BBC Proms: Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

BBC Proms: Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony
Hallé, Sir Mark Elder, Benjamin Grosvenor, Anna Lapwood

Royal Albert Hall, 7 September 2021

The anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall and its monumental organ has resulted in rather more than the usual number of organ events during this year’s BBC Proms. Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings (reviewed here) made a wonderful start on the first night. It was followed by two solo recitals (reviewed here and here) and two other very different Proms, both including the organ, on successive nights. The second of these is reviewed here, from the BBC Radio 3 broadcast.

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BBC Proms: Bach & Handel

BBC Proms: Bach & Handel
Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Ann Hallenberg
Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2021

Handel: Donna, che in ciel HWV 233
Bach: Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4
Handel: Dixit Dominus

Eschewing all the social distancing provisions that the BBC Proms had arranged for orchestras, John Elliott Gardiner’s own Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists crammed tight onto the (specially enlarged) Royal Albert Hall stage for a performance of two pieces seemingly written for the same Sunday in 1707 by two 22-year-old composer, Bach and Handel, both at the start of their very different careers. This review is based on the BBC Four televised broadcast.

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BBC Proms: Organ recital 2

BBC Proms: Organ recital 2
Peter Holder, organ
Royal Albert Hall, 4 September 2021

Meyerbeer: Le prophète Coronation March, transcr. W. T. Best
Bach: Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 537
Widor: Symphony No. 5 – Allegro vivace (1st movt)
Saint-Saens: Fantaisie No. 1 in E flat major
Liszt: Fantasy & Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam

The second of this year’s BBC Proms organ recitals was given by Peter Holder, sub-organist of Westminster Abbey, replacing Thomas Trotter. As part of the joint anniversaries of the Royal Albert Hall and centenary composer Saint-Saëns, the programme recreated elements of Saint-Saëns’ legendary performances on the Royal Albert Hall organ in the opening season of 1871 and in 1880.

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BBC Proms: Josquin


BBC Proms: Josquin des Prez
The Marian Consort
Cadogan Hall, 9 August 2021

Josquin des Prez: Praeter rerum seriem
Sethus Calvisius: Praeter rerum seriem
Josquin des Prez: Benedicta es, caelorum Regina
Adriaan Willaert: Benedicta es, caelorum regina
Josquin des Prez: Inviolata, integra et casta es
Vicente Lusitano: Inviolata, integra et casta es

Josquin des Prez (c1450/1455 – 1521) is one of the composers’ anniversaries celebrated during this years BBC Proms season, 500 years after his death. In this lunchtime concert, the Marian Consort, making their Proms debut, gave a programme of musical borrowings, contrasting three of Josquin’s greatest motets with three later musical homages that each reworked Josquin’s own music for a new age. Josquin pieces were themselves borrowings, as they use pre-existing melodies.

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BBC Proms: Organ Recital 1

BBC Proms: Organ Recital 1
Bach and Improvisations
Martin Baker
Royal Albert Hall, 1 August 2021

Yet again, the BBC Proms has programmed an organ recital at a time (11:45 on a Sunday morning) when most organists are at work. A modest audience was the obvious result. It was originally intended to have been given by Oliver Latry, organist at Notre Dame but Covid-related travel problems resulted in Martin Baker stepping in at short notice to replicate the planned programme of Bach and improvisations. The Royal Albert Hall opened in 1871, along with the mighty Father Willis organ, then powered by two steam engines and now magnificently restored by Manders. Subsequent alterations and rebuilds have now resulted in 9,999 pipes that would stretch for nine miles if laid end to end. Bizarrely, it has its own Twitter account!

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BBC Proms: First Night

BBC Proms: First Night
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers
Dalia Stasevska, Daniel Hyde

Royal Albert Hall, 30 July 2021

And so, after two years’ absence, only partially relieved by last year’s shortened and audience-free Proms season, here we sat, to let the sound of music creep in our ears. Dalia Stasevska, the Finnish Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and director of last years’ Last Night, opened this year’s Proms season with a well-conceived programme of Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, Poulenc’s dramatic Organ Concerto, a newly commissioned work by Sir James MacMillan and Sibelius’s Second Symphony. It was a night to remember, for many reasons.

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Prom 47: Bach & Bruckner

Prom 47: Bach & Bruckner
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons
Michael Schönheit, organ
Royal Albert Hall, 23 August 2019

J S Bach
Fantasia in G minor, BWV 542, Jesus bleibet meine Freude (arr: Schmidt-Mannheim),
Prelude in E flat major, BWV 552i, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645,
Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552ii
Anton Bruckner
Symphony No 8 in C Minor (1890 Novak version)

The idea of pairing Bruckner with organ music at the Proms is not new and makes sense, not least because Bruckner gave several organ recitals in the Royal Albert Hall. Bearing in mind that most people would have come to this Prom to hear Bruckner 8 rather than a short sequence of well-known organ works, there seems to have been a misjudgement in both the choice of organ pieces and the performance. The Royal Albert Hall organ is capable of the most enormous sounds, with power that will easily out-blast the largest symphony orchestra, as evidenced during the Glagolitic Mass in Prom 1 (reviewed here). It is also capable of producing a vague impression of the sort of sound that Bach might have known, albeit at considerable loss of power and aural presence. Michael Schönheit, the organist of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, fell into the uncomfortable gap between these two possibilities, choosing registrations that muddied the music but made no real aural presence in the hall. Continue reading

BBC Prom 74: Handel – Theodora

Handel: Theodora
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Royal Albert Hall, 7 September 2018

Of all Handel oratorios, the one that is probably most likely to put you off Christianity (or put you even further off Christianity) is Theodora. Set during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, the story is of two love-struck Christians who refuse to honour the Roman gods, and then vie with each other as to which of them is to be put to death as a result, each insisting on taking the place of the other until the exasperated Valens, President of Antioch, has them both sent to their heaven. It was unusual for an opera or oratorio to end badly for the leading lights, which perhaps explains its lack of success at the time. The text doesn’t bear much scrutiny either, the earlier arias of the Christian contingent and their confidence that the Lord would provide protection ‘here and everywhere’,  and the chorus’s response that the Everlasting One was ‘Mighty to save in perils, storm and death’, seemed a little ill-judged in the forthcoming circumstances.   But, setting aside the silly plot, the text and music express aspects of love, religious freedom, bloody-mindedness, and the assumptions that Christians are far more musically intelligent than ‘heathens’. The latter is a particular feature of Handel’s music, with the choir switching between Heathen and Christian to distinctly different music, the former generally rather four-square, clumpy, and harmonically unadventurous, the latter tuneful and svelte.  Continue reading

BBC Prom 73: Tallis Scholars

Before the Ending of the Day
Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips
Royal Albert Hall, 6 September 2018

The late-night concert on 6 September, following the Britten War Requiem, was a quasi-liturgical performance of the service of Compline, the concluding service of the daily eight canonical hours in Catholic liturgy. After the concluding litany of the War Requiem: “Let us sleep now” it was an appropriate add-on. Traditionally followed in monastic settings by the ‘Great Silence’ that lasted until the first service of the morning, its roots go back to St Benedict at the beginning of the sixth century. The name of the service comes from the word ‘complete’ reflecting the completion of the working day – or, in this case, for most of us, the end of a musical day.  Continue reading

BBC Prom 26: Serpent and Fire

Serpent and Fire
Il Giardino Armonico, Anna Prohaska
Royal Albert Hall. 2 August 2018 

Serpent and Fire is probably a better concert title that ‘Two Suicidal African Queens’, but Anna Prohaska’s exploration of the musical characters of Dido and Cleopatra certainly delved the emotional issues that caused both Queen’s demise. Despite her plea to ‘forget my fate’, Dido’s end is etched in all music-lovers minds, and it closed this late-night BBC Prom. Purcell’s Ah! Belinda providing the opening, introducing the Anna Prohaska’s beautifully clear and pure voice, and her use of the gentlest of vocal inflexions, quite correctly, as an ornament, for which I will readily forgive her the occasional tendency to slightly slur notes together. She later joined the very rare catalogue of early music singers who can produce a proper trill, rather than just relying on vibrato. The curious pauses in Ah! Belinda were the first of a number of directorial oddities provided by conductor Giovanni Antonini.

Anna Prohaska.jpg

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