This blog will include my reviews of classical concerts, suggestions on similar music and pointers for first time listeners.
- Radio Music
- Child of Tree for solo percussion
- Concert for piano and orchestra / Fontana mix
- String Quartet
- Music for eight
An evening left mostly to chance, but precisely how John Cage wanted it, with Apartment House performing a selection of Cage’s works opening the Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music series. Throughout his life, Cage was at the forefront of Avant-Garde music, pushing the boundaries and developing a very unique style. With everything from cactus playing to stage clearance, the selection of works presented gives us a glimpse into his influences and ideas.
Arguably his most well know work, 4’33 opens to, well, silence. Composed to allow us to just hear what is around us, last night’s performance seemed a fitting start.
Our chance encounters begin in Radio Music, where each player has a radio and tunes between 55 and 156kHz. The silences, static and snippets of broadcasts we hear lead almost to a sense of expectation and excitement at what could come next.
A cactus isn’t something you’d see miked up every day, but for Child of Tree for solo percussion, a piece that uses 10 natural instruments from the world around us such as plants, we hear it’s spines plucked or rubbed in an improvisation decided by one of Cage’s favourite devices, the I Ching principles. The piece becomes an exploration in nature, as we hear sounds that we so often miss from the natural world.
Cage’s String Quartet begins a more intense second half, his attempt at representing silence without silence. It’s very effective; the first three movements seem to slow down before we’re launched into an up tempo forth. The quartet are concentrated, focussing us the audience on the works progression.
Cage’s work may seem quite haphazard, yet clear structural principles are define, as in Music for eight and Concert for piano and orchestra / Fontana mix, where the players decide on which parts to play and the order, an interesting concept and one which produces some fantastic textures.
Apartment House are very visibly respectful of Cage’s work, and while most of the audience seemed to just they were just clearing the stage, they were in fact performing the disciplined action required for 0’00, something which seemed to pass the audience by.
As I get used to not spending my evenings sat in the Royal Albert Hall gallery, it is a good time to reflect back on this Proms season and what it has meant to me.
One of the main things I will take away with me from this year’s Proms season is that there is always more music to hear, from not just more recent composers, but well known composers too. I have heard so much music that I’m not familiar with, but which has led me to explore and reassess my musical tastes.
Dusapin and Birtwistle, two composers whose styles I cannot say I have enjoyed in the past, have surprised me as I’ve really enjoyed and understood what they were trying to achieve with their new works.
It has also been interesting being part of experiments in the programme. The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Audience Choice worked surprisingly well, when it could have easily failed due to the scale, but all attending, from Arena to Gallery, got involved in the decision making process.
The varied programming of the Late Night proms, all brilliant examples of the diversity that BBC Proms season is developing to reach wider audiences will hopefully spill over into the main concerts next year. Proms such as the exploration of Percy Grainger’s music and the celebration for Reich’s birthday were arguably some of the most well received concerts, bringing in a distinctly younger audience.
Above all, I think this Proms season has allowed me to build on my knowledge through research for reviews, adding to the history of not only the works themselves within their periods, but also that of the composers and how the works may reflect their own experiences at the time.
I can’t say that I’m not tired after listening to such a great deal of music in such a concentrated period, but I have enjoyed the experience and would recommend that if you really want to immerse yourself in the Proms season, a season pass is well worth your time and money.
Sibelius - Finlandia
Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto
Rachmaninov - Symphonic Dances
Ravel - La valse
After a five year gap, the Philadelphia Orchestra returned for last nights Prom, bringing a new energy and life to some firm favourites, opening with Sibelius’ Finlandia, its rousing powerful opening brass seem to announce their return.
Joined by Janine Jansen for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, the energy doesn’t dissipate at all. Jansen’s playing is very emotive and light, and the contrasts that Charles Dutoit is able to illicit from the orchestra are breath-taking, and compliment Jansen’s playing perfectly.
It’s difficult to work out Rachmaninov’s intentions for his Symphonic Dances, as it encapsulates so many different emotions and conjures up all sorts of images, ones which seem to suggest a mystical nature. The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the work in 1941, Rachmaninov’s last. Its stunningly beautiful aching string theme in the first movement is played with such tenderness, Dutoit sculpting the sound with precision that leads beautifully into the livelier, more playful section which follows. We also hear the dies irae theme, one which is present in a lot of Rachmaninov’s works, in the opening of the third movement but by the end of the work it seems to have been banished.
Rounding off the evening is Ravel’s La Valse, a fitting end to an evening which marks the return of an orchestra whose sound we hope will be heard at the Proms on a regular basis from now on.
Bridge - Isabella
Harrison Birtwistle - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Holst - The Planets
The second new work this season by Harrison Birtwistle received its UK premiere last night, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, a conversation of sorts between the two. In this, his first offering for a solo violin, Birtwistle creates a stark world in a single movement, its landscape fairly bleak, yet oddly playful.
Christian Tetzlaff is as energetic as ever, giving himself over to the piece, his movement and playing letting the often volatile passages achieve their dialogue with the orchestra as he moved through the landscape, interacting with it. We’re reminded it is very much for Orchestra and Violin, as the communication between Tetzlaff and David Robertson is excellent and visually plays out like an unconventional dance. The ending suggests a changed character in the violin, as if he’s learned from his experiences
Holst’s The Planets has become a long standing season favourite for many, and last night seemed to be no exception. The BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a very exhilarating performance, and though whilst not perfect with some sense of eagerness amongst some parts, their exuberance showed. The delicate balance achieved between the strings and harp harmonics in Saturn, and the wonderful offstage chorus performed by the Holst Singers in Neptune particular highlights.
In his last outing this season, Frank Bridge’s Isabella, a work first conducted by Proms founder Henry Wood in 1907, demonstrates one of Bridge’s few orchestral works. It’s beautifully rich, full string sound is evocative of its love themes, but also contains the murderous and other worldly undertones from Boccaccio’s The Decameron on which it is based.
Beethoven - Missa Solemnis
From the opening Kyrie to the closing Agnus Dei, the massed performers tackling Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the last of this seasons Choral Sundays.
Sir Colin Davis gave his first performance of the work at the Proms some 40 years ago, and his love for the work is clear in his conducting today, a very precise and expressive figure, one which seems reflected by all involved.
This Mass is something quite spectacular to hear, and understandably so given the amount of research put into it’s creation. Not wanting to create something which adequately mimicked existing Masses, Beethoven studied works by Bach and Handel but his main focus was creating a work that captured the meaning of the mass and his own religious beliefs.
The London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus are impressive in the strength of their performance. The force of their combined sound hits with a punch, yet completely achieve an equilibrium with the London Symphony Orchestra, the true beauty of the balance heard in the quiet passages of the piece, such as in the Credo. Gordon Nikolitch’s solo violin passage is a high point of the whole work, so serene and personal.
Matthew Rose’s bass solo in the Agnus Dei is emotive, and the fantastic balance between soloists especially heard in the Amen at the end of the Credo and at the beginning of the Sanctus.
The scale of this work, and the demands on all involved doesn’t seem to phase the forces here, giving a performance that is easily one of my highlights of the whole season.
Thierry Escaich - Overture in the Baroque Style (improvisation)
J. S. Bach - Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’, BWV 659
Thierry Escaich - Evocation III (on ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’) UK Premiere
Reger - Chorale Prelude ‘Jauchz, Erd, und Himmel, juble hell’, Op. 67 No. 15
Franck - Chorale No. 2 in B minor
Liszt - Adagio in D flat major, S759
Thierry Escaich - Triptych on Themes by Liszt (improvisation)
The second organ recital this season at the proms opened with Thierry Escaich’s own Overture in the Baroque Style (improvisation), a wonderful start to a varied programme, mixing Escaich’s own works with the long established.
Part of J. S. Bach’s Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes, Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’, Escaich gives us first the sombre melodic original, and then we hear his own Evocation III, based around the Bach. The difference is stark between the two, yet the almost ominous tone is still present in Escaich’s work. He develops the Bach well to produce something very fresh.
We next move to a piece by Max Reger, ‘Jauchz, Erd, und Himmel, juble hell’, one of his 52 Chorale Preludes. Its energetic, chromatic nature could be seen to have had a great influence over Escaich when heard after his Evocation III.
Franck’s Choral No. 2 in B Minor follows, an emotional journey which has been suggested represents the tolling of a bell. A grave opening leads through to a very powerful climax and then we hear it fade away after it’s triumph.
To finish, Liszt’s Adagio in D flat major is followed by an improvisation by Escaich on two themes of Liszt’s given to him, the March from Piano Concerto No. 2 and Legend No. 2, ‘St Francis of Paola Walking on the Water’, both previously heard at the proms this season. Escaich’s improvisations have a modern feel to them. Escaich commented that he had to spend time with the organ of the Royal Albert Hall to make it his own and craft a sound, which he does throughout, but particularly in his last improvisations, creating a vast range of textures and colours from the organ.
1) Kodaly - Dances of Galanta
2) Bartok - Romanian Folk Dances
3) Josef Strauss - Music of the Spheres - Waltz
4) Glinka - Ruslan and Lyudmila - overture
5) Stravinsky - Tango
6) Berlioz - The Damnation of Faust - Hungarian March
After a quick change of clothes for the orchestra it’s off into the unknown, as we the audience get to choose what we want to hear the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO) to play from their repertoire. As Iván Fischer explains, this how music used to be played, with little rehearsal, and gives us a glimpse of the musicians immediate experience with the piece. So how does Audience Choice work?
Everyone is given a raffle ticket and a list of pieces (285!) when they enter. A roving tuba is then sent round with the tickets in its bell, and the audience pick 3 raffle ticket number. The people with those ticket numbers then choose a piece and then the whole audience vote on which of the three they’d like to hear. If someone in the hall doesn’t have the ticket number, then a toy rabbit is thrown into the crowd and the person who catches it chooses.
Chaos could ensue, but Fischer leads the proceedings with purpose and we’re treated to the 6 pieces listed above, interspersed with group performances by the orchestra, ranging from Transylvanian Folk to Body Percussion to some didgeridoo, all of which allows the librarian to rush around distributing parts.
Dances seem to be in favour as we get a passionate Dances of Galanta by Kodaly, a Strauss waltz and Stravinsky’s Tango. The lack of rehearsal doesn’t detract from the music, but enhances it as it’s like we’re seeing the musicians tackle the pieces as if for the first time, and the reaction from the audience suggests that this style of concert could become a firm favourite.
Liszt - Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke (Mephisto Waltz No. 1)
Mahler - Blumine
Liszt - Totentanz
Mahler - Symphony No. 1 in D major
A devilish Prom, presented by Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO), looks at works by Liszt and Mahler with the theme of death.
Opening with Liszt’s Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke (Mephisto Waltz No. 1), rich textured piece which depicts Mephistopheles and Faust shaking things up at a village inn, turning it into an sexually charged scene. The frenzied dancing gives way to a blissful ending, with some beautiful woodwind writing to represent elements of the forest Faust ends up in.
Continuing Liszts fascination with death, Dejan Lazić returns to the Proms for Totentaz, a dark yet playful work for piano and orchestra which incorporates the popular Dies Irae plainchant. Lazić makes for an impressive figure at the piano, intense and powerful as his flamboyant playing take us through this sometimes terrifying piece. In a change in pace, Lazić gave a cheeky performance of Fugue in D Minor, or the Gaga Fugue, as it’s based around the theme from Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.
Blumine was the title given to the rejected adagio from Mahler’s First Symphony. Lost for around 70 years, this movement did get three performances within the Symphony but Mahler removed it considering it to be ‘insufficiently symphonic.’
Hearing it before the First Symphony is quite interesting, as it’s difficult to imagine it in context, yet as a standalone piece it is charming.
The enthusiasm of the BFO is very evident in Mahler’s First Symphony, with Fischer putting everything into his conducting to produce one of the highlights of the Proms season. Themes run throughout, including even a minor version of Frère Jacques, all building to a stunning climax, a fantastic end to a wonderfully programmed Prom.
Graham Fitkin - Cello Concerto (World Premiere)
Beethoven - Symphony No. 9 in D minor, ‘Choral’
Pairing a World Premiere with a long standing Proms favourite should be a winning combination to expose people to new music, though you’d be surprised at which performance stood out.
The slow development of the opening of Graham Fitkin’s Cello Concerto is oddly expressive in its simplicity, the long sustained notes of the cello supported by the close harmony of the orchestra, creating a very bleak sound. As we progress through, there are bursts of fraught emotional tension from both the orchestra and the cello, a struggle in which neither seems to win, and ultimately the cello seems resolute to return to its sorrowful opening lines.
Fitkin has clearly understood his intended soloist well, playing to Yo Yo Ma’s ease in manipulating the tone that a single note of the cello can produce. Ma is hypnotic to watch, the passion and attention given to the long sustained notes of the opening is the same as that given to the more frenzied, and makes for a very affecting performance.
The same cannot be said for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This usually impressive work seemed very lifeless, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra seeming to almost completely ignore David Robertson. The lack of passion and general untidiness of the playing was not made up for by the soloists, who didn’t seem to work together at all and did not blend well. There was some small reprieve in the choral parts, sung by the Philharmonia Chorus and BBC Symphony Chorus, though even this seemed questionable at times.
Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major
Bruckner - Symphony No. 8 in C Minor
“Music is my life and my life is music.” So said Mozart, his vast output testament to the life he devoted to his music, and we hear a small piece of it tonight, his Piano Concerto No. 25.
David Fray is an impressive figure at the piano, a calm seems to take him as he delivers the elegant passages of the piece, his concentration very apparent. The pieces vigorous and energetic piano part constantly reminds us of the pieces themes, yet it seems fresh every time we hear it. The balance and conversation between the piano and the orchestra is expertly kept by Jaap van Zweden’s energetic and clear conducting.
The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra seem very comfortable under van Zweden in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor. Bruckner said his Eighth is a ‘Mysterium’, and that certainly seems apt for a work which he revised to accommodate a close friend who objected to it’s first version.
The exquisite adagio with its moving string chords and beautiful harp writing do make you wonder what there is in this grand scale work. The sense of yearning that seems to permeate the piece is juxtaposed with clarity, particularly the opening of the finale of the piece. A spectacular C major chord ends the piece, almost as if Bruckner finds what it is he has been looking for throughout the piece.