Proms2011

Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Musica benevolens (World Première)

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The 2011 Proms season began with a première, and the last night began with one too, a concert-raiser from Master of the Queen’s Music Peter Maxwell Davies titled Musica benevolens, the title of which tips the hat at the work’s commissioners, the Musicians Benevolent Fund. It was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the BBC Symphony Chorus, joined by the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Household Division, all conducted by Edward Gardner. The concert programme indicated Max’s piece would last 4 minutes; one can only wish that had been the case. Read more

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Proms 2011: Harrison Birtwistle – Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (UK Première)

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As already noted, this year’s Proms season has seen an abundance of new concertos, the last and most substantial of which was given its UK première on 7 September: the Concerto for Violin & Orchestra by Harrison Birtwistle. Birtwistle wrote the work for soloist Christian Tetzlaff, who gave the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra earlier in the year; on this occasion he was joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson. Read more

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Proms 2011: Thierry Escaich – Evocation III (UK Première)

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Thierry Escaich‘s recital on 4 September brought to a close the contribution of the organ to the new music at this year’s Proms (preceded by Michael Berkeley’s Organ Concerto and Stephen Farr’s recital at the start of the season). Escaich’s programme included much familiar fare—Reger, Franck, Liszt—in addition to an example of the rather tiresome party favourite beloved of so many organists these days, improvisations “in the style of” other composers. Fran(c)kly, this kind of escapade does no-one any favours, and Escaich was on much more certain and meaningful ground in the UK première of his own Evocation III, a short work based on the 16th century Lutheran chorale, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ (“Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles”). Read more

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Proms 2011: Michael Berkeley – Organ Concerto

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The Prom concert on the evening of 3 September included a performance of Michael Berkeley‘s rarely-heard Organ Concerto, performed by David Goode with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. There are few British composers who seem to be so centrally connected to the world of music than Michael Berkeley. Son of Lennox, godson of Britten, Berkeley is arguably best known to many through his broadcasting work on television and radio, although as a composer he’s charted an interesting, if at times, quizzical path. The reason i mention the sense of interconnection projected from Berkeley’s cultural persona is because it’s often struck me that his compositional voice doesn’t so much bubble up from within, but appears to be forged from notions, ideas, mannerisms and traits from a plethora of other composers. That’s not intended as a negative criticism at all; on the contrary, in his best music, Berkeley, far from being a ‘stylistic magpie’, comes across as a sort of æsthetic impresario, in the process generating something quite unique irrespective of the apparently disparate nature of its sources. Read more

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Proms 2011: John Tavener – Popule meus (UK Première)

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Right, where were we? Saturday 3 September brought the last of the Proms’ Matinee concerts from the Cadogan Hall, each of which has featured contemporary music prominently. This final occasion was no exception, including works by Tippett and Sofia Gubaidulina, and presenting the first UK performance of John Tavener‘s Popule meus. The work bears a similarity to one of Tavener’s most well-known pieces, The Protecting Veil, also scored for solo cello and strings, augmented here by a prominent role for timpani; it was performed by the Britten Sinfonia with the solo part taken by Natalie Clein. Tavener’s title, Popule meus (‘O my people’), is a reference to the Reproaches, one of the most poignant texts to be sung during Holy Week, in which God puts humanity on the spot about their wholesale rejection of Him. It takes place at a time of great solemnity on Good Friday, and becomes one of the most challenging moments in the Christian year. As such, it is in every way the complete opposite of Tavener’s piece, which strives for tragedy, but ends up merely tragic. Read more

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Proms 2011: Graham Fitkin – L & Cello Concerto (World Première)

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The music of Graham Fitkin has been featured twice this week at the Proms, both occasions in the hands of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. First came L, a work for cello and piano composed for Ma’s 50th birthday (commissioned by Kathryn Stott, who accompanied the performance), while this evening’s Prom brought the world première of Fitkin’s Cello Concerto. Read more

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Proms 2011: Anders Hillborg – Cold Heat (UK Première)

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Monday evening’s Prom brought one of the pieces i’ve most been looking forward to hear in this year’s season, the first London performance of Cold Heat by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Few composers in recent times have revivified the Straussian idea of the symphonic poem more effectively than Hillborg, although his approach avoids overtly programmatic ideas. Hillborg prefers more abstract but no less evocative subject matter, and this train of compositional thought is continued through the fifteen minutes of Cold Heat, which was performed by one of the groups who commissioned the work, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, directed by David Zinman. Read more

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Proms 2011: Stevie Wishart – Out of this World (World Première)

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As on previous occasions, new music featured strongly in last Saturday’s Proms Matinee from the Cadogan Hall, this time including the world première of a new work by Stevie Wishart: Out of this World, composed for the BBC Singers.

Earlier in the concert, music by Hildegard of Bingen had been heard, and it’s to Hildegard that Wishart has turned for inspiration, setting four of her texts, texts for which no extant music by Hildegard herself survives. Thankfully, pastiche is not on Wishart’s agenda, although various influences do make themselves felt at points through the piece. Opening song ‘O word of the Father’ is the most spare of them all, soft open vowels giving way to a cool and austere atmosphere in which the upper voices are silent. The male singers handle the chromaticism admirably, but the music could really do with the kind of acoustic Hildegard would have known; in the relatively echoless Cadogan Hall, some of the warmth is lost, and it sounds more severe than it actually is. The brief second song ‘O God eternal’ is much more engaging, with strong interaction between the upper and lower voices, the latter of which initially offer brief, strange sounds beneath, demarcating the pulse. It develops into a distinctly French kind of sonority, at times quite strongly redolent of Poulenc. Read more

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In Memoriam Tomás Luis de Victoria – Proms 2011: The Tallis Scholars

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400 years ago today, Tomás Luis de Victoria, one of the very finest Renaissance composers, died. To commemorate his passing, a little over three weeks ago the Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips gave a late-night Prom concert dedicated to Victoria’s music.

The concert begins with one of the Motecta Festorum, Victoria’s first volume of motets, published in 1572 and marking a significant point in his career. The stirring text of Dum complerentur recalls the scene –but not, despite what the programme note says, the actual act – of the descending upon the Apostles of the Holy Spirit, and the references to sound and noise clearly got Victoria rather excited (the Tallis Scholars take it at a helpfully brisk tempo). The music can’t sit still, although the opening section, setting the scene, is downplayed, the first ‘Alleluia’ barely allowed to grow before it’s quickly interrupted (‘Et subito’). But now everything heats up; at the reference to a “sound from heaven”, Victoria lingers on the word ‘sonus’, the repeating downward lines hinting at the forthcoming climax. The second ‘Alleluia’ is allowed to develop more, but it’s not until after the next phrase, likening the sound to a “hurricane in its fury”, that Victoria unleashes a lengthy ‘Alleluia’, laden with overlapping descending lines, akin to a peal of church bells. The text then goes round in a little tautological circle, effectively setting the scene again, but affording Victoria the opportunity to explore ‘sonus’ again, this time with more extended melismas, in some of the motet’s most breathtaking material. It closes with a repeat of much of the earlier music, allowing the listener to revel again in the sheer exhilaration of that climactic ‘Alleluia’. Read more

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Proms 2011: Kevin Volans – Piano Concerto No. 3 (World Première)

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If one thing has dominated the premières at this year’s Proms, it’s the presence of the concerto; thus far, we’ve heard no fewer than six (Dalbavie, Carter, Holloway, Holt, Larcher and Aperghis), with more coming in the days ahead. Monday’s Prom brought yet another concerto into being, Kevin VolansPiano Concerto No. 3, performed by Barry Douglas with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard.

The opening few minutes give a clear indication of what lies ahead, the piano presenting a stabbing ostinato that immediately infects the orchestra, responding in glittering accented chords. The piano then dissolves into a fluid, grace note-strewn passage, bringing proceedings briefly to a halt; starting up again, the sections of the orchestra now take turns to predominate. This is the essence of the piece, and also its unifying aspect, since Volans is not concerned here with conventional notions of material development. He has very different ideas, and indeed, his working method—each day to continue where he’d left off, making no amendments to previous work—is audibly etched into the grain of the music. It neither develops nor evolves; in a sense, it unfolds, but even this doesn’t quite fit; perhaps all one can say is that it just happens, swiftly passing from idea to idea with only the barest of constants. There are occasions when Volans allows himself to revisit earlier material, but for the most part, this concerto is a flight of fancy, restlessly keen to press on, with barely a glance behind. Read more

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Proms 2011: Colin Matthews – No Man’s Land (World Première)

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Sunday night’s Prom brought the world première of a new work from Faber’s finest, Colin Matthews: No Man’s Land for tenor and baritone soli and orchestra. Commissioned by Richard Hickox immediately prior to his death in 2008, it was presented by the orchestra Hickox himself formed 40 years ago, the City of London Sinfonia, directed by Stephen Layton, with soloists Ian Bostridge and Roderick Williams. Matthews’ text is by Christopher Reid, recounting an exchange between the ghosts of two soldiers, Captain Gifford and Sergeant Slack, whose bodies hang on barbed wire in no man’s land.

On the one hand, being charitable, perhaps the context was inopportune, coming as it did just a couple of days after Sir Harrison Birtwistle‘s brilliant Angel Fighter (also a work featuring two vocal soloists). But that can only go so far to mitigate the dreadful way with which this piece comports itself; far from striking the dignified stance that Matthews presumably intended, it was instead slowly unveiled as a ramshackle, shoddily stitched together patchwork of wafer-thin attempts at evocation. We’re fortunate—no, we’re blessed—in recent times to have seen the slow, steady rise of hauntology, a unique kind of musical aesthetic that can powerfully reach into the past and reflect it back at us with genuine sincerity and authenticity, stained and sullied (as it must be) by the gulf that separates then from now, and by our increasingly tenuous grasp on increasingly distant things. But what Matthews gives us in No Man’s Land is little more than a contrived collection of pastiche confectionary, coloured so as to appear moderately grim and stone-faced. Read more

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Proms 2011: Peter Maxwell Davies – Il rozzo martello; Georges Aperghis – Champ-Contrechamp (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – Angel Fighter (UK Première)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee was devoted to new music, featuring no less a line-up than the BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta, both conducted by David Atherton.

The concert opened with Peter Maxwell DaviesIl rozzo martello, a sombre and rather austere choral work that comes across as older than its mere 14 years would suggest. Unlike so many composers of contemporary choral music, Max is happily unequivocal in his mode of expression, but this also makes the piece a bit of a tough listen, so it benefits from repeated listenings, which ‘soften’ the ostensibly hard edges. It proves, at times, to be captivating; the opening, where overlapping plainsong-esque lines sustain their final note, gradually building a rich chord, is a rather magical way to start the piece, and it ends no less impressively, in a deliciously soft morass of lower voices. It’s often the male voices who have the most striking material, including a dense homophonic episode around halfway through, and some unexpected loud whispers towards the end. A difficult piece, no doubt, but given half a chance, an increasingly rewarding one. Read more

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Proms 2011: Thomas Larcher – Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra (World Première)

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Last Thursday’s Prom was an all Austrian affair, opening with the world première of Thomas Larcher‘s Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra; Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley were the soloists, pitted against the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra directed by Ilan Volkov.

Beforehand, one wondered if it might prove to be the most tantalising new work heard this year; alongside the twin soloists, Larcher has included a peculiar concertino quartet comprising accordion, electric zither, percussion and prepared piano (played by Larcher himself). Within minutes, though, it became abundantly clear that we were in very similar territory to that explored by Pascal Dusapin in his String Quartet/Concerto ‘Hinterland’/’Hapax’ three weeks ago. Throughout the first movement, Larcher, too, is hyperactive almost to the point of absurdity, but certainly well beyond the point of irritation. His material feels like the result of a large-scale collage, one put together from microscopic, barely-similar fragments. There are, admittedly, notions of unity in the movement—an occasional returring motif, and an oscillating chord progression redolent of film music—but they can do little to prevent the music from coming across as skittish and schizophrenic. Read more

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Proms 2011: Jonny Greenwood/Robert Ziegler – Norwegian Wood – Suite & Purcell/Joby Talbot – Chacony in G minor (World Premières)

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The most recent premières at this year’s Proms have been a pair of arrangements, the first, a suite formed by Robert Ziegler from Jonny Greenwood‘s score to the film Norwegian Wood, the second, a new rendition of Henry Purcell‘s Chacony in G minor, by Joby Talbot.

Greenwood’s music was performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra (with which he is Composer in Association), at last Friday’s Prom dedicated to film music. The augeries were ambivalent; hitherto in this concert, despite apparent energy in spades, the orchestra had proved itself lacklustre and even scrappy under Keith Lockhart’s direction. A notable casualty was John Williams’ Star Wars music, the opening of which was a mistimed disgrace, while the rest became a bombastic showy affair far, far away from the raw power of the original. On the other hand, the quieter music seemed to suit everyone much better, which boded well for Greenwood’s restrained, even reticent soundtrack. It’s not accurate to describe this Suite as an ‘arrangement’; Robert Ziegler, the original conductor of Greenwood’s score (and also for his music for the film There Will Be Blood), has simply extracted three movements to form this Suite: ‘もう少し自分のこと、きちんとしたいの’ (‘I want to get a little better’), ‘草原、風、雑木林’ (The Meadow, the Wind, the Trees’) and ‘直子が死んだ’ (‘Naoko Died’). Ziegler’s own contribution seems to be limited to a small extension of the opening material in the first movement; beyond that, any additional tweaks are too subtle to be noticeable. Read more

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Proms 2011: Simon Holt – Centauromachy

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Simon Holt has been featured at the Proms on numerous occasions over the years, and yesterday his music returned to the Albert Hall with the orchestral work Centauromachy. It was given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with whom Holt is Composer in Association; they were conducted by François-Xavier Roth, who also oversaw the première of the piece in November last year. The work features a pair of soloists, of distinct but not dissimilar timbres: clarinet in A and flugelhorn, played by Robert Plane and Philippe Schartz respectively.

Holt has structured the work in five movements, the shortest of which comes first, featuring the soloists alone. Titled ‘Two natures’, it serves to compare and contrast the clarinet and flugelhorn, which at first take it in turns to attempt to catch each other, scurrying around, imitating, their phrases ending together on a unison note. It’s not until the third and final phrase that they move beyond a relatively narrow pitch space, moving swiftly to occupy distinct registral areas, the clarinet initially high above the flugelhorn, then leaping below it. Following a final chirrup, the second movement, ‘Chiron’s dream’ introduces the orchestra, rapidly materialising like a grand, cinematic fade-in. When the soloists restart their activity, it’s with forceful gestures, but they quickly yield to lines that continue to cling together. A trumpet strikes up a rapport with the flugel, while the strings seek to try something out in their uppermost register, delineated by glockenspiel strikes. Everything coalesces onto a lower note, from which the soloists again recommence strongly but immediately become soft; as earlier, though, Holt keeps the material restless, suggesting a dream that’s not entirely comfortable. Read more

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Proms 2011: Robin Holloway – Fifth Concerto for Orchestra (World Première)

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After a few days’ break, new music returned to the Proms this evening with the world première of Robin Holloway‘s Fifth Concerto for Orchestra, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Donald Runnicles. His previous quartet of orchestral concerti have been diverse, making it difficult to predict with any certainty what Holloway would do on this occasion. The beginnings of an answer come quickly; Holloway has jettisoned all conceits of programme music—indeed, he goes to great pains in his accompanying note to emphasise how ‘abstract’ it is. But this is undermined to an extent by the lengthy quasi-synæsthetic description Holloway offers instead, suggesting the five movements explore a variety of colours and hues, which may be abstract in one sense, but in another is arguably no less demonstrative in the way it describes to the listener what the music is ‘about’. This is not a complaint, though, and the prospect of exploring colour in sound – such a richly-mined concept in the 20th century – is an intriguing one, particularly in the hands of Holloway, who always takes such a filigree approach to orchestration (heard so captivatingly in his re-working of Schumann performed at last year’s Proms, the song cycle RELIQUARY). Read more

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Proms 2011: Marc-André Dalbavie & Elliott Carter – Flute Concertos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening’s Prom concert brought not one but two flute concertos, performed by Swiss virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, again under Thierry Fischer’s direction. The two pieces are nearly five and three years old respectively, the first from Marc-André Dalbavie, who turned 50 earlier this year, the second (heard here in its UK première) from Elliott Carter, who will be a staggering 103 years old in December. Despite first appearances, there are commonalities between the two works. Both eschew the contemporary practice of opting for descriptive names; the bald title Flute Concerto has connotations of its own, of course, but nonetheless suggests that deeply programmatic content is not the order of the day. To that end, both also place greatest importance on the surface of the music, inviting the listener first and foremost to place their focus on its undulations. But there the similarities end. Read more

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Proms 2011: Pascal Dusapin – String Quartet No. 6, ‘Hinterland’ (‘Hapax’ for string quartet and orchestra) (UK Première)

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Turning one’s attention to the second work of Pascal Dusapin‘s to be featured at this year’s Proms, superficial similarities to the last première, Sally Beamish’s Reed Stanzas, immediately present themselves. This, too, is a piece for string quartet (Dusapin’s String Quartet No. 6), although extensively augmented and amplified by the presence of a small orchestra (on this occasion, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, directed by Thierry Fischer). Dusapin’s work also bears two titles, the first of which, Hinterland, suggests a similar kind of remote landscape to that explored in Beamish’s piece. The second title, in Dusapin’s trademark pithy fashion, is the single Greek word Hapax, a word perhaps better known in English through the linguistic term hapax legomenon, referring to the rare phenomenon of a word or construction that appears just once in a particular language. Dusapin rather indifferently claims to have used the word ‘Hapax’ simply because “It is […] highly unlikely that I will ever write another quartet with orchestra”, but one can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that. Due to the nature of hapax legomena, they are notoriously difficult to make sense of, and as Dusapin’s work progresses, it’s a parallel that seems increasingly apt. Read more

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Proms 2011: Sally Beamish – Reed Stanzas (String Quartet No. 3) (World Première)

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The first chamber music première at this year’s Proms took place yesterday afternoon, at the Cadogan Hall. Sally Beamish‘s new work for the Elias Quartet bears two conjoined titles, reflecting different aspects of the work: Reed Stanzas throws together modern notions of marshland and poetry, while String Quartet No. 3 reminds us the work is part of an ongoing series of works that in turn aspire to be part of a much older compositional lineage. Beamish has lived in Scotland for over 20 years now, and it’s to one the country’s indigenous musical traditions that she turns first, utilising second violinist Donald Grant’s dual talent as a Scottish fiddle player. Scotland also plays a part in the compositional tone of the piece; Beamish wrote the work on the Outer Hebridean island of Harris (a place i know well from my own times in Scotland), a landscape with outlandish contrasts of terrain, featuring Mediterranean-like beaches, angular grey mountain country, and vast tracts of rather desolate scrubland. It’s the latter that Beamish has uppermost in mind, alongside an equivalent landscape of East Anglia, the “Reed” in the title alluding to the region’s wonderful areas of marsh- and fenland; together, they evoke for Beamish a “vastness” and “loneliness” that is omnipresent in the piece. Read more

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Proms 2011: Pascal Dusapin – Morning in Long Island (UK Première)

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The music of Pascal Dusapin is being featured twice at this year’s Proms. The first piece, Morning in Long Island, was given its UK première yesterday evening, by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, directed by Myung-Whun Chung. It’s not exactly the kind of appellation one would immediately associate with Dusapin, who usually prefers to title his works with succinct, single words. His allusive title refers to a morning, over 20 years ago, when Dusapin found himself on a beach, and was captivated by the movement of nature around him (not a million miles away from the moment of inspiration that led to James Dillon’s Zone (… de azul)). Morning in Long Island is structured in three movements, which continue without a break, and together with the large orchestra Dusapin has included an additional brass trio of horn, trumpet and trombone. Read more

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