Monday, 22 August 2011

We interrupt this programme...

Devil's Trill is on his hols and will be back in a few weeks.  If you've been following my Proms reports, do not fear!  There are many good sources for Proms reviews.  Check Classicalsource for reviews of every single Prom this year.  Check The Arts Desk for typically irreverent views of the rest of the season, follow the excellent blogs listed on the blog list on the right hand sidebar, and above all, follow the concerts on TV, radio and, of course, in the Albert Hall itself.

See you in September!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Proms week 5 - Brahmsfest

These were surely some of the must sees of the season. A pair of Proms continuing the Brahms concerto theme brought together Bernard Haitink and pianist Emanuel Ax to give the piano concertos over two evenings. With them were Brahms's last symphonies, set against the piano concerto most opposed to their character. Prom 47 (Haitink/COE/Ax - Brahms - August 19th) contrasted the fitfully sunny Third Symphony with the First Piano Concerto, actually his first concerto in any form.

I've found Haitink's direction a little calculated in the past; he's the master of classical shape and tasteful proportion, but not your go to man for searing passion and wild abandon. Thankfully, his sober manner was allied with the big tone and heart from the relitively small Chamber Orchestra of Europe, finding a way in the first movement of the symphony that remained clearly focused while recognising the unparalleled joie de vive of the music. The second movement was as delicate and beautifully textured as you could wish, though the allegretto sounded a little disctracted, as though Haitink wanted to avoid the spirit of yearning and anguish that often marks this wonderful movement.

Emanuel Ax might not be everyone's first choice of pianist in Brahms's titanic concertos, though that's as much to do with his relativley low profile on this side of the Atlantic as anything. In the First Concerto, though, he found the turmoil and deep seriousness of the work without having to exagerate, suggesting an interpretation borne out of hard won wisdom. The Second Concerto, beginning Prom 49 (August 20th) was, if anything, even better, and I urge you to catch it on BBC iplayer if you can (UK readers only).

Haitink's Brahms 4 exemplified his approach in a performance that said more about what the symphony had drawn from the past than what it said to the future. It had to be the least surging opening to the symphony that I've ever hear, recalling Mozart's 40th as much as anything and the point was driven home by the COE's minimal vibrato and small size. But this didn't mean a dull ride. The scherzo dashed forwards and the performance peaked, as it should, in the great final movement. Some decry Haitink's classicising approach, but it's genuninley unique and I think there's room in the world for a view of these works that places them in the tradition that Brahms was conciously emulating.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Proms week 5 - All the Russians

Fewer of the tripartite, double intervalled Proms grace this season.  They look good on paper but are hell to stand through and for that reason I wimped out and listened to Prom 43 (Litton/RPO/Wang - Copland/Bax/Barber/Bartok/Prokofiev - August 16th) on the radio.  The programme drew on the musical legacy of conductor and double bassist Serge Koussevitsky who had a hand in commissioning many of the twentieth century's great orchestral works.  A few of the works on show here were only tangentially linked to Koussevitsky - Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony was performed in its longer 1947 version and not the original 1930 version performed by Koussevistky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Barber's Adagio for Strings owed its existence (in orchestral form at least) to Toscanini.

It was a long but nonetheless enticing and unusual programme, particularly for the Royal Philharmonic, who must have relished being allowed away from Beethoven and Mozart for a night.  The highlights were a rare outing for Arnold Bax's Second Symphony, which grew on me after a second hearing, by which time the initial over load of post-romantic harmony and complexity had started to reveal a compelling journey.  The original version of Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony is a favourite of mine and while I'd not claim it to be one of his greatest works, it does include a couple of wonderful episodes dropped for the more symphonic spread of the revised score.  Litton is a fan of the later version, telling Radio 3 that he thought Prokofiev had 'fixed' the first version's problems.  I hope he fulfils his promise to play it more often.

I stood for Prom 44 (Salonen/Philharmonia/Batiashvili - Shostakovich/Stravinsky/Tchaikovsky - August 17th), though my legs told me the programme was longer than it needed to be.  It was a packed house - I was standing further from the stage than I'd have liked to have been and some of the mischief of the suite from Shostakovich's ballet The Age of Gold was lost in the Albert Hall's temperamental acoustic.  Luckily, Lisa Batiashvili projected her solo line in Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto beautifully and her volume was never at the expense of warmth of tone.  I felt she coasted a little through the first two movements, really hitting her stride with an impassioned third movement and making the most of Shostakovich's astounding cadenza.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Another great violin concerto at the Proms

We've had the Elgar and the Brahms; now Lisa Batiashvili brings Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto to the Proms.  Listen from 7.30pm.  Can she match the increadible heights of Julia Fischer's performance of the same work last year?  While we wait for the answer, watch the man the work was written for:  David Oistrakh.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Cost of the riots



As reported elsewhere, my Musicweb colleague and renowned flautist Carla Rees lost everything when her Croydon flat was burnt to the ground in last week's rioting and looting.  She lost all her possessions, including her collection of unique instruments, more than 600 unpublished musical works written for her and, most heartbreakingly of all, her two cats.  Just Flutes have set up a page to take donations to help her rebuild her life and if you would like to donate you can do so by following this link.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Proms week 4: Russians, Reich and Spaghetti Westerns

The Proms aren't just the London shop window for international orchestras; they're also just about the only chance for Britain's 'provincial' orchestras to display their wares in the capital.  Each visits annually; we've had the CBSO and Halle, and Prom 35 (BSO/Karabits/Tynan - Liszt/Gliere/Rachmaninov - 10th August) was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's opportunity to show London the fruits of it's continuing relationship with Ukranian chief conductor Kirill Karabits. 

Karabits is a man with pet interests and most take in the music of Russia and Eastern Europe.  Shchedrin's music has featured prominently in the concert programmes and recent discography of the orchestra, and here it appeared that Karabits intended to dust off another infrequently heard Soviet era bit player.  Reinhold Gliere's name doesn't pass over many people lips too frequently, though Russian music fans (though Gliere was in fact Ukrainian) might have heard the Concerto for Coloratura Soprano given in the first half of this Prom.  I'm not as sceptical as Colin Anderson at Classicalsource, finding the work a pleasant if sugary diversion channelling Rachmaninov's Vocalise and some more fruity Italianate arias, but without the programme (which at £3.50 I'm refusing to buy) I never twigged that this sub-Tchaikovsky slice of lyrical kitsch could have been composed as late as 1943.  Special mention, though, goes to singer Ailish Tynan whose beautiful voice made the best possible case for what at best remains a curiosity.

I've made my thoughts on Liszt known before (though there are exceptions), and his symphonic poem Mazeppa didn't change my mind, sounding to me like a second rate Flying Dutchman.  Rachmaninov's Second Symphony is also a blind spot for me, amazing as that seems to be to anyone I admit it to.  I've always found it an over long work which fulfils the apparent cliches about his music that are avoided in many of his greatest works.  I was, though, swept along by the BSO's performance.  Karabits's direction was mostly swift and straight forward (aside from a fatally mannered delivery of the scherzo's second theme), though, as much as I enjoyed it, I remain unconvinced that the last movement is a strong enough answer to the undoubted weight and attraction of the first.

Steve Reich is 75 this year, though you'd not put him beyond 60 in his trademark baseball cap.  Prom 36 (Reich/Ensemble Modern - 10th August) celebrated his birthday (a little early) with three classic scores, two of which come from the very beginning of his classic minimalist phase.  Clapping Music is as simple as a duet can be, but must be fiendish.  The clapping parts phase out of synch until they reconnect at the end.  Standing but five metres from the great man as he clapped his way through it will stay with me, even if the hard walls of the Albert Hall worked against the amplification. 

Electric Counterpoint, of which I'm very fond, followed; but the centre piece was Reich's hour long statement of music as a gradual process: Music for 18 Musicians.  On paper it sounds like a recipe for tedium, but the unchanging pulse gets inside the audience over the course of the hour and the effect is strangely uplifting and collective in scope.  My feet fought against it, though, after standing through the Bournemouth Prom and ultimately I think Reich refined the process and acheived similar results in some of his later, shorter scores.

That was my last stand in the hall of the week, though I luckily got a seat to review Prom 39 (Spaghetti Western Orchestra) late on Friday and you can read my thoughts at Classicalsource.  For reviews of all the Proms I haven't mentioned, head to the Classicalsource main page.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Proms are not the only festival: A report from Verbier



Here's a reminder that the Proms are not the only big draw for soloists looking for some summertime fun.  The Verbier Festival runs for a couple of weeks from the end of July in the Swiss mountain resort of the same name and attracts a starry roster of famous musicians.  Friend of Devil's Trill Philippa has sent me this short report on the 2011 festival:

"I had a great time in Verbier and the Festival was as good as ever – something happening all the time from 9am until late – open rehearsals, master classes for voice, piano, violin, cello and chamber, free concerts every day given by members of the Verbier Festival Academy (mostly all with solo experience), interviews with some of the stars (Anne-Sophie Mutter was interviewed by James Naughtie), and of course the concerts in the main venues – the Eglise and the Salle de Combins.   Also every evening there was a free Jazz concert in the main square.

"Alfred Brendel was there for a few days – not performing but he took some of the master classes for voice and piano.   Violinist Joshua Bell was in good form in the three concerts he performed in.   It was good to hear him play works I’d not heard him play before.   On 25th he played Vieuxtemps's Violin Concerto No. 5 and also Ysaye's Poeme de L’Amitie for two violins with Renaud Capucon.   In the Gala concert on 26th he just played the first movement from Ysaye's Sonata for 2 violins with Leonidas Kavakos and, on 29th, he played in the Brahms Second String Quintet.  Martha Argerich played in the Gala concert on 26th – a brief appearance with Evgeny Kissin where they played Lutoslowski Variations de Paganini for 2 pianos.   This was a rather moving concert which had opened with Yuri Bashmet and Kissin playing Brahms Viola Sonata No. 2 – Bashmet then played an encore which he dedicated to his father who had died the previous evening.   He left the stage with tears glistening on his cheeks."  

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Proms week 4: Early Mahler and Scandinavian symphonies

Great art challenges our certainties like little else.  It's part of the deal: we enter the concert hall, or the gallery or cinema for that matter, in the hope of emerging changed by what we've witnessed.  For once, though, in our safe and comfortable city, events outside of the hall seemed determined to challenge what we took for granted.

With a horrible irony that would become apparent only once the news of widespread rioting had sunk in, we stood gripped by the effervescent display of Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony, last on the bill for Prom 33 (Oramo/RSPO/Ott - Sibelius/Grieg/Nielsen - 9th August).  As Andris Nelsons's whirlwind romance with the CBSO continues unabated, more people seem happy to cast doubt on Sakari Oramo's decade long tenure at the head of the Birmingham orchestra but there was nothing so equivocal about Oramao's Nielsen with his new band, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.  Their Inextinguishable was propulsive and virtuosic, while their Sibelius 6th, which opened the concert, had been a warm vision of abundant nature and its eventual decline.  Only the orchestra and conductor's accompaniment of Alice Sara Ott's performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto seemed to miss the mark, smothering her precise and ardent reading in an anaesthetising blanket.

As we retreated home with news flooding in via smartphones on Monday evening, Sunday seemed a distant and more innocent time.  Heavy rain and a leaking room meant I missed hearing Prom 32 (Gardner/BBCSO/Tetzlaff - Brahms/Mahler - 8th August) in the hall, making do with the radio instead.  Mahler's fairy tale cantata Das klagende Lied, heard in its original three part form, must have surprised any casual Mahler fans energised into hearing more after the Simon Bolivar Orchestra's Friday Resurrection.  Shades and intimations of mature Mahler haunt its pages, but never his familiar grip on the bigger picture and Mahler newbies might reasonably have wondered what they'd let themselves in for during its 65 minute span.  Others more familiar with the work have suggested that it wasn't helped by the Edward Gardner's direction, but I for one found my mind wandering elsewhere.

There could be no risk of inattenetiveness in Christian Tetzlaff's vigorous and slightly scary performance of Brahms's Violin Concerto, though.  Tetzlaff exploded out of the starting blocks and barely let up from then on, producing one of the swiftest renditions of the concerto that I've heard.  It was frantic and strangely riveting stuff, grabbing us by the scruff of the neck with Tetzlaff's penetrating and brittle tone driving home the point.  All the wildness got a bit much in the last movement, though, with Tezlaff sounding increasingly ragged as he flew to the finish.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Proms week 3: Part 2

We're doing very well for violin concertos at this year's Proms, though as (bad) luck would have it, I'll be missing many of the best at the other end of the series.  Prom 24 (BBCSO/Davis/Little - Elgar/Grainger/Strauss - August 2nd) gave us one of the very best:  The Elgar.  Tasmin Little has recently recorded it for Chandos, though hers appears shortly after acclaimed versions from James Ehnes and Nikolaj Znaider.  I've not heard her disc, so I'm not sure how it compares with this concert performance, but here it seemed that Little's interpretation was more successful at some moments than others.  The slow movement was particularly impassioned in her hands and the dream-like accompanied cadenza at the heart of the finale appropriately wistful, but in casting so much of the great first movement as a sombre elegy Little gave it a rather one dimensional reading.  Even on the radio (and later TV broadcast), Little's rich, almost viola-like tone was attractive and distinctive, but I couldn't help but think of any number of violinists who could have given the work a more secure and incisive performance.

One of the delights of a concert (and even more so a Prom), is that, unless you're one of those people who makes for the exit at half time, there's a good chance of hearing something totally unexpected and utterly wonderful.  Those moments are some of my most treasured concert memories - John Adams's Harmonielehre conducted by the composer; Saint-Saens Fifth Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough; a revelatory Brahms 1st Symphony with Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw when I didn't think I liked the piece.  I'm adding Percy Grainger's suite In a Nutshell to that list, which opened out in it's third movement, Pastorale, into an awe inspiring landscape with twinkling pianos and percussion redolent of Charles Ives at his zaniest.  UK readers should watch it on iplayer where it's available for a few more days.

My last Prom before the weekend was Wednesday's Prom 26 (BBC Scottish/Runnicles/Harrell - Debussy/Dutilleux/Ravel - August 3rd).  Runnicles has done great things with the BBC Scottish, though he's had a fine tradition from previous maestros Osmo Vanska and Ilan Volkov to build on.  His Daphnis et Chloe was terrific, resisting luxuriating in the fine details in favour of pace and balance; the playing and singing were also excellent and I really think we're in a golden age of the BBC orchestras (something politicians would be wise to realise before hacking away at the BBC any more).  A low key Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune began the concert, though the flute solo at its outset was ruined by dreadful clattering from the boxes.  The level of coughing throughout the Prom was also infuriating; this seems to be particularly (though not exclusively) a Proms problem that isn't getting any better.

The string interest came with Lynn Harrell's traversal of Dutilleux's nocturnal cello concerto Tout un monde lointain... .  Harrell is a fan of the work and it showed is his flowing and transfixed performance.  His face was often a picture of wonderment, mouthing along to the rhythms of the orchestral tuttis and in an encore of music from Bach's Third Cello Suite, he beamed at the prommers, as though enjoying our enjoyment of what he was doing.

Life in general got in the way of the most recent few Proms, though I'd point you in the direction of the always interesting Richard Whitehouse at Classicalsource for Runnicles's second Prom and David Allen for coverage of the Second Coming of Dudamel and the Bolivars, and for yesterday's NYO Prom.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Proms week 3: Part 1

Only a week away and yet so much Proms water is under the bridge.  I returned from six nights abroad on Saturday and was persuaded to go to Prom 21 (CBSO/Nelsons/Midori - Strauss/Walton/Prokofiev - July 30th).  Conductor Andris Nelsons is only 33 and is already the talk of the town.  He has a particular love of Richard Strauss's music and his Don Juan showed his supple control of its shifts of tone and texture.  At the other end of the programme was something of a Nelsons party piece: The Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss's opera Salome, an odd choice of dessert to plonk after Prokofiev's Alexander NevskyNevsky was bold and clear with smaller than usual choral forces making the vocal textures lighter than they can be, though I'd have liked a bit more terror in the famous Battle on the Ice.  Before that, Midori proved unpersuasive in Walton's little heard Violin Concerto; her performance might have been more appreciated in a smaller venue but didn't make the case for what seemed like an episodic work.

I caught the next few on the radio.  Prom 22 (BBC Phil/Noseda - Rachmaninov - July 31st), the latest in the 'choral Sunday' series, was a treat for Russian music nerds.  Rarely heard bits of Rachmaninov included his cantata Spring, composed around the time of his Second Piano Concerto; some short choral pieces and a pair of dance from his student opera Aleko.  All very nice, if not quite top draw Rach, though his own favourite amoung his works, The Bells, concluded the concert and made a better impression on me than previous hearings.  I couldn't take soprano Svetla Vassileva's warbling in Vocalise, though.

Prom 23 (BBC Phil/Noseda/Hough - Beethoven/Saint-Saens/Liszt - August 1st) took me back to my student days, when I heard Stephen Hough's magical performance of Saint-Saens's Fifth Piano Concerto (The Egyptian) with the LPO at the Festival Hall.  I'd never heard it before and was bowled over by its wit and stylistic sleight of hand.  Hough did it all again at the Proms on Monday, remarkably enough giving the work its first Proms outing since 1918.  It's still dazzling and great fun, though Hough took some of the charm from the finale by driving on too fast.  Liszt's Dante Symphony (another concert hall rarity) didn't completely hold my attention, so too swift a dismisal would be unfair - Liszt does still strike me, though, as a composer more remarkable for his inovations than for the general quality of his music.

The links above will take you to the Proms listings, from which UK readers can listen to the concert for a limited time only.  Prom 21 was broadcast live on BBC TV.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Elgar's Violin Concerto at the Proms: Then and now

It's one of the mightiest of all violin concertos and one of the longest.  At around 50 minutes in length, Elgar's concerto is one of the greatest challenges in the repertoire, though a look at the Proms archive shows that the work is less often heard than it once was.  Tasmin Little comes to the Albert Hall tonight to give the concerto its 33rd Proms outing, though only two of the previous 32 have been in the last ten years. 

Little played the piece in 1994, but at (what will be) two performances, she's some way down the leader board.  Albert Sammons, who made what some consider to be the difinitive recording of the work, with Proms founder Henry Wood in 1929, clocked up an admirable 8 performances between 1914 and 1944 (all but one with Henry Wood).  Ida Haendel gave 4 between 1942 and 1986, though its highly unlikely that she'll add any more to that tally.  The most celebrated performer of the work, Yehudi Menuhin, gave just 2 (1946 and 1972; both with Adrian Boult).

Another Proms Elgarian is Itzhak Perlman, still performing but rather less active than he once was.  He solitary performance of the work came in 1981 and was captured on film.  It's available as a DVD now, and a chunk of it can be seen below.