Thursday, May 25, 2017
At the Barbican, London, Andrew Davis conducted the BBCSO in Elgar Enigma Variations and Arthur Bliss The Beatitudes. A red letter day for British music fans, because Davis is a superb conductor of British repertoire. His insights into Bliss's Beatitudes was thus eagerly anticipated. If anyone can make a case for the piece, it is he. After an expansive performance of the Enigma Variations, I was expecting great things. The Beatitudes is an ambitious work, scored for large orchestra, soloists, choir and cathedral-scale organ, so an expansive approach would, in theory, breathe life into the piece. The background to the piece and its reception have been repeated so many times that you could fill an entire review regurgitating the details without having to mention too much about the music. In short, The Beatitudes was commissioned for the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and given top billing over and above Britten's War Requiem, the "other" commission. For reasons still unexplained, it was discreetly shunted aside. The premiere took place in a nearby theatre and was not well received. Whatever may have happened in Coventry in 1962, it isn't simply isn't true that The Beatitudes was forgotten. Shortly afterwards, it was performed in a proper Cathedral setting at Gloucester during the the Three Choirs Festival, which alone should have ensured its reputation. Paul Daniels conducted and the singing, being the Three Choirs Festival, must have been good. Bliss conducted it himself at the Proms in 1964, another ultra high profile event, with no expense spared. Bliss himself conducted the BBC SO, with the immortal Heather Harper, a host of choirs and of course the formidable Royal Albert Hall organ. This was commercially released five years ago. There have been other performances, including one at Coventry Cathedral a few years ago. The piece isn't a mystery waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately,British music is schismatic. Many still can't forgive Britten for being an outsider. All the more reasons then to engage with The Beatitudes on its own merits, rather than just blaming its lack of success on fashion and taste. Sixty years later, we should be mature enough to evaluate the piece on its own terms without pettiness and special pleading. Bliss is an important composer, who created masterpieces like Morning Heroes. Read more about that HERE when Andrew Davis conducted it with the BBCSO at the Barbican. Coventry Cathedral was bombed during the wear, so it's rebuilding was a symbolic act of hope. Memories of the war were still fresh, so Britten was taking risks by not condemning Germans. But perhaps people then knew about war first hand, they realized that working towards peace is a much greater challenge. The Beatitudes of Jesus, as recounted in the New Testament, address the basic concepts of Christianity. Tonight, the Pope reiterated these fundamentals at Fatima : "Mercy, not judgement". Fundamentalists who misconstrue "Blessed are the poor", maybe aren't Christian. Bliss's Beatitudes presentstexts arranged by Christopher Hassell interspersed with settings of seven poems, from the Prophet Isaiah to !7th century poets like George Herbert to Dylan Thomas. This allows him to expand the scope, making more of the idea of conflict implicit in the Ninth Beatitude, "Blessed are you when men shall revile you", which could be interpreted as relevant to the idea of war though it in fact refers to persecution of the apostles and those faithful to a radical new faith. Bliss connects the Sermon on the Mount to the Mount of Olives to Easter and to the Crucifixion. Bliss's Beatitudes are thus a mediation on struggle, illustrated by the strident, almost dissonant music in the Prelude and the Voices of the Mob. Contrasts are violently dramatic. Loud tutti climaxes but tiny figures (often strings or woodwind) flit past. The soloists (Emily Birsan and Ben Johnson) rise from the massed forces behind them. The ambience of a great epic saga, with a cast of thousands- what great film music this could have been ! Superb performances all round, good enough that it wasn't such a loss that the Barbican organ isn't as huge as, say, Coventry Cathedral, But in a way, I was glad that Davies focussed on the music itself, rather than going in for histrionic effects, He's conducted another Beatitudes - Elgar's The Apostles. That, too, was conceived on a grand scale with over a hundred chorister, many soloists and a big orchestra. But perhaps the key to The Apostles (and to The Kingdom) lies in its connection to The Dream of Gerontius.which follows one man's journey from physical life to the life everlasting. In The Apostles the followers of Jesus are about to go into the world, alone, spreading the new gospel in hostile situations. Hence the inherent contradiction between their mission, and overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity. Elgar is a master of large form, but his faith, in a loose, non-denominational sense, is fundamentally personal and humanistic. Not for nothing did he write te Enigma Variations, with its cryptic humour and deliberately non-dogmatic warmth of spirit. Please read what I wrote about Davis's Elgar Apostles with the BBC SO at the Barbican with Jacques Imbrailo in 2014. Part of the reason The Apostles and The Kingdom aren't programmed non-stop is because their charms lie not in bombast, but in humility. Elgar doesn't side with mobs, even when the mobs support the good guys. Bliss's competition wasn't Britten, but Elgar, and Elgar wind hands down. The Beatitudes have good moments but it's no masterpiece. Jesus's Beatitudes taught stress simplicity and the meekness which comes from genuine humility. The apostles got their reward in heaven, but earned it. No sense of entitlement, nor self pity, victimhood, or bitterness. Resentments are values of self, not selflessness. Tonight, the Pope who probably has more status than any of us, spoke of respect and compassion. Though surrounded by thousands, with a big organization behind him, he cut a frail, humble figure. Now there's a man who knows what The Beatitudes of Jesus mean.
At the start of my teaching career, way back in the 1970s, I had to drive through deep countryside to reach the school where I worked. One memory from that period recalls passing a farm where, every afternoon, strains of Elgar’s orchestral music wafted over fields of corn from the cowsheds. The farmer was convinced Read More ...
In a Telegraph article about the 2017 BBC Proms the concert series' director David Pickard raises hopes for an possible important change in direction. Discussing the move away from Proms themed to TV shows, Pickard observes that "what we need to be thinking of is nurturing a long-term audience for classical music". This statement may be blindingly obvious, but it is important for two reasons. First, it is a welcome sign that somebody at the BBC has finally realised what many of us have known for years, that dumbing down classical music does not build a long-term audience. The second reason why his observation is important is because it is a much-needed admission that quality and not quantity of audience is what matters. In the past the spin-masters at the BBC have been eager to point out the numbers of first-time concertgoers at the Proms. For instance the number of 33,000 first-time concertgoers was trumpeted for the 2014 Proms season; but drilling down below that headline figure painted a very different picture. From data in the public domain, we know that the Proms audience expressed as a percentage of venue capacity dropped from 93% in the 2013 season to 88% in 2014. This means that the total attendance fell by 17,000, despite 33,000 Proms neophytes swelling the numbers. So in 2014 the Proms gained 33,000 first time ticket purchasers, but lost 50,000 of its existing audience, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 concertgoers. What matters is the net change in audience size - newcomers less non-returners; because that determines the size of the long-term audience. The figures I have cited show that despite what superficially looks like an impressive number of first-time attendees wooed by events like TV-themed Proms, the total audience size declined. That decline was due to a mix of two factors: one was that many first-time concertgoers attracted by untypical concert fare did not return, the second was the vitally important but ignored point that the loyal core audience is also shrinking. David Pickard has at least realised that the new marginal audience is not coming back. But he and a lot of other people involved in concert planning also need to take on board that the core audience - which includes me - is becoming very reluctant to brave the contemporary concert ambiance; an ambiance that is being created largely by misguided efforts to attract the new marginal audience. In a 2015 piece titled 'What price classical music's new audience?' I reported here how for me a concert in France was marred by audience members eating a picnic, applauding during (not between) Mahler's settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and, of course, using their mobile phones. Elsewhere I lamented how a performance at the Fez Sufi Culture Festival was ruined by the continuous use of camera-phones, and this weekend my wife email from Toronto lamenting how an Indian music recital was marred by a concertgoer texting and checking emails and Facebook. The inflammatory subject of applause between movements makes an interesting case study. We are told that classical music must drop its silly conventions, and we are also told that silence between movements is one of those dispensable silly conventions. There is some historical justification for this argument, as going back many years it was, apparently, customary, for an audience to express its appreciation of particularly meritorious playing at the end of a movement. But in the age of the new marginal audience, applause between movements has in a remarkably short time become another silly convention. It is no longer an expression of praise for artistic excellence, because, dare I say it, many of those applauding between movements do not yet have the experience to recognise artistic excellence. Applause between movements is now something that the audience does, simply because the new silly convention says they should do it. Just one example was the apologetic dribbles of applause - is this where we should applaud? - between the movements of Tasmin Little's performance of Walton's Violin Concerto in Hull on BBC Radio 3 last week. (I emphasise that my criticism is of the applause habit and not Tasmin's artistic excellence!) The silly convention of dribbles of applause between movements started at the Proms but is now a global problem: we were subjected to it during a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in Rabat, Morocco recently. If David Pickard wants to know why a core audience member like me has only attended one Prom in recent years - Alwyn and RVW in 2014 - and will not be buying any tickets for the 2017 season, I suggest he listens to the archive recording seen in my header graphic, which is a transfer of BBC broadcasts of two concerts. (I will refrain from using the BBC Radio 3 presenter's ghastly terminology of 'live concerts' as I have never yet attended a concert where the musicians on the platform are dead). Brahms' Third Symphony was recorded at a Prom in 1977 and Elgar's First at a 1976 Prom. On the transfers the hall ambiance has been left between the movements. Not only are there no dribbles of inter-movement applause, there is also none of the tubercular between-movement coughing that punctuates today's performances despite greatly improved health standards. Moreover the music itself is heard in rapturous silence, again without the intrusive noises of today's audiences. And if anybody tries to dismiss the background silence in those two concerts as lucky flukes, I refer them to other BBC concert recordings from the past, all of which lack audience participation; for example another Elgar 1, this time Sir John Barbirolli's painfully slow valedictory 1970 performance in the unforgiving acoustic of St Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn, and Bruno Maderna's Mahler Nine recorded in the Festival Hall in 1971. It is quality and not size of audience that is important to nurturing a long-term audience for classical music. David Pickard's candid views suggest that there is some light at the end of the dumbed-down corridor. Let's hope that it is not a train full of audience-chasing BBC senior executives coming the other way. No review samples used. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
Formula saves the BBC Proms 2017! This may be the beginning of the end for Sir Henry Wood's dreams of the Proms as serious music. Fortunately The Formula, perfected by much-maligned Roger Wright, is strong enough to withstand the anti-music agendas of the suits and robots who now run the Proms. Shame on those who rely on formula instead of talent, but in dire straits, autopilot can save things from falling apart. So, sift through the detritus of gimmick and gameshow to find things worth saving (Read here what I wrote about The Formula) Danierl Barenboim is a Proms perennial, for good reason, so we can rely on his two Elgar Proms (16 and 17 July) especially the Sunday one which features a new work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Deep Time, which at 25 minutes should be substantial Pascal Dusapin's Outscape on 19/7, 28 minutes, also substantial Anotherr "regular" Proms opera, Fidelio on 21/7, with a superlative cast headed by Stuart Skelton and Ricarda Merbeth, tho' Juanjo Mena conducts Ilan Volkov conducts Julian Anderson's new Piano Concerto on 26/7 , tho's the rest of the programme, though good isn't neccesarily Volkov's forte On 29/7 Mark Wigglesworth conducts David Sawer's The Greatest Happiness Principle On 31/7, Monteverdi Vespers with French baroque specialists Pygmalion On 1/8, William Christie conducts the OAE in Handel Israel in Egypt and on 2/8, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists do Bach and my beloved Heinrich Schütz. On 8/8 Gardiner returns with Berlioz The Damnation of Faust, with Michael Spyres. First of this year's four Mahlers is Mahler's Tenth (Cooke) with Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Robin Ticciati, back with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 15/8 with an interesting pairing, Thomas Larcher Nocturne-Insomnia with Schumann Symphony no 2. Throughout this season, there are odd mismatches between repertoire and performers, good conductors doing routine material, less good conductors doing safe and indestructable. Fortunately, baroque and specialist music seem immune. See above ! and also the Prom featuring Lalo, Délibes and Saint-Saëns with François Xavier-Roth and Les Siècles on 16/8 Perhaps these Proms attract audiences who care what they're listening to Schoenberg's Gurrelieder on 19/8 with Simon Rattle, whose recording many years back remains a classic but may not be known to whoever described the piece in the programme "Gurrelieder is Schoenberg’s Tristan and Isolde, an opulent, late-Romantic giant." Possibly the same folk who dreamed up the tag "Reformation Day" like Nigel Faarage's "Independence Day" Nothing in life is that simplistic The music's OK, but notn the marketing. Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO in Elgar Symphony no 3 (Anthony Payne) on 22/8 Potentially this will be even bigger than the Barenboim Elgar symphonies, since Oramo is particularly good with this symphony, which may not be as high profile but is certainly highly regarded by those who love Elgar On 26/8, Jakub Hrůša conducts the BBC SO in an extremely well chosen programme of Suk, Smetana, Martinů, Janáček and Dvorák More BBCSO on 31/8 when Semyon Bychkov conducts a Russian programme Marketing guff seems to make a big deal of national stereotypes, which is short sighted These programmes cohere musically, but that's perhaps too much to expect from the new Proms mindset On 1/9, Daniele Gatti conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Bruckner and Wolfgang Rihm An odd pairing but one which will come off well since these musicians know what they're doing They are back again on 2/9 with Haydn "The Bear" and Mahler Fourth which isn't "sunny" or "song-filled". It's Mahler, not a musical. Gergiev brings the Mariinsky on 3/9 with Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich Symphony no 5. Another huge highlight on 7/9 : The Wiener Philharmoniker, with Daniel Harding in Mahler Symphony no 6 - so powerful that nothing else needs to be added to sugar the pill For me, and for many others, that will be the real :Last Night of the Proms Party time the next day, with Nina Stemme as star guest
The 2017 BBC Proms Season, just announced, is a travesty, far adrift from the founding principles of the Proms, and indeed of the BBC itself. Once the BBC stood for excellence, with its guiding principles to "educate, entertain and inform", the logic being that the public can tell good quality from bad, and value learning and self-development. Now we have a Proms season whose priorities are not musical so much as an ad for a BBC that is itself dumbed down beyond recognition. Will the ghost of Sir Henry Wood rise, like the Commendatore, to smite those who have despoiled his legacy? The First Night is only 70 minutes or so, so it won't tax the attention span. True, Igor Levit will play Beethoven, and Edward Gardner will conduct John Adams Harmonium, a big, if limited, blast. so it won't be bad. But once we could expect more. Daniel Barenboim brings the Staatskapelle Berlin to "launch this year’s cycle of Elgar symphonies". Direct quote from the BBC Proms website. What Elgar symphonic cycle? One on Saturday, the other on Sunday. The Third, realized by Anthony Payne, is probably too outré for the new Proms market. It's been pushed to the doldrums of late August. Thankfully, Sakari Oramo conducts: he does it well. What kind of audience is this year's Proms aimed at? Read the summary here. Sure, it's good to have pop, light music etc. but not at the expense of serious music. One of the basic principles of marketing is to believe in what you're trying to sell. Raise the bar, aim for excellence, and grow the market .Pitch below the lowest possible denominator, and kill whatever audience you already have while lowering standards and decreasing expectations. If the primary product is music, then sell music,. All the gimmicky sales patter in the world won't make up for non-product. If people really believe Scott Walker is a "Godlike genius", good for them, but don't downgrade Beethoven. Why sacrifice an existing market to try selling to another which might have completely different priorities? Or perhaps that is the hidden agenda. The Far Right, the commercial sector, and vested interests have everything to gain from dumbing the BBC down. Sir Henry Wood believed that people were able, and willing to learn. Now, we live in an era where any kind of expertise is sneered at. Getting ahead means dismantling the edifices of advancement. There's a whole lot more at stake than just the Proms and the BBC. Fortuntely, some of the principles of Proms planning remain, since they follow rules so simple anyone can master them. Add a few big names - Haitink, Christie, Rattle, Salonen, Bychkov, Gardiner - and the punters will pay. Bring in the BBC orchestras, most of which are good enough to do serious music and do it well enough without scaring the unwary. Mark non-musical anniversaries like "Reformation Day" a term Martin Luther would have baulked at, then throw in music that has little to do with one of the revolutions in European history. Hire famous foreign bands like the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, whom everyone loves, and a few cheaper ones. Throw in a few blockbusters like Schoenberg Gurrelieder.(Rattle 19/8) .and Handel Israel in Egypt on 1/8 (William Christie and the Orchestra oif the Age of Enlightenment), Bring along an opera (usually Fidelio which needs little staging) and import a ready-made from Glyndebourne and bingo! The formula works, like a well-oiled machine, running with minimal human intervention. Thus, for those who actually like music there are other good things to seek out. Hidden under the banner "Take a musical thrill-ride from the chaos of creation" on 19/7 is Pascal Dusapin's new Outscape. Look out too for Thomas Larcher's Nocturne-Insomia on 15/8 New British works - David Sawer's The Greatest Happiness Principle on 29/7, and Mark-Anthony Turnage Hibiki on 14/8. Excellent younger conductors like François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles (16/8), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (21/8), and Jakub Hrůša (26/8 - good programme).
Doric Qt/BBCSO/Gardner (Chandos)Edward Gardner definitely puts refinement before moment-by-moment impact in his first venture into Elgar on disc. His treatment of the Introduction and Allegro – with the Doric Quartet joining the strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to provide the solo group – is notable more for its clarity and carefully graded textures than for its bracing athleticism, though it does finally deliver a real punch in the peroration.Gardner adopts a similar slow-burn approach to the First Symphony, too, which works better in the first and last movements than it does in the central pair, where the scherzo seems rather under-energised and the Adagio lacking in depth. Where he does score heavily, though, is in the closing pages of the finale, where, because he has controlled the pacing of the movement so skilfully, the return of the motto theme that opened the symphony really does carry the weight – the “great charity and a massive hope in the future” – that Elgar imagined. Even Daniel Barenboim’s otherwise outstanding recent Decca recording can’t make that wonderful resolution anything like as convincing as Gardner does. Continue reading...
Sir Edward William Elgar (2 June 1857 23 February 1934) was an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, not only musically, but socially. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer; in Protestant Britain, his Roman Catholicism was regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was acutely sensitive about his humble origins even after he achieved recognition. After a series of moderately successful works his Enigma Variations (1899) became immediately popular in Britain and overseas. His later full-length religious choral works were well received but have not entered the regular repertory. The first of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901) is well-known in the UK and in the US. Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, he conducted a series of recordings of his works. The introduction of the microphone in 1925 made far more accurate sound reproduction possible, and Elgar made new recordings of most of his major orchestral.
Great composers of classical music