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PROMS 2007

Hayden, Bernstein and Ives

BBC Prom No 5, 17 July

Sam Hayden
Substratum (BBC commission: world premiere)

Symphony No. 2, 'The Age of Anxiety'

Symphony No. 4

Orli Shaham piano
Ralph van Raat piano
London Philharmonic Choir
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (pictured) and Matthew Rowe conductors

This was potentially an interesting programme, one to go to the Albert Hall so as to hear it live, but in the event it seemed to us misconceived and doomed to failure.

The first casualty was the extremely dense and demanding new work, of which only a part was heard because of (wholly predictable) limitations of rehearsal time.

Seeking to embrace "post-minimalism and new complexity" in an art that "resists commodification" in "a personally satisfyingly complicated musical voice that resists easy categorization", what emerged (even to open-minded regular listeners to new music) was a dense, confusing and indeed inchoate and repellent noise. Academic teachers of composition have a lot to answer for... I shall avoid the complete performance promised for the winter.

In introducing Bernstein's near-forgotten symphony/concerto The Age of Anxiety the notes writer berated Auden for the "sheer wordiness" of his "lengthy and self-indulgent metaphysical meditations", without demonstrating even excerpts for us to read; apparently the solo piano was to represent "an autobiographical figure".

Heard in 2007, this 1949 score sounded derivative and (often) trite, a piece to 'collect' by hearing once, but not again...

After watching the trojan efforts of the BBC removal men re-setting the platform for Ives at his most grandiose, we heard the deliberately confused and bewildering Symphony No 4, which needs at least two conductors to keep things going in simultaneously conflicting tempi * - an exhilarating experience under David Robertson's enthusiastic direction which, in retrospect, justified the journey across London (instead of catching the last evening of Charlotte Forrest's little Britten festival in City churches, whose audience had grown by its culmination the same night). Unfortunately, in contrast, the crowded Albert Hall platform for this Prom Spectacular was mirrored by a sparse audience...

The solo piano had at least been audible and effective in the Bernstein whereas, in the Ives No. 4 the much admired solo pianist Ralph van Raat - in UK from Amsterdam especially - was little to be heard from 'good' stalls seats; the choir seated behind the orchestra would have been better placed to hear his intricate contribution.

Balance was bettered on BBCR3's Listen Again - still available on line - but this amazing work really does demand to be seen as well as heard.

BBC 4's viewers will have had the best of it, and the Ives Symphony No.4 is one that lends itself imperatively to DVD. But the camera shots for this filming - seen on video - were not thought out well enough for that. The TV producer was not listed in the programme, and the cameras did not always show quite what was needed.

There were but distant and occasional glimpses of the two conductors guiding the music in different directions, but - most surprisingly - almost nothing was to be seen of the rare thereminist (Celia Sheen) in action! The cameras did however bring into visual and auditory focus the substantial and demanding part played by Ralph van Raat, sufficiently so to make sense of his taking a personal bow and receiving a bouquet of roses.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* q.v. M P's Hyperion CD review: - - the radical No 4, here clarified with unwonted lucidity by Litton with two assistant conductors - -

Read also Anne Ozorio in Seen & Heard

The Observer's review of this concert is interesting in the context of the ongoing debate about paper v. web reviewing. Stephen Pritchard totally ignores the Ives symphony - or perhaps his Arts Editor cut out that bit...? - - Modern music can sometimes struggle to raise much interest. - - the audience was thin for the first outing of Sam Hayden's Substratum which was in any case played incomplete - - huge blocks of dense sound with some interjections from the woodwind and brass buried deep in the mix. Hardly inspiring, and given an unusually mute reception by the prommers.Things were altogether more sprightly in Bernstein's second symphony, 'The Age of Anxiety'. It's not a piano concerto, but Orli Shaham played the prominent keyboard part - Bernstein's own response to the Auden poem of the title - with great panache in the jazzy passages, which came complete with authentic slap bass. Gorgeous.

and there it stops!! PGW


British Songs

Lunchtime Prom PCM1 – 16 July 2007

Cadogan Hall, London SW3


Alice Coote – mezzo soprano

Graham Johnson – piono


Elgar – Speak Music Op 41

Quilter – There be none of Beauty's daughters Op 24; Now sleeps the crimson petal Op 3; Love's Philosophy Op 3

Britten – A Charm of Lullabies OP 41

Stanford – La belle dame sans merci; A Soft Day

Weir – The Voice of Desire

Warlock – Late Summer

Vaughan Williams – Silent Noon

Gurney – The boat is chafing; Lights out

We seldom get the chance to hear a whole concert of English songs – they are usually the dregs of programmes featuring aspiring sopranos or perspiring baritones.  

For this Cadogan Hall Prom, however, a varied selection had been prepared by pianist Graham Johnson for that remarkable mezzo, Alice Coote. For a whole hour the audience had the privilege of listening to her interpretations of some of the most lyrical texts in the English language, in that inimitable voice.  

She began, appropriately enough, with Elgar, Speak, Music praising the eloquence of music and its ability to convey unspoken thoughts.   No collection would be complete without works by Britten – in this case the five cradle songs A Charm of Lullabies . These ranged from the tenderness of The Nurse's Song and Blake's Cradle Song through Burns' Highland Balou to the ferocity of Randolph 's A Charm which ends in exasperated demands for “quiet”.

The main offering was Judith Weir's The Voice of Desire, four songs described as dealing with contemporary issues which are personally important to her. Verses from varied sources probe the relationship between humankind and the natural world, which is portrayed as obeying laws which remain shrouded in mystery. The music was specially written for Alice Coote and her voice illustrated its message in a way which is surely unique.  

Peter Warlock's elegiac hymn to summer Late Summer and the familiar Vaughan Williams Silent Noon reminded us of the English countryside when the sun does shine – those very precious moments of peace.   The concert was brought to an end with two songs by the tragic figure of Ivor Gurney: The boat is chafing with its swaying rhythm, and the musing of Edward Thomas on the “unfathomable deep Forest ” of sleep in Lights Out.

The audience obviously craved more so Alice Coote and the indefatigable Graham Johnson gave two encores. Hear it all on BBC R 3 Saturday 21 July at 13.00 and subsequently on Listen Again.

S Jenkins

Haydn The Seasons
to James Thomson's epic poem

Sally Matthews, James Gilchrist and Jonathan Lemalu
Handel and Haydn Society of Boston/Roger Norrington

The Seasons at the Royal Albert Hall
and on BBC 4 TV

22 July 2007

This was a notable Prom performance, lovingly prepared by Roger Norrington, who told the TV audience in the interval that he is looking forward to demonstrating Haydn's true worth in the 2009 tricentenary.

In my listening life, Norrington has been important, and a continuing influence on my preferences, since the '60s, when he championed Schutz.

He took HIP forward to Berlioz (a memorable weekend at South Bank) and is a long standing enemy of vibrato, which came in later than you'd guess (see profile article, but also q.v. Norrington hates vibrato because it's good business for him: he's the no-vibrato go to guy and he's laughing all the way to the bank - http://operachic.typepad.com/opera_chic/).

This was a joyous occasion, with Haydn's benign humanity pervading the Royal Albert Hall with its unique combination of wisdom and wit.

His chorus and period orchestra from Boston were first rate; well worth the journey for us to hear them live. The sopranos had security without edginess in high notes and the modest sized chorus made a full sound heard live. Even more so the superb trio of soloists; Gilchrist and Lemalu are two of our loudest singers, but not wanting in delicacy and focus in quieter moments, and Sally Matthews, in fine voice, gave us pure femininity.

I was troubled by the antics of the TV camera crew, most especially the one going to and fro on his rails between prommers and platform (in the early days every effort was made by TV directors not to disturb concert audiences, but the balance has now tipped the other way). On the other hand, I am often upset in concert televising and distracted by the restlessness of the cameras, with different close ups changing after a few seconds, with no relation to the structure or feeling of the music. I must confess, though, that the punchiness of the performance, whilst larger than life, does come across well on the home screen, and on this occasion the sound was likewise vivid and the whole thing involving.*

You start by thinking that The Seasons is all rather simple and naive, especially the libretto with its romanticising of the idyllic rural life, but you soon get caught up again in the undemonstrative sophistication of the composer Joseph Haydn towards the end of his life.

The day before I had been enjoying Taverner's Missa Gloria on CD and found myself pondering why composers of his time eschewed any word painting at all in their sacred music. How did that begin, culminating in the dramatic choral works of Haydn, Verdi and Berlioz? Perhaps readers can explain?

Peter Grahame Woolf


I suspect the complete lack of word painting is an English characteristic.    There are certainly signs of it in a number of plainchant settings – the Te Deum and Dies Irae spring to mind, and the very well known Credo III where “ascendit in caelum” soars up joyfully – I am sure there are other examples. 

I'd have to think a bit harder about polyphony – but would reckon that there is a fair measure in for example Vivaldi's Gloria and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.  I don't think you will find a significant degree of word painting until you get to religious settings that were intended for concert performance, and therefore freed of time constraints, rather than part of a church service. In the latter case the priest could continue with silent prayer during the singing, but the singing would have to be finished by the time the next audible prayer and response was due.   





*   Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel  Royal Albert Hall 19. 8. 2007
Shostakovich, Bernstein, and Latin American sequence: 

Even more notable for home viewing was the televised transmission of the Venezuela Youth Orchestra's ecstatically received Prom, which had rave reviews from news-print critics present (Musical Pointers, as some other websites, was 'rationed') including the imperative need for it to be made available on DVD after the limited period during which it can be heard (but not seen) on BBC R3 Listen Again.

We were able to share the enthusiasm in the Albert Hall at second hand, but the well selected close ups of the youthful conductor and orchestral members added greatly to enjoyment, without diverting attention at all from the music itself, notably an exceptional and totally committed account of Shostakovich's Symphony No 10 and Bernstein's West Side Story suite, before the Anglo/Venezualean national party began. To recapture in print the full flavour, and above all the sociological importance for our country of this event, amongst the best accounts I have read is Vanessa Thorpe's in The Observer.  Do check it out.

Listen again - Prom 48: Sunday 19 Aug, 6.30pm Venezuela