Bach: Mass in B Minor
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, John Butt
Royal Albert Hall, 29 March 2022
How should an atheist approach Bach? And, in particular, his Mass in B minor, arguably his finest work and one that, to him, seemed to sum up a lifetime of music dedicated to Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone) – the meaning of the S.D.G that Bach appended to all his sacred works?
Nathan Laube, organ
Royal Albert Hall, 28 August 2022
Wagner: Grand March
Franck: Grande pièce symphonique
Alkan: Scherzando from 11 Grands préludes
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor
Yet again, the BBC Proms powers-that-be have chosen the most inappropriate time for an organ recital – a Sunday morning – when most organists are attempting to earn their keep. Although working organists can listen on catch-up, the sparse audience (sparse for the Royal Albert Hall that is, but sadly not for the average organ recital) reflected this strange programme planning. But there was also something about the programming of the concert itself which raised questions about the BBC’s approach to The Proms, which this year seems to be seen as a populist extension of Radio 2, rather than Radio 3.
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.
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.
BBC Proms: Organ Recital 1
Bach and Improvisations
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!
Prom 71: Bach Night
Dunedin Consort, John Butt
Royal Albert Hall. 11 September
As part of this year’s Proms’ recognition of Henry Wood’s influence, this concert reflected his 1920s Wednesday Bach Night. The Dunedin Consort and John Butt performed Bach’s four Orchestral Suites, each paired with a short newly commissioned piece (all given world premieres) inspired by the dance movements that follow the opening Overture of each Suite. The first two Suites (4 &1) were followed by the new pieces while, after the interval, Suites (2&3) were preceded by the new commissions.
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
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
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 22: Rachmaninov, Shostakovich & Outi Tarkiainen
BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds
Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2019
Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead
Outi Tarkiainen: Midnight Sun Variations BBC commission: world premiere
Shostakovich: Symphony No 11 ‘The Year 1905’
Pairing Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead with Shostakovich’s 1tth Symphony foretold an evening that wasn’t going to be a bundle of fun. The opening gloomy 5:8 rhythms of the boatman rowing a corpse to the Isle of the Dead, as memorably depicted in Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel, set the mood. This photo shows a much better and clearer version to that printed in the programme – there are at least six versions.
Arnold Böcklin: Die Toteninsel
Prom 21: The Art of Transcription
Olivier Latry, organ
Royal Albert Hall, 4 August 2019
In what must be the most inept bit of programming in musical history, the BBC Proms has seen fit, for yet another year, to programme the only organ recital of the Proms at 11am on a Sunday, when most organists will be earning a pittance playing for church services. I cannot think of another instrument where the choice of a specific day and time could exclude a key part of the potential audience. That said, there was a pretty impressive audience for this concert, far more than at the previous Sunday’s evening Prom of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles. And what a treat they had. Olivier Latry is one of the organists at Notre Dame who when not on his week’s turn of duty there has built an enviable reputation at a touring recitalist and teacher. His programme focused on the art of transcription, an aspect of organ performance that dates back to early Renaissance times but reached its peak in England in the 19th century when W T Best became Liverpool Corporation Organists (in 1855) and, over a period spanning around 40 years, gave three organ recitals a week in St George’s Hall. He was the first organist to give a recital in the Royal Albert Hall, in 1871.
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.
Bryce Canyon © ABW Continue reading
Prom 1. Janáček: Glagolitic Mass
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, BBC Singers
Royal Albert Hall, 19 July 2019
The 125th season of the BBC Proms celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of their founder-conductor, Sir Henry Wood, whose bust looks down on the orchestras and Prommers throughout the season. One of the threads through the Proms are the ‘Novelties’, Wood’s own description of various UK and world premieres that he conducted. Another theme is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. This opening concert (from the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus and the BBC Singers, directed by Karina Canellakis) acknowledged both with a world premiere and one of Wood’s novelties together with a focus on Czech composers. As well as featuring a female composer, this was also the first time that a female conductor had opened the Proms, one of the seven women conductors this season. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and on BBC2 and BBC4, and is available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards. Continue reading
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
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
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
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. © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Prom 29/30: Brandenburg Concertos Project
Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard
Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2018
One of the more unusual of this year’s BBC Proms were two related concerts given by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under their conductor Thomas Dausgaard. Over an afternoon and evening Prom, they performed all six Bach Brandenburg Concertos, each accompanied by companion pieces, commissioned by the orchestra, to partner each of the Brandenburgs. An ambitious project, that got close to working, but ultimately, from my point of view, didn’t. As an early music specialist, I do find modern instrument performances of Bach problematical. Although they certainly didn’t over-romanticize their interpretations, the sound world was one I wasn’t used to, at least, not since my youth. And with so many composers eager to write for period instruments, I think a real opportunity has been missed, from the Proms point of view, although the project has certainly done the Swedish Chamber Orchestra no harm.
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.
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
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 60: Bach & Bruckner
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Philippe Jordan
Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2016
Bach: Cantata No 82, Ich habe genug; Bruckner: Symphony No 9 in D minor
Such was the power and influence of the period instrument movement that, for several decades, mixed period concerts like just didn’t happen. As the mainstream modern instrument orchestras become more knowledgeable and confident in their ability to play the earlier repertoire, such concerts are less rare nowadays, but this was still a particularly bold pairing of Bach’s moving meditation on death Ich habe genug, with Bruckner’s rather grander final symphony, generally assumed to be his own contemplation on death.
Bruckner dedicated his 9th Symphony to ‘the dear Lord God’. It would appear that the Lord God wasn’t playing ball, as Bruckner died while still composing the massive work, leaving only sketches of the final, fourth, movement. God also seemed to be attending to other things after Bruckner’s death, as Continue reading
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
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 2015
The 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