BBC Proms 2022: The Dream of Gerontius ★★★★★
Allow me, please, a personal anecdote. I was a teenager in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge when I had my first encounter with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Initially I recall being a little bemused, if not repelled, at what seemed to me then its meandering churchiness – the understandable response of a naïve adolescent who thought music grew out of a strong beat and repetitive tune.
Everything changed, however, when the bass singing the Priest rose to make his stern injunction to the dying Gerontius, ‘Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul’ – because, with no text at hand, I misheard it as “Go forth upon thy journey, Christiansen.” I sat up as if electrified. This was addressed to me: it was my spiritual wake-up call, a summons to take things seriously – and suddenly I was gripped and enraptured by music that reached for the sublime as it drew one to imagine and confront the inevitable human passage of life into death.
Several decades later, when I know and love Elgar’s score so well, that crucial phrase still gives me a shudder: I take it personally. At the Royal Albert Hall last night, James Platt delivered it with slightly less than majestic certainty – there was a hint of unsteady vibrato and flatness that soon resolved itself. But nothing else in this magnificent performance fell short in any respect, and the meditative hush as its final bars died away was as telling of the audience’s emotion as the thunderous ovation that followed it.
Edward Gardner was the conductor. He is a superb Elgarian, but never an infatuated one: no slush clogged his interpretation here, although there were moments of painful sweetness and pianissimo poignancy. Crystalline lucidity characterised the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s playing, clarifying the instrumental detail, the staccati and fugato; words were never swamped by climaxes, and the diction of the massed Hallé and London Philharmonic choirs was exemplary throughout.
This should not imply clinical detachment: Gardner vividly dramatised all the hot anguish and feverish longing for calm that surges through the restless Wagnerian Prelude, the urgent imprecations of ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus’ and Gerontius’s dying terror. Even if Cardinal Newman’s verse is morbidly religiose, and his view of the approach to Heaven (as a passport hall with the Angel acting as a friendly immigration officer) seems faintly risible to modern sensibilities, Elgar believed fervently in it all, and Gardner honoured his sincerity.
Allan Clayton’s plangent tenor is perfectly suited to the title role, and he sang throughout with total security combined with gentle sensitivity, characterising Gerontius as a wounded, needy soul rather than the bellowing bruiser that lesser tenors with bigger voices often give us. His succouring Angel, resplendent in black and gold, was Jamie Barton. Oldsters will know what I mean if I say that she is more Helen Watts than Janet Baker in timbre, but that is not a complaint – serenely expansive in ‘My work is done’, she was exquisitely consoling and enfolding in ‘Softly and gently’.
And special praise to the sopranos of those two wonderful choirs: their cry of ‘Praise to the holiest’ as Gerontius crosses the threshold into the divine presence was absolutely electrifying – a nuclear explosion of dazzling light that could have blown the National Grid.
On BBC Sounds until Aug 30 2023. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms
BBC Proms 2022: This New Noise ★★★★★
Pictures, they say, are better on the radio, where the imagination can roam freely. But ironically, you needed to be in the Albert Hall to have had the full experience of This New Noise, a Prom celebrating the power of radio, in which the quixotic quartet called Public Service Broadcasting joined forces with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to produce a quirky multi-media trip for this year’s centenary of the Corporation.
It wasn’t just history, it wasn’t quite documentary, and it was more than a demonstration of why radio matters; but it wove some of all these things into an eight-part stream-of-consciousness work that compelled all the more admiration for being so understated. An ancient radiogram was hauled on stage, and after a technical hitch – another ironic touch – conductor Jules Buckley led the BBC SO off through the generic but effective music of quartet member J Willgoose Esq (orchestrated by his colleague JF Abraham), while images, text and lighting effects vied for our attention around the hall.
In the absence of early radio clips (nothing was kept in those days), fresh material had been recorded by Michael Sheen, Petroc Trelawny and Reeta Chakrabarti. “Enlarging the frontiers of human interest” was what those early radio pioneers of the 1920s aimed to achieve; on screen, we saw the grumpy autocrat John Reith at work, the transmission masts at Daventry rising, and the gleaming new edifice of Broadcasting House.
Archive extracts and pictures were not chosen to be representative, and when the ancestors of today’s BBC SO appeared mute on screen under the sweeping baton of Sir Adrian Boult, one wondered what he would have said about being linked to today’s atmospheric wash of film music. But the point was subtly made: this was not a nostalgic trawl through the past, but a reinvention of the best values of the past to serve the future.
The one section that had too great a weight in This New Noise was Thomas Woodrooffe’s notorious drunken commentary of 1937, at the Coronation Review of the Fleet: “The fleet’s lit up!” More telling were the international sights and sounds of the World Service. This muted penultimate section argued that BBC radio was there to serve democracy, “so that people think for themselves”. And as all the forces on stage exited in the final moments, echoing Haydn’s famous Symphony No 45 (Farewell), the case was made: it would be only once these things were gone that we would miss them. A resonant, timely and ultimately touching show. NK
On BBC Four on Sept 2 at 8pm and on BBC Sounds until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms
BBC Proms 2022: Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ★★★★☆
Big or little, grand or intimate, done with a Victorian-style choral society or a madrigal-sized consort, JS Bach’s great Mass which he finished shortly before his death has been subjected to all manner of varied performance over the years. Yet it always manages to hit home as one of the most powerful and affecting vocal works in the repertory. For all the times I have encountered the piece, I’ve never seen anything quite as unusual as the layout which conductor John Butt chose for his BBC Prom with the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: the orchestra were all gathered on the left-hand side of the stage, the choir in serried ranks with the soloists in front on the right-hand side. Let battle commence.
In the vast circular space of the Albert Hall, this created some difficulties, since at least a thousand-plus of us in the full hall were thus sitting right behind the orchestra, which faced away from us. Still, the fresh-voiced choir sang directly in our eyeline and communicated with crisp attack and lively articulation. What was it like on the other side of the hall?
Both as scholar and performer, John Butt knows every note of this Mass: he has written about it, analysed it, and recorded it. Determined to keep up the pace, with admirably dance-like rhythms, he barely paused between movements as he tumbled from solo to chorus and back again without so much as a breath. Rightly in this space, he opted for a largish group (around 50) of singers, which caused problems at the start of the Credo where the five vocal lines have to match two violin lines, which here disappeared.
His impetuous approach meant the performance took a while to settle, and some of the opening sections were a bit of a scramble, but once grounded by some very secure trumpets and fierce drums, the music took flight, and by the Et resurrexit of the Credo the tempo was restrained and the textures clear. Not all solo voices are well treated by this hall, but Iestyn Davies’s counter-tenor floated superbly in the Agnus Dei, with Rachel Redmond, Mary Bevan, Guy Cutting and Matthew Brook supporting with varying degrees of success. Far away on the other side, there were fine solos from flautist Lisa Beznosiuk and oboe d’amore player Katharina Spreckelsen.
Bach’s Mass has often been criticised because of its reliance on his earlier music —one scholar described it as ‘an impractical ragbag’. Yet what shines through, even in a performance with blemishes, is its extraordinary unity and coherence, its sense of completeness as the final Dona nobis pacem chorus, echoing the earlier Gratias agimus tibi, rises to the heavens. NK
On BBC Sounds until Monday October 10
BBC Proms 2022: ‘Earth Prom’, BBC Scottish SO & Ben Palmer ★★★☆☆
Fast-melting ice sculptures of penguins and polar bears outside the Royal Albert Hall signalled that this was no ordinary Prom. They were there as a promotion for the forthcoming series Frozen Planet II, and though the threat to polar species from climate change was addressed in both words and music, nothing too alarming was allowed to get in the way of this feelgood concert with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ben Palmer. “We must act now,” said Chris Packham in a necessary reminder, but co-presenting with Megan McCubbin he kept clear of controversy.
Designed as an audio-visual journey featuring scores by composers connected to the BBC Studios Natural History Unit, the concert celebrated David Attenborough’s adventures across the decades. In the BBC’s centenary year, it was fitting that one BBC institution, the Proms, should celebrate another, the Natural History Unit, formed 65 years ago and flourishing despite cuts.
Yet was music the natural medium here? The classical music industry may not be polluting the sea, but it is hardly noted for its green credentials. During the pandemic, as orchestras were grounded, many thought that the days of orchestral touring were over; but orchestras are jetting around again to destinations including the Proms.
The difference between this and many other concerts with an audio-visual component is that the imagery was more exciting than the music, which can sometimes seem to intrude into unspoiled nature. But there were evocative scores, not least Nitin Sawhney’s soundtrack for Wonders of the Monsoon. Coming respectively from The Blue Planet and Africa, George Fenton’s surging score certainly captured the energy of the annual sardine migration off the South African coast, and Sarah Class’s suspenseful music matched stunning imagery of a ferocious Kalahari giraffe fight.
The second half of the concert featured new material, including the song “Take Me Back Home” by Hans Zimmer and Camila Cabello, a preview of the music for Frozen Planet II, the Attenborough-narrated series due this autumn. Zimmer himself joined Packham and McCubbin for a chat on the stage before the premiere of the BBC-commissioned Earth Symphony, based on music by him and his team and arranged and orchestrated by Iain Farrington. In five movements (Earth, Air, Water and Fire – and Spirit inserted in the middle), the work weaves film themes into a bigger structure. But nature – especially in such an astonishing sequence as the marine iguanas being chased by racer snakes in the Galapagos – proved more memorable. JA
On BBC Two on Monday, August 29, at 6.05pm. Hear this Prom on BBC Sounds until October 10. The Proms continue until 10 September. Tickets: 020 7859 8212 bbc.co.uk/proms
BBC Proms 2022: Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★☆☆
It’s that time of the summer when the big orchestras take migratory flight. Some even cross oceans, like the Pittsburgh Symphony currently touring European festivals but giving the Proms a miss. Yet in advance of next weekend’s visit by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Proms welcomed the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, together with a Finnish soloist, the violinist Pekka Kuusisto. He’s a familiar face here, almost as ubiquitous as the British conductor Nicholas Collon, the FRSO’s first non-Finnish chief.
But they brought something unfamiliar, giving the British premiere of Thomas Adés’s Märchentänze for violin and orchestra. Despite its German title, which translates as “Dances from Fairytale”, the four-movement suite draws on British folk tunes and is designed to showcase Kuusisto’s feeling for traditional music. In typical Adés fashion it’s all brilliantly orchestrated (for modestly scaled forces), and apart from some dreamy contrast supplied by the second movement it's very lively; but sitting somewhere between Bartók and Copland it marks a curious retreat from modernism, unless you count the aleatoric section in the third movement, entitled “A Skylark for Jane”.
There were others birds, too, in a programme that was nothing if not cleverly designed, and Kuusisto played Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending with improvisatory freedom. Introverted, idiosyncratic and perhaps even indulgent, he set the tone for a very quiet and almost washed-out interpretation, but the music cast its spell. Kuusisto can display a rather personal approach to intonation, yet bending the tuning for folk-like effect here seemed justified.
The great “swan hymn” in the finale of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony glowed as it should, showing at least that these Finnish players have this music in their blood. But they were hampered by their conductor, for Collon was out of his depth here and despite his carefully choreographed podium presence the opening movement in particular lacked symphonic inevitability. Coherence was in short supply elsewhere, and the tension that should shape those pauses between the shattering final chords was completely absent.
The natural theme had been established right at the start of the evening with Debussy’s La mer. The Finns showed themselves to be naturals near water, and Collon did more than keep himself afloat, bringing a light touch to the waltz of the second movement's middle section. Debussy’s seminal score also showcased the orchestra’s warm and full-bodied sound at its best: for the last decade it has been based in one of the world's great concert halls, Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo, but it took the Albert Hall in its stride. JA
Hear this Prom on BBC Sounds until October 10. The Proms continue until 10 September. Tickets: 020 7859 8212 bbc.co.uk/proms
BBC Proms 2022: The Sixteen, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★
Ninety minutes after a shattering performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony from the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle, the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday night became the scene of a different kind of musical experience: quieter, always perfectly controlled, but no less intense. The choir known as The Sixteen performed sacred music inspired mostly by the Catholic faith, to a rapt audience that was hardly smaller than the 5,500 that had just witnessed the Mahler symphony.
It was amazing to see such a crowd, and it made me wonder: was it the expectation of hearing musical masterpieces performed at the highest level that drew all those thousands, or a vague hope of encountering a spiritual experience?
The Sixteen’s director Harry Christophers had cleverly designed a programme that would satisfy both needs. There were four pieces of masterly but essentially aloof English church music from the 16th century, a period when it had a special florid luxuriance, manifested most spectacularly in Thomas Tallis’s incredible 40-part “Spem in Alium”.
Interwoven with these were four recent pieces, also in Latin but more overtly emotional. Two came from Scotland’s leading composer, James MacMillan, another from the Polish Henryk Górecki, plus the Hymn to the Mother of God by that English devotee of Greek Orthodoxy, John Tavener.
Often in programmes of this kind you feel a huge chasm between the older music, securely rooted in a faith, and the newer music which lacks that security and so wants to ravish our souls with “spiritual” feelings which can end up seeming kitschy. But these performances from a vastly enlarged choir of 48 singers were so perfectly tuned and balanced that the chasm almost disappeared.
The repeated dying-away phrase that ends Górecki’s Totus Tuus can seem sickly-sweet, but on Wednesday the uncanny way the singers made it seem more and more intense as it faded away created an inexpressibly tender feeling, as well as offering a perfect symbol of a “sacred mystery”. James MacMillan’s Miserere of 2009 came over as a beautifully shaped masterpiece, radiantly intricate and yet full of feeling in a way not so far from the Agnus Dei from Christopher Tye’s Missa “Euge Bone”, composed more than 450 years earlier.
Throughout, the sheer beauty and intensity of the singing purged away the lurking sentimentality of the recent music, and warmed the aloof perfection of the old, in a way that seemed almost miraculous. IH
Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/prom
BBC Proms 2022: Australian World Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆
As the Proms moves into its closing weeks, the swanky foreign orchestras are starting to arrive. Born in 2010, the Australian World Orchestra is the youngest of them, but this summer’s gathering of some of the best Australian musicians from all round the world has already aroused awe-struck admiration among conductors – including the maestro of Tuesday night’s Prom, Zubin Mehta. Mehta is now a frail figure, but he, too, still inspires awe – his career, which includes a 50-year stint with the Israel Philharmonic, has been more distinguished than any other conductor now alive.
The first two pieces, both by that nervy, reclusive Viennese composer Anton Webern, showed off the orchestra’s superb subtlety in conjuring sad and sometimes menacing nocturnal soundscapes, and Mehta’s skill in controlling them with minimal gestures. The first of them, the Passacaglia, just about keeps a foothold in the classical world of Brahms. The Six Pieces for Orchestra, composed a year later, leaps into a thoroughly modernist world of half-hints and shadows, tiny flecks of celeste and harp answered by 50 string players rustling at the edge of audibility.
The six “Ariettes Oubliées” (Forgotten Songs) by Debussy made an interesting pairing with Webern’s pieces, because in the new orchestrations by Australian composer and violist Brett Dean (who was also playing viola in the orchestra) they seemed as evanescent and radiant as Webern’s music was dark and oppressed. Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg caught the tenderly ecstatic quality in the songs, while Dean’s orchestrations supplied a delicately erotic aural cushion that was far from Debussy in sound but close to him in spirit – quite a creative feat.
After all these hints and sighs and flutterings, it was time for something sustained and full-bodied, which the orchestra duly offered in the shape of Brahms’s Second Symphony. Mehta’s opening tempo seemed just too broad for a symphony that is often urgent and anxious as well as relaxed and sunny, but the flexibility he brought to that tempo eventually brought it alive – especially in the mysterious ending of the first movement, where Andrew Bain’s solo horn expressed a whole world of regret.
In the finale, the mad dash to the finishing line seemed especially joyous, simply because the lead up to it was so well controlled. In the encore, Dvořák’s uproarious Eighth Slavonic Dance, Mehta's old fire, until that moment half-hidden, suddenly burst out. The orchestra responded in kind, gloriously. IH
The Australian World Orchestra appeared at the Proms as part of the UK/Australia season 2021-22. Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/prom
BBC Proms 2022: Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★
The Queen shall go to the Prom. Four years after her death and 80 years since her birth, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, was honoured with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, courtesy of US singer Sheléa Frazier and go-to classical-pop conductor Jules Buckley, playing with his newly-assembled orchestra for the first time.
Tribute shows for dead singers tend not to set the pulse racing. But far from being a reverent nostalgic retrospective, this was a sumptuous and uplifting concert that bristled with vitality and crackled with soul. In other words, it was done Aretha’s way. By the end, applause threatened to frisbee the Royal Albert Hall’s roof high over Kensington Gore while its floor shuddered under wave after wave of thunderous stamping. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as someone once sang.
For the uninitiated, Buckley is a classical polymath who has made a name for himself by breathing new orchestral life into old repertoires. These have included the songs of Nina Simone and Scott Walker, the music of producer Quincy Jones, and Ibiza house music anthems. With his hipster beard, Buckley has done for classical music what Jamie Oliver has done for cooking or what Fred Sirieix has done for maître d’ing – he’s made it cool and accessible. His “Damon Albarn with a baton” credentials were further burnished when he described his new ensemble – the Jules Buckley Orchestra – as “absolute ninjas”. Welcome to the pukka Proms.
Still, there were two big questions hanging over this show. The first was whether an orchestra could replicate the delicious groove of Franklin’s music. In last year’s Franklin biopic, Jennifer Hudson’s Aretha berates a musician at the Muscle Shoals studio for playing a bass line that sounds like it’s from Alabama when it should sound like it’s from Harlem. Her sound was that specific. The second question was how Frazier – who performs simply as Sheléa – would tackle the unexpected phrasing, immense character and sheer range of Franklin’s gargantuan voice.
On the first point, this ensemble delivered in spades. Special mention should go to bass player Robin Mullarkey, who has worked with Zero 7 and multi-Grammy winning prodigy Jacob Collier (who spent last week playing with Coldplay at Wembley Stadium – the lines between pop and classical really are paper-thin). Mullarkey put the groove “in the pocket”, as the saying goes, allowing the rest of the orchestra – which included hammond organ, astonishing percussion and funky guitar as well as horns, strings, flute and harp – to build adventurously around it.
The 46-piece ensemble, plus a spellbinding 12-piece gospel choir, gave immense depth and breadth to the music. The flute solo on Day Dreaming was a thing of wonder, although the strings were occasionally drowned out by sheer wall of noise.
On the second question of Sheléa, we needn’t have worried. Firstly she was an inspired choice. She used to sing in church, as Franklin did, and recently starred as gospel singer Dorinda Clark in a biopic. She successfully channelled Franklin by not doing an impression: rather she embodied her spirit, getting lost in the music’s joy and displaying both versatility and vulnerability.
From the moment Sheléa entered from the side of the hall in a fur-trimmed black dress (the first of three costumes) and sang Precious Memories from Franklin’s Amazing Grace live album – as the choir piped up and images of stained glass windows turned the venue into a church – it was clear this was something special. “I want you to loosen up. We’re gonna have fun y’all. It’s a party,” the 41-year-old said. I’m pretty sure they didn’t say that at the Handel Prom last week.
And loosen up we all did. Franklin’s biographer David Ritz noted that her music moved from “sacred to secular” as her career progressed, and this was clear in the raw carnal celebration of Dr Feelgood. Think, from 1968, was a righteous belter, while Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere and Burt Bacharach’s I Say A Little Prayer were delicate and nuanced.
Sheléa toyed with us. “Aretha played a bit of piano, you know. So I’m going to do what I can,” she said faux-coyly as she sat at a grand piano. She then played the riff of Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) with skill and gusto. I didn’t catch her wink but I’m sure it was there. The song Amazing Grace was extraordinary, while Respect was delivered at just the correct tempo, unlike the sped-up live rendition that Franklin would occasionally deliver.
The show was filmed and will be on BBC Four on Friday. Do yourself a favour and watch it. It seems to be that this is what the Proms are for: championing inventive ensembles capable of giving new life to beloved music. Franklin played at the Royal Albert Hall in July 1970. On Monday night, it was as though she was there again. JH
Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/prom
Edinburgh International Festival: Czech Philharmonic, Usher Hall ★★★★☆
One of the few places left in the Western world where you can thrill, with a good conscience, to an old-fashioned expression of national selfhood is the concert hall. That’s particularly the case if the nation being hymned is small, unthreatening, never had a colonialist past, and has produced a vast amount of wonderful and instantly recognisable music, out of all proportion to the nation’s size.
Such was the concert on Saturday night from the Czech Philharmonic, the first of a pair being given at the Edinburgh International Festival. The moment they begin to play, you recognise that special warmth that so many central European orchestras have, plus a particular flair for the folk strain that runs through Czech music, and a feeling for nature that can often be sunny but can quickly turn dark as well.
All of this shone out in the opening Carnival Overture by Antonin Dvořák. It may be a modest title, but the piece is far from modest itself, with a complicated narrative that sometimes seemed to be joyously dancing in the present, at others immersed in a nostalgic past, with Andrea Rysová’s flute entwined in drowsy summer-heat duet with Vojtêch Jouza’s cor anglais. The orchestra’s chief conductor, Semyon Bychkov, made the drama crystal-clear, while giving that famed lyrical warmth room to breathe.
The Concerto for Two Pianos from 1943, by Dvořák’s compatriot Bohuslav Martinů, was a less perfectly focused and satisfying experience, though that was no fault of the performers. The famed French pianist sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque had the right motoric energy in the neo-classical moments (the woodwinds of the CPO matching them note-for-note) and in the cadenza in the final movement, they seized the opportunity to reveal just how deliciously sensuous Martinů’s two-piano weave can be. But this only cast a stronger light on the piece’s problems, wavering as it does between that taut neo-classicism and a harmonically rich, almost mystical flavour.
Finally came an immense paean to a pagan life-force thinly disguised as Catholic liturgy, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass (so called because the text is in the ancient language of the Moravian church). The Edinburgh Festival Chorus were wonderful as ever, and the orchestra’s brass and timpani players caught the brazen splendour of the music by being subtle rather than merely forceful. Of the four Czech soloists, it must be said that only tenor Aleš Briscein really hit the heights; but as a whole, the performance beautifully captured the feeling of all nature joining in ecstatic worship. IH
Festival continues until Aug 28; eif.co.uk
Edinburgh International Festival: LSO/Rattle, Usher Hall ★★★★★
After the soft-edged, bosomy sound of Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, the brazen clarity of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall always comes as a shock. It was particularly so on Thursday night, as on that historic stage was the London Symphony Orchestra, which sounded even more gorgeously coloured and overwhelmingly rich than usual.
Which is not to say they played without subtlety. In the evening’s world premiere from the thirtysomething British composer Daniel Kidane, they and conductor Simon Rattle captured the delicacy of the music as well as its leaping, brightly coloured joyousness. Kidane has Eritrean and Russian heritage, and is keenly aware of his musical roots. But he wouldn’t stoop to exoticising himself to win easy plaudits – he’s too conscientious for that. He’s loyal to the abstract, modern impulse in music, and, as Thursday’s premiere showed, his musical passions from Russian chant to Messiaen have been absorbed into a distinctive musical language.
The piece takes its cue and its title from Sun Poem by the Barbadian writer Kamau Braithwaite. This explores ideas of heritage and patrilineal descent, themes that resonated deeply with Kidane, who’s just become a father himself. Rather than expressing these ideas through a rosy nostalgia, Kidane found vivid and very precisely judged musical metaphors for them.
A single muted trumpet note sounded hesitantly, which gave birth to another note in the flutes, then another in the brass. Suddenly the whole orchestra seemed to be capering madly, suggesting an enticing future ahead of the new-born. This soon gave way to more reflective music, with glowing tendrils of clarinet and marimba, suggesting the awareness of the past that helps us make sense of the future. That idea might sound ponderous in words, but it wasn’t at all so when expressed in this beautifully made, engaging piece.
As for the rest of the concert, it was a roller-coaster ride of brilliant sounds and extrovert feeling, of the kind the LSO always does so brilliantly. Under Rattle’s fantastically energised hand, Berlioz’s Corsaire overture and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite had an edge-of-the-seat excitement, and Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony the kind of grandeur that made it seem as if Fate itself was being magicked into being, before our very ears. And as a bonus we had Mahler’s lovely Blumine and Fauré’s famous Pavane, just to prove the LSO can do soft and tender too. IH
Festival continues until Aug 28; eif.co.uk
Edinburgh International Festival: Hesperion XXI, Usher Hall ★★★★☆
The classical music world has its fair share of visionaries, the musicians who aspire to something more than just doing exactly what their peers and rivals do. Catalan musician Jordi Savall is one of them. For almost half a century, it’s been his mission with the group Hesperion XXI to reveal the many threads that linked the ancient music of West and East, before imperialism spoiled things.
Now a silvery-haired, somewhat fragile-seeming sage, Savall presided over the 20 members of his group with smiling benignity, only occasionally contributing a tiny, beautifully turned solo on the Western viola da gamba, a Renaissance form of the cello. Alongside him were players of the medieval guitar, the hurdy-gurdy and small portable organetto; apart from them, this multi-national group all played Near or Far Eastern instruments.
There were zithers from Madagascar and the Middle East, a Balkan end-blown flute, Arab ouds and lutes, Indian and Near Eastern drums, and four singers. Within this mélange of plucked and blown sounds you could hear lovely silvery highlights of the hammered dulcimer and Chinese lute and zither.
Such a bizarre group could never have existed historically, but Savall had a particular purpose in mind. He wanted to recreate the music that may have been encountered in the 14th century by Ibn Battuta, an Arab traveller whose incredible 75,000-mile explorations of the Middle East, Spain, Sardinia, China, Arabia and Africa make Marco Polo’s travels look quite modest. Of course, it was speculative, and it didn’t need any great scholarship in “ancient world music” to know that for a player of the Chinese zither or zheng (the wonderful Minh Trang Nguyen) to join in with a lusty Catalan song, or a dance from Mali, or an 11th-century Mozarabic (Spanish) prayer, was actually quite peculiar.
But eventually I stopped worrying, because the pieces themselves were often so beautiful, and the performances were done with such flair as well as tact. Sometimes the music took on a strong flavour of one region, as in Daud Sadozai’s musing, quietly ecstatic Indian raga, or Katerina Papadopoulos’s dignified but piercing rendition of an Arab lament. More often, all 20 musicians were joined together in rumbustious dancing energy. It was a moving image of a universal human harmony, impossible to achieve in real life, but for the space of two hours at the Usher Hall it seemed almost within reach. IH
Festival continues until Aug 28; eif.co.uk
Prom 40, RPO/Petrenko, Royal Albert Hall ★★★☆☆
The Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, who resigned from his Russian conducting post in protest at what he calls the “moral failure and humanitarian disaster” of the Ukrainian war, has already achieved some great things since taking over the directorship of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In Tuesday night’s Prom, he led the orchestra in a programme which placed Copland’s ballet score Appalachian Spring from 1944 alongside Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, completed the same year. It’s an odd pairing because the first is as limpid as water and essentially modest, whereas the second is bombastically triumphal and overblown.
So each poses its own kind of difficulty, which these performances didn’t quite solve. Another problem with Copland’s ballet is that its down-home simplicity and quietness is easily lost in the huge spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps Petrenko hoped that by making the quiet, wide-open-spaces introduction wider and quieter than usual it would fill that space more effectively, but in fact the opposite was true. The piece sank into a nearly-inaudible torpor, from which it woke with startling abruptness when the high-kicking dances arrived. But overall a lighter, brisker touch would have helped.
One could say the same about the performance of Prokofiev’s symphony, but for different reasons. This symphony was premiered in January 1945, with the sound of victorious Russian artillery salvos thundering outside the concert hall, and the symphony at times is equally deafening. This performance certainly registered the work’s colossal grandeur, especially at the climax to the second movement, which Petrenko controlled with just the right iron inflexibility. This was thrilling, but other moments like the dying-away ending of the middle section of that movement, seemed too long-drawn-out and too emphatically underlined. This is a symphony that needs no extra emphasis to be overwhelming.
So only two cheers for these well-known pieces, but for the practically unknown Trombone Concerto by African-American composer George Walker, born exactly 100 years ago, three are certainly in order. The performance from soloist Peter Moore married the elegance of a ballroom dancer with the lyrical tenderness of a violinist, and the orchestra and Petrenko played with just the right combination of incisive character and tact. They revealed a wonderful piece, poised with typically Walker-ish exactness between a lithe neo-classical balletic quality and more abstract-modernist but still lyrical expressiveness.
Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for George Walker’s 150th anniversary before we hear it again. IH
Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/prom
Prom 39, Mark-Anthony Turnage premiere, BBC SO/Oramo, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★
The nature of English music has become a politically fraught topic, but on Monday night the Proms stopped worrying and simply revelled in a familiar sort of Englishness arising from folkiness, rumbustious humour, buttoned-up nobility, and transcendence glimpsed in a peaceful English meadow.
But where did the evening’s premiere from Mark-Anthony Turnage fit into all that, you might wonder, given that he’s someone who doesn’t seem misty-eyed about England (the dystopian vision of London in his 1988 opera Greek is burned into the memory of anyone who witnessed it) and his influences seem far from English? Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein are the influences listeners most often spot, plus a nocturnal sad bluesiness.
Those things certainly appeared in his new orchestral piece Time Flies, composed in 2019 and thanks to Covid only now being premiered, but nevertheless it had a very English ring. The three movements evoked “London Time, “Hamburg Time” and “Tokyo time”, in honour of the orchestras in three different cities that commissioned the piece, and London launched off with an unmistakable reference to “Boys and Girls Come Out to Play”. That gleeful opening phrase soon morphed into bell-chimes, layered one above another in joyous scampering, and reappeared at the end stretched into a giant striding bass.
The central movement seemed almost too close to a Copland fanfare at first, but soon developed its own distinct personality, the grand very public-sounding brass chorales coloured with something more intimate. The last movement gestured towards 1950s big-band music of the Gil Evans variety, but the jaunty squeaking clarinets, which reminded me irresistibly of George Cole as “Flash Harry”, seemed English to a tee.
It was not a large step from that to the gently galumphing humour of Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto. The brilliant young German tuba player Constantin Hartwig revealed the reflective soul of the piece, especially in the evening-glow-over-the-meadows lyricism of the slow movement, but he relished the virtuoso challenges of the outer movements too.
Finally came the hugely dignified yet somehow repressed melody that opens Elgar’s First Symphony, soon pushed aside by something at the opposite pole of emotional turbulence. The ensuing search for a resolution, marked by furious outbursts and interrupted at times by glimpses of some happy, tranquil past, was projected with huge intensity by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its conductor Sakari Oramo. The BBC SO may be the Proms’ workhorse, but it’s certainly playing like a thoroughbred. IH
Prom 34, BBC Phil/Ollikainen, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★
Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s newest work, ARCHORA, is a score that will travel far, and not just because it is a co-commission by many of the world’s leading musical organizations. Yet while its massive and mysterious soundscape could perhaps come only from the composer’s native Iceland, it felt as if it had been conceived with this world premiere at the BBC Proms in mind and certainly made the most of the Royal Albert Hall’s idiosyncratic acoustics.
Much credit here is also due to the conductor Eva Ollikainen, in her Proms debut. A Finn currently based in Reykjavik as chief conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, she brought a Nordic perspective to the whole programme but made an especially impressive start with the Thorvaldsdottir, controlling the music’s steady yet shifting pulse with an ear for its detail and drawing excellent playing from the BBC Philharmonic.
Exploring the notion of primordial energy, ARCHORA (Thorvaldsdottir’s titles frequently reflect a fondness for capital letters) opens slowly and with a low growl in the orchestra, building towards a dark mass of sound from which flecks of detail escape momentarily. Full of surprises yet satisfyingly logical, Thorvaldsdottir’s brand of Nordic spectralism is summed up in this work scored for large orchestra including organ (but no trumpets), and in which melodic contours emerge as the piece lulls itself towards resolution.
ARCHORA feels a little like a contemporary answer to Sibelius, and that notion was underlined here in the organic flow of Ollikainen’s performance of the Finnish composer’s Second Symphony. Not so much primordial as elemental, this symphony can be understood in part as a northern longing for light, and that was reflected in the unfolding of spring in the second movement and the blaze of the finale.
The concert’s centrepiece was something different but no less remarkable: a highly personal account of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in which Kian Soltani was the questing soloist. He made the opening movement’s sad song feel like endless melody, but then everything had a sense of musing introspection and he found more intimacy than usual by bringing such virtuosic lightness to the second movement. The chestnut tone of Soltani’s cello was ideal in this autumnal work, and together he and Ollikainen explored the inevitability (despite the trickle of later works) of this Elgarian swansong. Soltani’s own arrangement for cello and strings of the Ukrainian folksong “Lovely Minka” made a haunting and meaningful encore. JA
Prom 25, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆
Thursday night’s Prom could have been entitled “Miracle on Kensington Gore”. The miracle happened when Carolina Eyck, a virtuoso performer on the electronic instrument known as the theremin, performed the concerto Eight Seasons written for her by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho.
The instrument itself, invented by Russian engineer Léon Theremin in 1919, looks deeply unimpressive: a shiny standing rod and a tower and a box with dials at Eyck’s feet that she sometimes twiddled. But mostly she performed delicate hand-movements in the space between them, which disturbed a magnetic field around the machine. There emerged in response an uncanny sound somewhere between an angelic voice and a bird-call. A twitch of a little finger would raise the trembling “voice” a fraction; a cat’s paw feint would produce a sci-fi swoop. As if that weren’t enough Eyck would sometimes sing duets with the machine.
All this was entrancing. As for Aho’s piece, it evoked the Eight Seasons of the Sami people of Lapland with delicate suggestiveness. There were sudden storms with Eyck in duet with high horns, surprisingly warm major chords, frozen nights evoked by impossibly high notes on the theremin, echoed by beautifully mournful playing from the BBC Philharmonic under conductor John Storgårds. It was poetic but indulgently long and shapeless, and it was only Eyck’s amazing artistry and that extraordinary sound that saved the piece from outstaying its welcome.
Then came the two-movement orchestral piece Vista from 2019 by another Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. It was apparently inspired by the Californian coastline, but the sounds suggested a deep Finnish fog, broken by shafts of wan sunlight when a single assertive note would emerge through the dense web of sound. In the second movement the piece tried vainly to whip itself into rhythmic life, but the music would always sink back to a beautiful but essentially dispiriting torpor.
After that, the clarity and economy of Shostakovich’s 15th (and final) Symphony felt like an invigorating jolt of energy. The deliberately trivial little melodies and Rossini quotations, mingled with a funeral chorale for brass and echoes of Wagner at his darkest were disconcerting enough. But there were also moments where Shostakovich ventured into abstract modernism, with three tempos unfolding at once in the strings, and two impenetrably dense chords like patches of colour in an abstract painting. It added up to a perfect enigma, which this performance caught with aloof, razor-sharp clarity. IH
Prom 22, Aurora Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★
A Prom can give you width of musical experience, or depth, but rarely both. Either you’re enthused and entertained and leave with a smile on your face, or you get a profound spiritual journey that makes you reluctant to applaud at the end.
The wonderful thing about this Prom was that we got both.
In the first half, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto took us to a very lost and lonely region of human experience; in the second we returned to light and life with Beethoven’s immortal Fifth Symphony. Sandwiched in between came a listening guide to the latter, which was brilliantly enjoyable as well as hugely informative.
On stage was the Aurora Orchestra, that extraordinary group of young musicians who’ve shaken up the orchestral world with their elegantly choreographed events, in which the orchestra reconfigures itself before our very eyes. We would see a fine example of that later in the guide to Beethoven’s Fifth, but we got a hint of it at the very beginning with a performance of O-Mega, the final piece of the great Greek modernist Iannis Xenakis, who was born 100 years ago. The ritualised exchanges between a lone percussionist high up on the choir terraces and groups of string, wind and brass players below and either side of him were diamond-hard and perfectly enigmatic.
Then came Shostakovich’s concerto, in which the soloist was the diminutive, fiery Moldovan Patricia Kopatchinskaja. In the opening Nocturne, the packed hall was reduced to utter stillness by her wavering melodic line, infinitely fragile yet somehow indomitable. In her hugely long solo passage (“cadenza”, as it’s known), she began so quietly I doubted whether listeners in the balcony could hear her, but it meant that the savagery of the final Burlesque registered with immense force.
After the interval came that guided tour to the Beethoven masterpiece from the orchestra, broadcaster Tom Service and conductor Nicholas Collon. They didn’t just tell us about the myriad transformations of that famous Da-da-da-DUM rhythm, and the connections between the symphony and the Marseillaise and Mozart’s great 40th symphony – they showed them by playing simplified excerpts, with different players moving centre-stage as their parts became more prominent.
Finally came a performance of the whole piece, played (like Xenakis’s) from memory, and with the players standing to attention. Did it seem so riveting and overwhelmingly joyous because our ears and minds had just been sharpened, or because the performance itself was so wonderfully balanced between urgency and grace? It was delightfully hard to say. IH
Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms
Prom 21, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆
The first ever Gaming Prom brought a packed crowd of gaming fans, of all ages. There were the chaps of a certain age who probably cut their gaming teeth on Space Invaders back in 1978, and even bigger numbers of young ones.
They were clearly delighted by this concert, which traced almost the entire history of gaming music in chronological order, from the stiff little melodies and slapstick burps and swoops of 1980s music to the intoxicating full-orchestral panoramas of the 2000s. The younger listeners seemed to enjoy the “primitive” scores just as much as the older fans did, suggesting that nostalgia is built into the whole gaming experience.
The challenge of this event was to allow us to enjoy the real live sound of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on stage, while conjuring that massive, essentially digital immersive sound that creates the feeling of an alternative universe. It must be said that everyone involved – the sound engineers, the arrangers who adapted the music for the concert situation, and the players of the RPO – rose to the challenge magnificently.
In the music for the older numbers, there was the additional problem of reinventing primitive early-digital sounds for the orchestra. Matt Rogers wittily evoked the tedium and sudden excitement of loading a game from a cassette machine in his Loading Chronos, but the evening’s real triumph of recreation came from the composer Chaines, whose recreation of scores for Pokémon, Ecco and Secret of Mana was so uncannily close they prompted delighted laughter from the gamers all around me.
Then we were onto the Hollywoodish grandeur of The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy VIII, Kingdom Hearts and others. Never have I heard so many impressive orchestral climaxes laden with cymbal crashes, combined with a wide-open-spaces sound that make me think the true ancestor of gaming music is the classic Hollywood Western score. The outlier in all this was the dark, dystopian score of Battlefield 2042. Although the arrangement by the evening’s conductor Robert Ames was ingenious, the music lost some of that metallic, shiny horror that is its essence.
Finally it was back to grandeur, for the score to the 2012 game Dear Esther. Just two lush major chords, rocking back and forth, with a big melody over the top; it could hardly have been simpler. Like gaming itself, it delivered the kind of massive sugar rush that stills all criticism, and it drove the audience wild.
See this Prom on BBC Four on Friday at 8.00pm. Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms