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PROMS 2008

First Night of the Proms

Strauss, Mozart, Messiaen, Beethoven, Carter, Scriabin


Strauss: Festliches Praludium; Four Last Songs

Mozart: Oboe Concerto in C K314

Messiaen: La Nativite du Seigneur – Dieu parmi nous

Beethoven: Rondo in B flat major for piano and orchestra

Carter: Catenaires for solo piano

Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy

Christine Brewer – soprano

Pierre-Laurent Aimard – piano

Nicholas Daniel – oboe

Wayne Marshall – organ

RCM Brass Band/ BBC Symphony Orch/Jiri Belohlavec

Royal Albert Hall – 18 July 2008


The Last Night of the Proms is a great occasion but if you can’t get tickets for it the next best thing is the First Night.  A box of delights was presented by the unobtrusive maestro, Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  The programme began with Strauss’s rather over blown Prelude. Wayne Marshall returned later to dazzle the audience with Messiaen’s finale to La Nativite du Seigneur – “God among us”; the exultant vision of the Divine Presence on earth.


The first part of the concert was dominated by the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, performed by the American soprano, Christine Brewer.  She quickly established the mood of this sequence with a ceaseless tide of warm expansive tone, conjuring up a sunny garden and the serenade of birdsong.  “At sunset” brought this to a close where drowsiness of the senses merges into something more mysterious – “Could this perhaps be death?”  Impressively, there was a momentary hush when the singer finished, demonstrating how reluctant the audience was to break the spell.


Nicholas Daniel gave a virtuoso display in Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, giving the lie to the old joke about his instrument being “an ill wind that nobody blows good”.  Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave a display of his versatility in Beethoven’s Rondo in B flat, dating from 1793, followed by the fiendishly complex Catenaires of Elliott Carter, composed in 2006.  The evening was brought to a thrilling climax by the luscious sounds of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.  An augmented band of players gave full scope to the tremendous brass and percussion forces required for this work, whose erotic overtones caused one critic to name it “the most complete musical fornicator”.


This evening possibly provided some of the audience with their first taste of classical music.  One hopes that they found it enjoyable and will return to the Albert Hall in search of exciting new discoveries.  It is important that young people, in particular, are encouraged to form their own opinions about music.  Music is always full of surprises and it is the excitement of new experiences that draws people back year after year to this great British cultural institution.

Messiaen – Le Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ

Gerard Bouwhuis – piano Adam Walker – flute Julian Bliss – clarinet Sonia Wieder-Atherton – cello
Colin Currie – xylophone Adrian Spillett – marimba Richard Benjafield – vibraphone
Philharmonia Voices, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thierry Fischer


Royal Albert Hall – 27 July 2008


This concert celebrated Olivier Messiaen, the French organist and composer, a charismatic figure who brought an innovative conception of the universe.  1964 saw the premiere of Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum (heard in Prom No 6) which heralded the works of his later years, while 1969 saw the appearance of his monumental choral work La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ


Such a massive composition follows in the tradition of Berlioz, and requires proficient soloists in a variety of instruments and enormous choral and orchestral forces.  All of these were on display at the Albert Hall, under the masterful baton of Thierry Fischer who coaxed them through the complex score with unflagging energy.  Only the choir occasionally appeared in need of more rehearsal time when coping with the extended vocal lines.


The first Gospel extract began with plainchant supplemented with the sound of bells – reminiscent of a mountain monastery where the Latin phrases floated through the clear air.  Interwoven with the narrative were interludes imitating bird song, leading to moments of solemn meditation based on the Psalms and texts from Aquinas, summed up in the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration “Because by the mystery of the Word made flesh the light of your glory has shone anew upon the eyes of our mind.”


The original finale dealt with the appearance of the whole Trinity, and musically, this is really the end of the work, with fanfares and piano solos – the most substantial episode in the sequence.  The last movement is an extended hymn which rounds off the composition in a loud chorale on the theme “Glory dwells in Eternity”.  How successful this music has been in summoning up the vision of the Holy Trinity made plain on the mountain must depend to some extent on the attitude of the listener.  What is, however, abundantly clear is the unshakable faith of the composer, who has taken sound and songs from the world around them and welded them into and inspiring fabric of melody


Stuart Jenkins


MONTEVERDI : L’Incoronazione di Poppea

Cupid : Amy Freston,

Otho : Iestyn Davies

Poppea : Danielle de Niese

Nero : Alice Coote

Arnalta : Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke

Octavia : Tamara Mumford

Nurse : Dominque Visse

Seneca : Paolo Battaglia

Drusilla : Marie Arnet


Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor

Prom 18 Royal Albert Hall, 31 July 2008



The BBC Proms bring Glyndebourne to London each year, so those who can’t make the trek to East Sussex can enjoy the experience. This production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea was a brilliant choice, as it translated perfectly to the configurations of the Royal Albert Hall. If anything the opera was enhanced by the minimalist setting, which threw focus on the stark clarity of the plot and music. The final scene is breathtaking. Poppea walks in triumph, trailing an enormous red cape. It’s been there all along in the background, draped over the choir stalls, reminding us that Poppea is a “scarlet woman”  at once sensual and malevolent. Now as she walks to face the audience, the whole stage is filled with violent red velvet.  She’s “crowned” indeed, but it’s macabre : she and Nero, and Rome, will end up badly. This finale was a magnificent coup de theatre, achieved by simple means.


In his own time, Monteverdi was cutting edge and audacious. Monteverdi allows performers much freedom, but it’s a freedom earned through respect for the composer’s idiom.  Emmanuelle Haïm’s lucid conducting animated the music, bringing out the sparkle in the spare textures. Individual soloists were clearly heard : no waffle in this ensemble.  No wonder Monteverdi is such an influence on modern composers like Luigi Nono.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment made the music move. On a hot summer evening, four hours in the Royal Albert Hall packed to the rafters can be hell, but this playing was crisp and refreshing.  Instruments like harpsichord and baroque flutes don’t lend themselves to vast auditoria, so all credit is due to the BBC’s sensitive sound engineers. Recently I was talking to a European radio engineer who explained in extensive technical terms why the BBC teams are highly respected in the business. Now I understand why.


The spoken prelude was lost in the throng of the arena, but in a way, that enhanced the essential theatricality of baroque opera. It’s not verité, but a lively mix of concrete and abstract characters like Cupid who intervene as the action unfolds. Artifice and “reality” entwine. Much of the plot revolves around appearances and counter appearances, so secondary themes like cross dressing and mistaken identity are important. Perhaps part of the appeal of castrati was because they were not naturalistic, and a source of wonder. They’re not an option these days, but fortunately we have singers like Alice Coote, who can create Nero as a believable character even though we know she’s a woman.  She’s unique because there are few females singers who can provide the equivalent of the countertenor fach in male voice.  She carries it off because she’s an convincing actor, as well as having an unusually dark timbre. Coote’s Nero is sexy, notwithstanding he’s Emperor and will kill you if he can’t get his way.  It’s quite an achievement, as she looks and sounds like a woman, yet Poppea is obsessed.  Danielle de Niese’s Poppea was stunningly glamorous – she’s a born diva, who can carry off the part by sheer personality, though in some of her longer arias she demonstrated she could sing just as effectively minus the visual impact.


So much of the action in the plot depends on quick, almost slapstick changes of identity. It’s part of the arch frisson that makes baroque so lively. Iestyn Davies in a silk slip would fool no one in real life, but in opera, everyone’s in on the joke, and knows Otho’s murderous plans will come to nothing, unlike Poppea’s which are much more sophisticated.  The double entendre is rather more forced when a deep male voice emits from Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke’s Arnalta, but identity and gender games are part of the moral ambiguity that is the heart of this opera, where the “bad guys” seem to win, at least for the moment.  This performance was bright and vivacious, but it had a powerful sting in its tail.


Anne Ozorio



Stockhausen – Gruppen, Cosmic Pulses, Harmonien, Kontakte

Marci Blaauw – trumpet

Nicolas Hodges – piano

Colin Currie – percussion

Kathinka Pasveer, Bryan Wolf – sound projection

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Conductors: David Robertson, Martin Brabbins & Pascal Rophe

Royal Albert Hall – 02 August 2008


On 5 September 1967 I went to a Promenade Concert to hear Heather Harper sing Berg’s Altenberg-Lieder and Pierre Boulez conduct Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Sandwiched between these two was a piece with the strange title Gruppen by a composer, Stockausen, about whom I knew almost nothing.  Even the description of the work in the official programme seemed unpromising: “Much of the sound is remote indeed from ‘music’ …in any sense which most listeners could recognize”.  Indeed, the sound of three sizable orchestras (a total of 109 musicians) playing at the same time and yet separated by both time and space was like nothing I had ever heard before. From the gallery I had a splendid birds-eye view and it was one of those occasions that leave an indelible memory.


Last night’s Prom topped this experience, with room to spare.  The concert began and ended with Gruppen, two performances fully justified by the complexity of the piece and the fact that you really need several pairs of eyes to watch each of the orchestras and the remarkable interactions between their conductors.   The atmosphere of concentration within the audience was almost tangible. It is a work of considerable contrast.  At some moments the groups appear to challenge one another, at others they seem to engage in a discussion.  Direction and timing are the key features, allowing sound to bubble gently to the surface, evolve in myriad different ways or build to an almost storm like frenzy.


Amongst the other items on offer was the world premiere of Harmonien, a work scored for a single trumpet, amplified and played through three speakers just behind the instrumentalist. There are 24 melodies, played by the trumpeter and repeated at speed through the wizardry of sound projection.  It was completed shortly before the composer’s sudden death, and in a way it seems to distil all his artistry into a highly concentrated form.  Hugely complex, but less effective in the big space of the Albert Hall than the two works that flanked it, which were the real showpieces of the evening.


It is hard to believe that a work such as Kontakte could be been envisaged or realised before the invention of the synthesiser, and Stockhausen must have spent a phenomenal amount of time working with the relatively crude electronic devices that were available to him.  In the centre of the platform were two metal gongs, illuminated in bronze and gold.  Stage left was Colin Currie, with a huge battery of percussion instruments and stage right was pianist Nicolas Hodges, with his own mini percussion ensemble.   They were both kept busy moving about the platform, taking care to maintain timing and eye contact both with each other and the sound projectionist, Bryan Wolf, who worked from a consol in the Arena.   The electronic limitations of the 60’s were left far behind in this interpretation which filled the auditorium with sound.


Finally I come to the work that almost literally swept me off my feet, Cosmic Pulses, and I fear my narrative will only provide a mere shadow of this immense piece of pure-electronic magic.    Imagine the lights in the Royal Albert Hall dimmed – there is nothing to look at – the art of sound is our only concern. 


Sounds begin to emerge, or should I say erupt, from various points around the gallery and criss-cross the dome above us.   At first they are sporadic, but gradually they build, layer upon layer until they coalesce and then emerge again.  So intense is the effect that the sound almost assume a physical presence, and still there is more to come.  During the thirty odd minutes that the work lasts, the sounds continued to blend and switch direction, descending ever lower in the hall to encompass the audience.  I can only describe the experience as being at the centre of a sound version of the aurora borealis, such was the variety and luminescence of the resonances.    


It was an event that should not have been missed, but sadly the audience for all this magnificence was rather sparse. Digital radio cannot replicate surround sound and Radio 3 was unable to broadcast this part of the concert, having to replace it with a CD recording that had been approved by the composer.   I can only count myself extremely fortunate being there to witness it live, and hope I won’t have to wait another 40 years to hear it again in that perfect setting.


Serena Fenwick


Brahms - Shostakovich
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle

Royal Albert Hall – 3 September 2008


Brahms: Symphony No 3 in F majo;r Shostakovich: Symphony No 10 in E minor


A Englishman conducting the Berlin Philharmonic … no more surprising than the orchestra choosing to play Shostakovich, but then the latest BBC TV ‘reality’ show has established that whoever may stand and wave a stick, the players will just carry on regardless.


No, that theory was disproved by the first item, the Brahms Symphony No 3. This cheerful composition had apparently been filleted so that no trace of passion remained. A pleasant stroll by the Rhine with an attractive companion was all that resulted; nothing happened – no kisses ! There were no rough edges to this music, everything was smoothed out as if the shade of Karajan still hovered above the musicians – the plush sound of this phenomenal orchestra never conveyed and ounce of feeling; no breeze ever ruffled the calm surface of the water. The notes referred to “snoozing calm” at the end of the piece, but unfortunately that could be applied to the whole work.


What a transformation in the second half of the concert. Simon Rattle had performed the Shostakovich X at a Prom in 1979 and it was obviously something which he greatly relishes. The frock-coated formality of the Brahms was put aside and he became fully engaged with the complex fluctuating harmonies of the first movement, ensuring that the tension never relaxed. The Allegro brought out the savage rhythm of a Georgian gopak – as a portrait of Stalin it may have its dissenters, but the disgust is genuine enough.


The composer said when asked about the programme for this work “let them listen and guess for themselves”; it is obvious that the last two movements are concerned with autobiographical episodes. The finale, with its brisk interludes for horns and timpani gave an opportunity for the players to display their musicianship; the woodwinds in particular having to cope with exposed passages. Rattle also grasped the opportunity to assert his authority in coaxing the orchestra to follow the varied themes, and they responded with enthusiasm.


There is a performing tradition now for this symphony: when Karajan was visiting Leningrad with his Berlin Orchestra he conducted the Tenth and afterwards asked the Russian conductor Mavrinsky for his opinion. Mavrinsky replied that he was impressed, but added “I think you must have listened to my recording” – Russia 1 : Germany Nil !


Simon Rattle clearly has no need of any such endorsement. Now approaching the end of the season it has been noticeable that the performing artists seem to be getting younger whilst the Prom audience remains resolutely middle aged.


Stuart Jenkins