Wednesday 27 July 2011

Proms week 1: Rite, Schubert and a visit to Spain

From the festival's first foreign orchestra to chamber music in the Royal Albert Hall, the first full week of the 2011 Proms offered contrasts galore.  None was more marked than the switch in scale between Sunday night's Gothic monster Prom and the Belcea Quartet's Schubert Quintet (19th July, Prom 7) in the hall late on Tuesday night.  In the event, the Schubert was a revelation, both in performance (the Belceas remarkably adept at adapting the cavernous ringing sound of the hall) and in the way that the scale of the music was reflected in the grandeur of the space.  Read my full review at Classicalsource.  Before that, more mixed fare in Prom 6 from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under their artistic director Myung-Whun Chung (brother of violinist Kyung-Wha Chung).  Renaud and Gautier Capucon were certainly emphatic in Brahms's Double Concerto and much of their playing was enjoyable, but they received some leaden and soupy support from Chung and the orchestra.  The ubiquitous Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia followed, though even a cynic would have found it riveting.  Chung and the OPRF were on better form in the Rite of Spring after the interval.  Chung's interpretation might have been considered a little two dimensional; it alternated dreamy languor with frantic energy, which was a valid view.

Thursday's visit by the Halle and Mark Elder (Prom 9) brought a compelling programme of 20th century classics; their Sibelius 7 was well cultivated but those who like their Sibelius rugged and exhausting might have found the ride too gentle.  It was my first chance to hear Andras Schiff live and he didn't disappoint in Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, making the most of this mellow late work and phrasing the delicate second movement to perfection.  Janacek's Sinfonietta is always a theatrical experience, and the bank of extra brass sitting above the main orchestra didn't fail to excite.

Both Thursday and Friday's Proms were broadcast live on BBC4, and I caught Juanjo Mena's Proms debut as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic on TV (Prom 10).  He presented an appealing programme of music mostly connected with Spain, including Debussy's Images and Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain but what struck me most was the BBC's interval programming.  Presumably they are under pressure to produce something for no money, and at times it showed, but it was a great improvement on times past with less inane chat with uncomfortable musicians along the lines of 'why do you play the tuba?'.  It wasn't perfect, but I came away imagining that newcomers might actually have learned something about how the music was written.  A feature on Spanish guitar music dipped its toe into the genuinely interesting idea of how the technical limitations of an instrument can dictate the harmonic language of the music written for it.  The coverage was a little Open University, and there was the constant feeling that there might be a test afterwards, but it represented a welcome improvement.  

Devil's Trill is out of town this week, but will be back at the Proms next week.

Thursday 21 July 2011

BBC Proms opening weekend: From Glagolitic to Gothic

Prom 1: Brahms and Liszt (and Janacek)

If there's a problem with a chief conductor who specialises in one particular area, it's that an orchestra's programmes get filled rather disproportionately with one kind of music.  Jiří Bělohlávek is fond of laying on the Czech, and so in the first week of the Proms we're getting three quarters of the BBC Symphony's programmes dedicated to Czech music.  It was Dvorak and Smetana in Prom 8 and Janacek at the first night.  But Bělohlávek's way with this music is often stunning, and the first night of the 2011 season was a chance to hear him conduct Janacek's Glagolitic Mass.  It's interesting (especially for a non-believer like me) partly because Janacek is one of the few composers of great sacred music to have held no such beliefs himself.  I was struck by the concentration around the words 'I believe', which promptly vanished when the text took to the particulars of what was believed.

The BBC SO sounded a little harried in the darting music that makes up so much of the Mass; the performance was also saddled with three well matched singers (including the remarkable Hibla Gerzmava) and one sore thumb in the form of shouty tenor Stefan Vinke.  Elsewhere, (just) 19 year old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor was effortless in Liszt's rather silly Second Piano Concerto and staggering in Cziffra's virtuosic take on Brahms's Fifth Hungarian Rhapsody.  I wasn't much taken with the opener, though, Stars, Night, Music and Light by Judith Weir, which took a little too much from Walton.

Prom 4: Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony

Brian’s Gothic owes most of its allure to its inaccessibility which, as usual, leads some to make great claims of its quality.  The cost involved in putting it on, combined with the sheer technical difficulties of score, ensure that performances have been few and far between.  It’s been thirty years since the last performance in the UK (though one was mounted last year in Australia) but novelty value alone ensured that seats for Martyn Brabbins’s Proms performance sold out almost immediately.  That may have in part been due to the fact that several hundred seats were not on sale to accommodate the huge choir and off-stage brass used for the performance, but it still must have been heartening for Roger Wright and co, who must have wondered if anyone would show up.

I first heard the work about ten years ago, finding the CD in my local public library (remember them?) and being thrilled by the orchestral music of part 1.  I didn’t get very far into part 2 though, which marries the huge chorus and orchestra with 4 soloists and, a decade on, I can’t say I feel much different.  Part 1 is divided into three movements and lasts around 45 minutes.  It’s taut and dark and I was surprised all over again by how knotty the musical language is.  This section utilises only the double orchestra (basically everyone seated on the built-out stage in Sunday’s performance), plus a few mind blowing interjections from the organ and it’s this music that most purely evokes the spaces of the gothic cathedrals that partly inspired the work.  The huge number of string players are often used too contrapuntally to really make their collective weight felt, but it’s the massed wind and brass instruments that justify the scale of the orchestration:  the great dark corners of those cathedrals are brilliantly depicted by the sheer depth of tone produced by wind and brass sections of this scale.

Part 2 sets the text of the Te Deum and there are arresting moments:  Soprano Susan Gritton’s voice wafting from on high; the huge numbers of voices (almost 800) belting it out together (my ears went a bit funny at one point with the tremendous volume, even from my vantage point in the gallery); and, most of all, the sudden stillness of the coda – a rare moment of expressive intensity in this second part.  But, honestly, vast swathes of unaccompanied choral writing that stand no chance of coherence could be cut and Brian is sometimes cruel in his expectation of this many voices meeting the orchestra’s pitch after so long spent a capella.  And much of the musical material of this hour long choral section in undistinguished and rather aimless.  If only more of the material could be expressed as dramatically and concisely as the work’s opening and conclusion.

But does this matter?  Not everything can be a masterpiece and it would be better if we could stop expecting everything unusual to be so.  It’s one of the lofty and rarely climbed peaks of English music; you bet I’m glad to have visited the top.  Will I be returning?  Not in a hurry.      

Friday 15 July 2011

BBC Proms 2011 begin today!

For those of us in London, the first night of the BBC Proms is always the real start of summer.  Below is a clip from last year's first night (actually, the first first night I'd ever been to), featuring Mahler's 8th Symphony.  I won't be in the hall this evening, but will be enjoying it from the comfort of my own living room.  Tune in from 7.30pm on BBC2.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Violinist Josef Suk has died

Sad news (via JDCMB) - Czech violinist Josef Suk has died, aged 81.  Suk was grandson of the composer of the same name, who was himself a pupil and son-in-law of Dvorak.  

In the video below, Suk plays Dvorak's Violin Concerto. 

Gidon Kremer takes on Putin

Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer has spoken out about the imprisonment of Russian former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his associate Platon Lebedev.  CNN caries a statement by Kremer explaining his desire to fulfil his duty as an artist to speak out about political wrongdoings.  Kremer states:

"As artists, it's our duty to raise our voices in a chorus of opposition to drown out those who seek to humiliate and punish men like Khodorkovsky. Why? Because history has proved men like Khodorkovsky right."

Kremer places his statement alongside other musicians who have spoken out over political situations, such as Yehudi Menuhin (who Kremer says is "often considered the best violinist in the 20th century".  By whom?  Beats me.) and, perhaps more appropriately, Mstislav Rostropovich, who sheltered Aleksander Solzhenitsyn at a time when the Soviet writer faced official censure for his political activities. 

Saturday 2 July 2011

Tchaikovsky Compeition Moscow Gala - In Pictures!

Two gala concerts followed the Tchaikovsky Competition's awards ceremony; one on Friday in Moscow and one in St Petersburg on Saturday.  The old-school rectangle of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory certainly contrasted with the modern stylings of the Mariinsky Theatre's Concert Hall, though the latters PA system-delivered announcements were rather smoother than Moscow's man with a clipboard.  Excitingly, we got to hear a number of the finalists in a range of repertoire, rather than the Tchaikovskython I had anticipated.  Here's some snaps of the Moscow gala concert, taken from the online stream.  

The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory

Conductor Valery Gergiev lurking

Amartuvshin Enkhbat of Mongolia

Krzysztof Penderecki, who composed the cello competition's set new work

Edgar Moraeu of France, playing Penderecki's set work in Moscow

Pianist Alexander Romanovsky, winner of the Special Vladimir Krainev Award

Piano gold medallist Daniil Trifanov, playing Tchaikovsky

Friday 1 July 2011

Tchaikovsky Competition - all the other prizes


Prize for the Best Performance of the Commissioned Work by Rodion Shchedrin:
Yeol Eum Son (South Korea)

Prize for the Best Performance of the Chamber Concerto:
Yeol Eum Son (South Korea)
Daniil Trifonov (Russia)

Jury Discretionary Awards:
Pavel Kolesnikov (Russia)
François-Xavier Poizat (France)

The Special Vladimir Krainev Award:
Alexander Romanovsky (Ukraine)


Prize for the Best Performance of the Commissioned Work by Krzysztof Penderecki:
Edgar Moreau (France)

Prize for the Best Performance of the Chamber Concerto:
Narek Hakhnazaryan (Armenia)

Jury Discretionary Awards:
Jakob Koranyi (Sweden)

Janina Ruh (Germany)


Prize for the Best Performance of the Commissioned Work by John Corigliano:
Nigel Armstrong (USA)

Prize for the Best Performance of the Chamber Concerto:
Jehye Lee (South Korea)

Jury Discretionary Awards:
Aylen Pritchin (Russia)

Yu-Chien Tseng (Taiwan)


Jury Discretionary Awards, Female:
Oksana Davydenko (Kazakhstan)
Olga Pudova (Russia)

Jury Discretionary Awards, Male:
Dmitry Demidchik (Belarus)
Gevorg Grigorian (Russia)

Online Audience Awards:

Piano: Daniil Trifonov (Russia)
Cello: Narek Hakhnazaryan (Armenia)

Violin: Sergey Dogadin (Russia)

Female Voice: Elena Guseva (Russia)
Male Voice: Amartuvshin Enkhbat (Mongolia)

Don't miss your chance to see all the winners in action at the two winners concerts taking place today and tomorrow - It's Moscow tonight and St. Petersburg tomorrow, both at 7pm local time (4pm BST) and presumably streamed live on the Tchaikovsky Competition's website.