Prom 55: Handel’s Jephtha

Prom 55: Handel’s Jephtha
Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus, Richard Egarr
Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2019

Following on from last year’s Theodora, the BBC Proms Handel cycle continued with Jephtha, Handel’s last oratorio. It was composed in 1751 as his sight was failing. At one point in the autograph score he wrote “unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.” It is rather telling that note occurs at the chorus that concludes Act 2, How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees, All hid from mortal sight. Despite Handel’s personal difficulties at the time, and the frankly bizarre Biblical story upon which it is based, it is one of his finest oratorios, full of the most glorious music for six solo singers and chorus with a succession of attractive and dramatic arias linked by relatively short recitatives.

Continue reading

Prom 37: L’Enfance du Christ

Prom 37. Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ
Halle Orchestra, Maxime Pascal
Britten Sinfonia Voices, Genesis Sixteen
Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 2019

L’Enfance du Christ is a curious work to programme in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall for a Berlioz anniversary Prom. The gently reflective nature of the unfolding story seems to demand a sense of intimacy, whereas works such as the Te Deum cry out for such a setting. The genesis of L’Enfance du Christ is a fascinating one. Berlioz wrote a tiny organ piece into an architect’s album during a card-playing party in 1850. Realising the nature of his creation, he immediately added some words and gave birth to the famous ‘Shepherds’ Farewell’ (L’adieu des bergers). He added it to his next concert with a hoax billing as by a forgotten 17th-century composer, named after the architect who asked for the little musical momento. Four years later, it would later form the centre-point of what he termed a ‘sacred trilogy’ – L’Enfance du Christ, a three-section oratorio. Continue reading

Prom 13. Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles

Olivier Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo
Nicolas Hodges, Martin Owen, David Hockings, Alex Neal
Royal Albert Hall, 28 July 2019

Olivier Messiaen wrote Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) between 1971/4 as a commission celebrating the bicentenary of the US Declaration of Independence. He was strongly influenced by a visit to Utah, finding inspiration in the birds and the extraordinary landscapes. Each of the three parts of the 12-movement work concludes with a powerful movement dedicated to the dramatic geological sites of Utah, Bryce Canyon and the nearby Cedar Breaks and Zion Park. Messiaen had sound-colour synaesthesia and the “red, orange, violet” of the sandstone hoodoos of Bryce Canyon led to his focussing the extended 7th movement Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange” (Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks) in his own key of third-mode E major, a mode that he saw as a bright red-orange colour. He contrasts this image with the blue of the Steller’s Jay, one of many birds that feature throughout the piece from places as far afield as Australia, Hawaii. and the Sahara. The monumental final few bars of this movement are the aural climax of the entire piece.

Brice CanyonBryce Canyon © ABW Continue reading

Prom 6: Rite of Spring

Prom 6. Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School
James Ehnes, Edward Gardner
Royal Albert Hall, 19 July 2019

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Metacosmos
Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

As a companion to the First Night’s offering of Janáček’s 1927 Glagolitic Mass (revied here)the BBC Prom 6 moved back 15 years to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, both monuments to the development of 20th-century classical music. It was performed by the joint orchestras of the Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and New York’s Juilliard School a partnership that I first heard playing Bach in the 2015 Leipzig Bachfest. The violin soloist James Ehnes was a Julliard student, and conductor Edward Gardner was a student at the RAM.  

The opened with the UK premiere of Metacosmos by the Icelandic composer, Anna Thorvaldsdottir. After studies in America, she is now resident in London and is composer-in-residence with the Royal Academy of Musi and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Metacosmos was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Society. The composers’ programme note describes the piece as “constructed around the natural balance between beauty and chaos – how elements can come together in (seemingly) utter chaos to create a unified, structured whole. The idea and inspiration behind the piece, which is connected as much to the human experience as to the universe, is the speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole – the unknown – with endless constellations and layers of opposing forces connecting and communicating with each other, expanding and contracting, projecting a struggle for power as the different sources pull on you and you realize that you are being drawn into a force that is beyond your control”. Continue reading

BBC Prom 72: War Requiem

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian
Huddersfield Choral Society, RSNO Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus
Erin Wall, Allan Clayton, Russell Braun
Royal Albert Hall, 5 September 2018

As we approach the centenary of The Armistice that ended the First World War, it was an appropriate moment for The Proms to programme Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. It is a piece that has had fluctuating enthusiasm over the years since its first performance in May 1962 in the new Coventry Cathedral, designed by Basil Spence, and built alongside the ruins of the medieval cathedral building, destroyed during the 1940 Battle of Britain. A committed pacifist and almost certainly agnostic or atheist, Britten was perhaps not the most obvious choice to compose a requiem, but this combination of personal beliefs led to one of the most powerful of all compositions related to war. Combining the traditional Catholic Latin Requiem Mass with the poems of the war poet Wilfred Owen, resulting in an often heart-wrenching combination of pleas for peace with reflections on the horrors of war.  Continue reading

BBC Prom 33: Thea Musgrave & Brahms

Thea Musgrave: Phoenix Rising
Brahms: A German Requiem
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Richard Farnes
Royal Albert Hall, 7 August 2018

I was surprised to find that, despite being composed 21 years ago, this was the first time that Thea Musgrave’s Phoenix Rising (a BBC commission) had been performed at the Proms. It made for a fascinating pairing with Brahm’s German Requiem in this performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Richard Farnes, making his Proms debut. Phoenix Rising represents the conflict between the forces of evil and good, darkness and light. The title came during composition and is taken from a sign outside a coffee shop in Virginia. At its core, it is a double concerto for horn and timpani, set within a dramatic kaleidoscope of symphonic colour and texture. The horn player, Martin Owen, is supposed to be offstage, but at the Royal Albert Hall there is always the risk that he would never be seen again, and was therefore positioned high up on the far left of the stage, behind timpanist Antoine Bedewi, and in front of one of the four percussionists spread out across the rear stage.

Thea Musgrave.jpgThea Musgrave. © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Continue reading

Rameau: Dardanus

Rameau: Dardanus
English Touring Opera, The Old Street Band, Jonathan Williams
Hackney Empire, 6 October 2017

I have been a little lukewarm about some previous English Touring Opera productions, but this staging of Rameau’s Dardanus ticked all the boxes. The first box tick comes for performing this work in the first place, an example of the adventurous approach to programming of the English Touring Opera and their first venture into the complex world of French Baroque opera. It formed part of their Hackney Empire opening to their autumn tour of the country, with Dardanus visiting Oxford, Buxton, Snape, Saffron Walden and Exeter. Its companion opera, Handel’s Giulio Cesare has a much larger tour, calling additionally at Portsmouth, Norwich, Durham, Bath, Keswick, and Great Malvern. Giulio Cesare, rather curiously, divided into two separate and overlapping, parts, under the titles of The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, with the last half hour of the first repeated at the start of the second, to the chagrin of some reviewers. Continue reading

BBC Proms: La Clemenza

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
BBC Prom 59. Royal Albert Hall. 28 August 2017
 

The tradition of bringing one of the season’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera productions to the Proms continued this year with their version of Mozart’s often overlooked opera La Clemenza di Tito. Although I didn’t see the fully staged version at Glyndebourne, I did see the live webcast of the performance, and my feelings about the much-reduced staging in the Albert Hall is influenced by that.

Director Claus Guth and designer Christian Schmidt’s Glyndebourne staging divided the world of Tito into two, a clean modernist upper floor executive office positioned above a reed-clogged swamp where much of the action took place. A video played during the overture (or didn’t, depending on which performance you saw) which explained, apparently, the director’s interpretation of why Tito relationship with his boyhood chum Sextus went sour. The transfer to the Proms retained the dual levels, but with Tito’s domain behind the orchestra on the upper steps of the stage, the swamp rather pathetically alluded to by about half a dozen clumps of reeds and a rock on the stage in front of the orchestra. But, as is so often the case with semi-staged or concert performances of opera, this rather helpfully pulled the opera away from being the inspiration of the director towards being that of Mozart. Continue reading

BBC Proms: Reformation Day

BBC Proms: Reformation Day
Prom 47: Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’ past and present
Prom 48: A Patchwork Passion
Prom 49: Bach’s St John Passion
Royal Albert Hall, 20 August 2017

Prom 47: Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’ past and present
William Whitehead, Robert Quinney, organ

The BBC Proms’ acknowledgement of the anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation came with three concerts on Sunday 20 August, starting with a lunchtime organ recital featuring the premieres of three pieces from The Orgelbüchlein Project played by its founder/director, the organist William Whitehead. The programme opened and closed with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat (from the Clavierübung III, BWV 552), played by Robert Quinney (who also played Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata in A major (Op. 65/3)). It also included the fourth of Schumann’s Fugues on B-A-C-H and two of Bach’s own Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes played by William Whitehead and, just before the final Bach Fugue, Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s ‘Prelude to the Grand Organ Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach’: a duet for both organists. Continue reading

BBC Proms: Berlioz Faust

Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Monteverdi Choir, National Youth Choir of Scotland, Trinity Boys Choir
BBC Prom 31: Royal Albert Hall. 8 August 2017

Whoever thought of turning Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust into a staged opera seems, to me, to be missing the point. Quite apart from the extraordinary challenge of depicting the dramatic scenes on stage, the sheer drama of which would distract from what the music and the libretto is telling us, it is clear that Berlioz intended this as music to be listened to, not watched. That said, there was plenty to see in this Proms performance given by the period instruments of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique together with the Monteverdi Choir, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and Trinity Boys Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Continue reading

BBC Proms: Israel in Egypt

Handel: Israel in Egypt (original 1739 version)
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall. 1 August 2017

A combination of Handel, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and William Christie is bound to sell out the vast auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall, but the first performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, in 1739, was not so successful. Many stayed away because of the biblical context of the work, and those that came were not overly impressed. The reasons are complex, but are generally to do with Handel’s move from opera to the new musical form of oratorio. The slightly earlier oratorio Saul, written just before Israel and Egypt, was a great success, no doubt because the musical style included more elements of opera. Israel in Egypt was far more hard-core, not least in the use of choruses. The first part, nearly always omitted in present day performances, is a continuous sequence of 12 choruses. Part Two has 7 and Part Three 8, but these are broken up by a few arias, duets, and recitatives. Handel made many subsequent changes to the score, and it is usually now performed in the 1756 version, with its odd recitative start (which refers back to the non-existent Part One) and no Symphony. It was the inclusion of Part One, and what was supposed to be (but I think was not quite) the original 1739 version, that made this Proms performance so special. Continue reading

BBC Prom 63: Bach B minor Mass

BBC Prom 63: Bach B minor Mass
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2016

However many times I hear Bach’s B minor Mass, I never stopped being amazed at its compositional history. Almost certainly never heard during his lifetime, and with many of the sections lifted from earlier compositions, it was cobbled together over many years, the first part with the aim of securing a royal appointment in the Saxony Court. Despite all that it is one of the most, and arguably, the most extraordinary piece of music ever composed.   So it was no surprise that more than 5,00o people wanted to hear its performance at the BBC Proms in the Albert Hall.

And therein lay the problem. How to perform a work, intended to be performed in an (albeit sizeable) church by the normal Baroque orchestral and choral forces, in a vast auditorium designed (if indeed it was designed for anything) for enormous forces. Nowadays most period instrument groups makes few concessions to the space and acoustics, and play the music in the way they normally do. This is what William Christie did, with a 24-strong choir and a typical Bach orchestra. This will not produce a sound to fill the hall. But it will produce a sound that Bach might recognise. And for me, that is the key thing. Prommers are, by and large, pretty intelligent people, so should be used to letting their ears adjust to the relatively subdued volume. Continue reading

BBC Proms at …: Purcell and his contemporaries

BBC Proms at …: Purcell and his contemporaries
Katherine Watson, Samual Boden, Callum Thorpe
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 13 August

Purcell: Timon of Athens – Curtain Tune, I Spy Celia, I See She Flies Me, The Fairy Queen (excerpts), The Tempest (attrib. Purcell); Blow: Venus and Adonis (excerpts); Locke: The Tempest – Curtain Tune, The Tempest – Dance of the Fantastick Spirits (perhaps by Draghi).

As part of their ‘Proms at …’’ season, the BBC decanted from its usual home in the Royal Albert Hall to one of the most intimate performances spaces in London, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on the South Bank. Since its opening in 2014, this reconstruction of a typical Jacobean (early 17th century) theatre has housed a number of excellent (and sold-out) musical events and small-scale operas, adding considerably to the range of London music venues. Sadly, under Sam Wannamaker.jpgthe new Globe management, those events seems to have ground to a halt, with only one listed in the current season – and that a hang-over booking from the previous management. So it was fortuitous that the BBC Proms chose the theatre for one of its ‘BBC at …’ events (alongside such venues as a multi-story car park in Peckham), not least because it enabled people to see the inside of this fabulous, but very uncomfortable, theatre for just £14, rather than the up to £62 the Globe are asking for their own next concert there. Continue reading

BBC Prom 17: Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

BBC Prom 17: Berlioz, Beethoven, Brahms
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR)
Sir Roger Norrington, Robert Levin
Royal Albert Hall, 28 July 2016

Few in the audience would have realised what a poignant and emotional, event this Prom was to be until after the encore, when the leader Natalie Chee took a microphone and addressed the packed Royal Albert Hall to explain that, due to spending cuts, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra is to merge with the SWR Symphony Orchestra in September, and that this was their very last concert. Founded in the dark days of 1945 Sir Roger Norrington © BBC / Chris Christodoulouthis distinguished orchestra has built an enormous international reputation, not least during the years from 1998 to 2011 when Sir Roger Norrington was their chief conductor, bringing his noted ‘historically informed’ performance practice to this modern instrument orchestra, producing a distinctive style – the ‘Stuttgart sound’. The two merging orchestras are both under the auspices of Südwestrundfunk (South West Radio), the public broadcaster for Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, and have very different repertoires and styles. It was entirely appropriate that Roger Norrington, now their Conductor Emeritus, was the conductor for their final concert.

Berlioz’s sparkling and witty overture to Beatrice and Benedict opened the evening, with Norrington’s characteristic attention to detail being at the forefront. Continue reading

BBC Prom 9: Mozart & Mendelssohn

BBC Prom 9: Mozart & Mendelssohn
Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, Rosa Feola, Jérémie Rhorer
Royal Albert Hall, 22 July 2016 

Mozart: Symphony No 39, ‘Ah, lo previdi’; Mendelssohn: ‘Italian’ Symphony; ‘Infelice’.

Making their Proms début, the French period instrument orchestra, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, their conductor and founder, Jérémie Rhorer, and the Italian soprano, Rosa Feola, presented a fascinating programme comparing music by Mozart and Mendelssohn. Perhaps because of what might have been seen as a fairly safe programme, this relatively unknown orchestra managed to achieve a full house of some 5000 people – quite an achievement. Regular Proms goers should have got used to period instrument orchestras in the vast expanse of the Royal Albert Hall, but newcomers expecting a wall of sound would probably have been surprised by the delicacy of the sound.

There is always a risk of trying to force the sound into the space but, sensibly, Continue reading

Prom 39: The Abduction from the Seraglio

Prom 39: The Abduction from the Seraglio
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 2015

Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) © BBC | Chris ChristodoulouThe annual visit to the Proms of one of the current series of Glyndebourne Festival Opera productions is always a highlight. Transferring from the relatively intimate space of Glyndebourne’s opera house to the vast Royal Albert Hall obviously has its problems, but the more-than-semi-staging (in this case, with full costumes and props, but no scenery) brings a welcome chance to focus on the music. There were several surprises for those not used to the work, not least that it is a Singspiel, with a lot of spoken text, much of which is usually omitted – but not here. This gave the chance to experience Mozart’s music in its original context of incidental music to a play. The fact that the music is of the utmost complexity only heightens the suspense of waiting for the next bit to start. Continue reading