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Music review: Composer Nights at the BBC Proms

20 September 2019

Richard Lawrence on the sounds and slurps of the BBC Proms


The Royal Albert Hall

The Royal Albert Hall

ONE of the BBC’s tributes this year to Sir Henry Wood, co-founder of the eponymous Promenade Concerts, was a revival of the conductor’s Composer Nights. So, in the last week of the festival, Monday was Wagner Night, Wednesday was Bach Night, and last Friday featured Beethoven. Not exclusively, though: in all three cases, other composers got a look-in.

On 13 September, it was Handel, with his Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Bach, in Elgar’s orchestration of the organ Fantasia and Fugue in C minor. Although the Proms prospectus credited Andrew Manze with the arrangement of the Handel, the programme was silent on the matter. It was a joyous, big-boned performance by the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover; too much from the side-drum, perhaps, although that would have pleased King George II, with his demand for “warlike instruments”. Today’s fashion for “historically informed performance” was given a further kicking with the Bach: here Elgar was delicate and restrained in the Fantasia but definitely OTT in the Fugue.

In Beethoven’s concert aria “Ah! perfido”, the soprano Elizabeth Watts expressed the abandoned lover’s misery with some exquisite soft tones; she was less well suited to the fireworks of Leonore’s great recitative and aria from Fidelio. The triumph of the evening was the Fifth Symphony. Manze conducted a powerful, gimmick-free performance: but allowing the music to speak for itself did not preclude well-shaped phrasing, especially the climax of the second movement.

I missed the Wagner Night, which included music by Weber and César Franck, but enjoyed the Bach evening on 11 September. John Butt brought his Scottish ensemble, the Dunedin Consort, to play the four Orchestral Suites, book-ended by the trumpet-dominated Nos. 4 and 3. Butt directed from an inaudible harpsichord, choosing tempos that seemed just right — with the exception of an almost funereal Sarabande in No. 2. For that suite, Butt fielded all three of his flutes rather than the usual solitary one; with a reduced number of strings, it paradoxically made for a perfect balance.

The suites were paired with short companion pieces by living composers. In Nico Muhly’s Tambourin, which followed No. 4, cackling oboes were charmingly transformed into pastoral pipes redolent of the shepherds abiding. Stuart MacRae’s Courante introduced No. 3 with busy fast notes and an anticipation of Bach’s dotted rhythms.

The Hanover orchestra was but one in the cornucopia of visitors from abroad which characterised the last couple of weeks of the season. But, first, a nod to the concert given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis on 29 August, which I heard on Radio 3. After a fine, resonant account of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, and a revival of Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus, a Proms commission from 1965, came Elgar’s The Music Makers. The miracle here is the moving, self-revelatory work that Elgar fashioned out of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s melancholy doggerel. Dame Sarah Connolly and the BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus directors Grace Rossiter and Neil Ferris) were on good form.

Back to the foreign visitors. There were just two works in the Staatskapelle Dresden’s programme on 5 September. All that needs to be said about the performance that Yuja Wang gave of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is that it was dazzling. Her fingers simply flew over the keys.

From D minor to D major: the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Myung-Whun Chung, took a relaxed, leisurely approach to Brahms’s Second Symphony. A black mark, initially, for his omission of the first movement’s repeat, which Brahms clearly intended to be played; but the hushed ending of the slow movement was enough compensation.

Constantinos Carydis omitted the repeat in Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony, too, but he did observe it in the outer movements of Beethoven’s Seventh. These went with a swing, although his speeding up made the last movement repeat sound frenzied. The conductor’s finicky pianissimos in the Trio section of the Scherzo were also a feature of the slow movement of the Haffner, the flow interrupted by tiresome pauses. A more engaging feature was the reduction of the string section in the Trio, the oboes decorating their line as though playing chamber music.

This concert by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen on 7 September included some genuine chamber music — the string sextet that opens Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccioand three vocal numbers. Danae Kontora was accurate but thin-toned in Mozart’s aria “Popoli di Tessaglia!”. Another aria went better: this was “No, no, che non sei capace”, likewise written for Mozart’s lost love Aloysia Weber, who had by then become his sister-in-law. And Kontora really hit her stride in a fluent, knowing account of Zerbinetta’s aria from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

Last year, the Proms scheduled Shostakovich’s Fifth and Fourth Symphonies, in that order. This year, the Fifth was heard again, replacing the announced Tenth; the 11th followed five days later, on 4 August. And on 10 September, Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic brought the Eighth, performed by Sir Henry Wood in 1944 as one of his Novelties. The beginning owes something to the Fifth — and how impressively the cellos and double basses dug into that opening phrase! — but the end is a world away from the triumph, or faux-triumph, of the earlier work.

The concert began with the Overture and Three Dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and continued with another Novelty, the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It was sung by the Russian soprano Elena Stikhina: full-toned, with a pleasing, fast vibrato.

Anton Bruckner was a cathedral organist; so it was entirely appropriate for the performance of his Eighth Symphony on 23 August to be preceded by a short organ recital of works by Bach (as, indeed, happened in 2013). But Michael Schönheit was all over the place, with uneven triplets in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”; and not rhythmically secure either in the St Anne Fugue, which was clogged by 16-foot tone, and where the mighty final entry on the pedals went for nothing.

In the hands of Andris Nelsons and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the first movement of Bruckner’s Eighth seemed more episodic than usual. There was a delightful touch of portamento — sliding between the notes — from the strings in the Scherzo’s Trio, and superb playing from the first horn. But, for a top-drawer Bruckner interpretation, you needed to hear Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic on 3 September. It began with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto — a romantic account by Emanuel Ax, stepping in for Murray Perahia, which was rather over-pedalled for my taste.

The opening phrase of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was not quite the broad, flowing stream of one’s dreams, but Haitink’s steady, inexorable control thereafter was magisterial. The Wagner tubas produced an impeccable sustained line in the Adagio. After the sonorous ending, Haitink held his arms aloft for a good ten seconds; then came a storm of applause. At the age of 90, Haitink was giving his last concert in London. It was broadcast again on Radio 3 on 12 September: you can hear that repeat on BBC Sounds till 12 October.

As usual, the concentration shown by the Prommers couldn’t be faulted: it’s in the expensive Stalls that you find people who — during the music — fidget, whisper, take photographs, and, above all, drink. That the Royal Albert Hall management allows — even encourages — the audience to take drinks into the hall is shameful. Action, BBC!

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