the first time at the Proms for an evening of propulsive music.  Mozart 's Magic Flute Overture was fast out of the blocks but didn't stint on any of the subtlety and suavity we'd expect of a modern reading.  The players respond well to their new chief conductor and there was much to enjoy not least their collective energy.  Barbara Hannigan took the soloist role (though she might also be considered co-creator) in Hans Abrahamsen's 'let me tell you' songs in the voice of Ophelia.  These seven amazing songs   take their cue from Paul Griffiths book describing Shakespeare's character in only the words the playwright gave her.  Hannigan advised Abrahamsen to set them - his first work for solo voice and has been a commanding presence at the world premiere with the Belrin Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons in late 2013, the first UK performance - with this Birmingham orchestra again under Nelsons in June 2014 and now under Gražinyté-Tyla in it's Proms and London premiere.  It was a very distinguished performance with Hannigan in luscious form even in the huge space and the orchestra supporting her explorations of the heady text and orchestrations.  It's a piece of exquisite writing and powerfully immediate (for a modern piece). It was wise not to try to out-do this show stopper in the second half and so we have a strictly disciplined Tchaikovsky symphony, the Fourth.  I liked the way the conductor turned the heat down for this work which I think has been played too long as though in a manic state.  The whole concert was a marvellous introduction to the new conductor and one must hope her relationship is close and as exciting and productive as this concert - they do have a knack of finding great conductors there!

The BBC Symphony Orchestra was in numbers for Prom 57.  I was struck by Thomas Larcher's new symphony "Kenotaph" a reflection on and tribute to the sadly routine tragic loss of life in the Mediterranean sea as migrants and refugees are forced by people smugglers to pay to risk their lives on open water.  The work is rather matter of fact but incredibly serious and moving.  It is a work that I hope has legs beyond the advocacy of Semyon Bychkov.  Whatever the composer's motivation it’s a work which has a reflective quality in a world where it seems life has become very cheap.  Amonst the tumult and turmoil there is a reflection on much Austro-German music of the past as well as Larcher more typical more impersonal style.  It was followed by a heartfelt and stirring reading of Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder sung by Elisabeth Kulman in great voice (on the radio at least) - supreme control and idiomatic interpretation.  I can't find much in these songs usually but in this reading at least we had something at least very well done.  Bychkov is rather a fan of Strauss' Alpine Symphony and last gave it at the Proms in 2010.  It was - as with all of Bychkov's readings - a performance which has had long and detailed considerationand which comes to some unique conclusions.  In this case he plays down the early pictorialism and gives it much more of a symphonic run to a grand climax.  As so often I find myself admiring Bychkov's readings not responding to them emotionally - I said much the same about his reading of the 
Leningrad Symphony last year.  In the final analysis his structural approach I think fails Strauss for precsiely the opposite reasons that so many early interpretations of the work did until Karajan.  They over-played it's literal programme, Karajan retrieved the patheism beneath, Bychkov reveals the symphony beneath but in the process losses so much I feel was important to Strauss in philosophical terms.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra played the entire concert wonderfully.

Prom 60 had Philippe Jordan conducting the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in a familiar pairing of Bach and Bruckner.   I was looking forward to Christian Gerhaher singing Cantata No 82 'Ich Habe genug' - as it turned out he was rather disadvantaged by a conductor and orchestra who didn't seem as one - especially in the opening movement where the oboe obbligato and orchestra gave the soloist choppy waters to negotiate - all three taking a different speed it seemed and each trying to accommodate one but not the other.  Bruckner 9 was much better but still on the lightweight side of the symphony - all far too literal, though with great spirit from the young players. 

Prom 62 - Simone Young made her Proms debut conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a surprising programme which confirmed her standing as one of Europe's finest conductors of large scale works and the BBC Symphony's capability in these big pieces even after taking the lion's share of the load in this music festival.  Bayan Northcott's Concerto for Orchestra was sparkling and entertaining though I suspect will suffer through association.  The wonderfully talented Baiba Skride was somewhat wasted on the fifth violin concerto by Mozart - the so called 'Turkish' though her encore Johann Paul von Westhoff's Imitazione delle Campane showed her real firepower.  The lightness of the first half was probably to take allowance for the enormous second half.  Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony bore down on us like a hail storm of notes and the mystical ambiguity of Tagore's poetry.  It is neither particularly symphonic or especially lyrical in my book - though it is much better loved on the continent than here.  It enjoys a reputation as taking on the mantle (and excessive habits) of Mahler and it's interesting as a recovering Mahlerphile to hear all that is worst in Mahler repeated here.  That said it was sung with beauty and fortitude by Christopher Maltman and Siobhan Stagg and conducted with grace and power by Simone Young.   It's Proms history is interesting - it's only been given four times at the Proms - three of those with the BBC Symphony orchestra and the other with the BBC Philharmonic.  The first out was in 1981 (57 years after it premiere) under Michael Gielen, then by Dennis Russell Davies and Bernhard Klee before this performance - all these conductors, like Young, working in Germany at the time of performance.  Zemlinksy's works have only had 9 performances - which seems a little light for a disciple of Mahler - but perhaps he's been rumbled.

In Prom 63 William Christie that doyen of the French Baroque went off the beaten track to serve up Bach's B Minor Mass - not as radical a departure as it might seem because in this great work of pastiche by Bach many styles are brought together some of which are happy territory for Les Arts Florissants and their conductor.  It was one of the most enjoyable Proms of the second half of the season.  As beautifully done as any you might hear on record but with a frisson of live performance and a good deal of style to boot.  The soloists were wonderful - never dragging or conversely over pointed.  There was a lyrical fluency to it all but with great power and emotion too.  The hall was caught up in it all as was I listening at home.  Superb - one might say Christie would be ideal for the St John Passion - but that might be greedy…


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