The Promenade Concerts (the Proms) were started in 1895 in the Queen’s Hall, near Oxford Circus in the centre of London and next door to the site that was to become the British Broadcasting Company’s headquarters in the 1930’s. The idea was simple but remarkable. There were concerts every night for several weeks in the summer and the expensive seats in front of the orchestra were removed so that listeners paying as little as possible could stand. For the first 40 years concerts were conducted by Henry Wood. The BBC took over the management after the death of the original promoter, Robert Newman, in 1927 and, after the Queen’s Hall was destroyed by bombs in World War II, the Proms moved to the much larger Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, where they remain. These days concerts are given for a full two months (often two in a day) and shared between all of the BBC’s orchestras, as well as London’s others and many visitors.
2019 marks the 125th Proms Festival and the 150th anniversary of Henry Wood’s birth. The review below covers four concerts over one weekend, showing the interconnectedness of programming and its range from chamber music to the largest of orchestral forces.
Director: David Pickard
Saturday 10 August 2019
Royal Albert Hall
Lise Davidsen Soprano
Esa-Pekka Salonen Conductor
Brahms Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale
Richard Strauss Four Songs Op.27
Bruckner Symphony No. 4, the Romantic
Sunday 11 August 2019
Royal Albert Hall
National Youth Orchestra of the USA
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (Brass Section)
Joyce DiDonato Mezzo-soprano
Sir Antonio Pappano Conductor
Benjamin Beckman Occidentalis (European Premiere)
Berlioz Les Nuits d’Été
Richard Strauss An Alpine Symphony
Monday 12 August 2019
Schubert String Quartet No.1, D18
Maddelena Laura Lombardini Sirmen String Quartet No. 5
Haydn String Quartet Op.76, No. 4, Sunrise
Monday 12 August 2019
Royal Albert Hall
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Martha Argerich Piano
Daniel Barenboim Conductor
Schubert Symphony No. 8, the Unfinished
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1
Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra
Youth with experience, new with the old, fresh with the traditional, fame with unknown; however they are described these four concerts were imbued with a sense of generations meeting.
Lise Davidsen only graduated from college in Copenhagen in 2014 but has risen through the ranks of sopranos extraordinarily fast, being named 2018 young artist of the year by Gramophone magazine. It is easy to see why. Her performance of the early Op.27 set of songs by Strauss was simply glorious, filling the Albert Hall with a warmth of sound that would be expected from a singer a decade older. Already she understands when to lean gently into a Strauss phrase, when to darken its colour or to let the voice soar free. She is one of those rare singers who naturally dominates a stage – not just because of her height but because she is so completely in command of the music. The Philharmonia is the London orchestra that Strauss himself trusted with his songs and, 70 years later, they continue to justify his faith in them.
The songs were sandwiched between the Brahms Variations and Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony, written only a few months and kilometres apart but sounding from different worlds. Brahms didn’t like Bruckner’s music at first and thought him provincial, as did most of posh Vienna, though they both regarded Beethoven as their models. In retrospect Brahms’s sophistication at the same moment in 1873/74 (in the middle of both careers) was probably holding back his invention. There is a clarity about Bruckner’s orchestration that can make Brahms sound fussy. This was certainly the case under Salonen who directed the Variations slowly as if they were restrained drawing-room music, sucking the urgency out of them, smoothing the edges until they were as genial as a snooze. The Romantic Symphony was also over-careful at times, though Salonen has a composer’s ability to make the frequent bridging passages interesting in themselves rather than just a way of getting to the next episode.
There is no conductor who can fail to unleash the sheer magnificence of Bruckner’s brass chorales nor of Strauss’s in his enormous Alpine Symphony, possibly the loudest piece of music ever written without the help of loudspeakers. This where the Proms’ ability to share an audience over consecutive days shows its benefits. Only a few hours later Strauss’s orchestral songs could be compared directly with those of Berlioz, from whose music he learned so much. Les Nuits d’Été have the same radiance, even though they are written for a lower voice. Joyce DiDonato is some years older than Davidsen but her voice is lighter and so the emphasis is more on precision and diction than sumptuous tone, though they share the ability to make their voices match orchestral instruments so that the blend is natural. Here the Berlioz benefited from Pappano’s long experience as an accompanist, whether in the opera pit or as a pianist. He listened so that the sound around DiDonato’s singing was sculpted in sympathy.
DiDonato and Pappano are musicians, American and British-Italian, who define their generation. So one day may the players with them, from the National Youth Orchestras on either side of the Atlantic. From the British group only the brass were required – blazing from under the roof in the first movement of the Alpine Symphony – but this was still a nice touch of hands across the sea. The American version was only established this decade, while the British NYO has been around since 1948. Such orchestras change season by season, of course, but still somehow they develop a style and a quality tradition. In truth the NYO USA does not yet have quite the brilliance of the GB one, or of the European Union YO, which is probably the most consistently excellent of its kind. Nonetheless, in both its condensed version for the Berlioz and enormous one for the Alpine Symphony, it showed fine achievement. Its rather military uniforms should go, though.
The composer whose work, an extended fanfare rather than an overture, opened the Sunday morning concert is young enough at 19 to play in the orchestra and unfortunately wore the same scarlet trousered uniform. Benjamin Beckmann’s music is hard to judge on this short piece, Occidentalis. It has the characteristic openness of our age of eclecticism, when a composer has a millenium’s worth of music to explore. At the moment Beckmann’s has inevitable traces of his famous West Coast compatriot of my generation, John Adams, but there’s a hint in his open sonorities that he is starting to find a voice of his own. It will be good to hear how it develops in something more substantial.
The following day’s lunchtime concert in Cadogan Hall, a bus ride to Sloane Square from the Royal Albert Hall, also began with a work by a composer who announced himself when young, Frans Schubert. His First String Quartet was written when he was 15. The opening has suggestions of the depth of music of later years but at this stage that soon subsides into pleasantries Bocherini could have provided. It was played by the Aris Quartet, a German group who are part of BBC Radio’s New Generation scheme, which gives an array of broadcast opportunities to youngish performers for two years. It is a wonderful platform if you are on it, and open to global competition, but its downside is that it effectively deprives those who are not of getting a chance on air. Before it was introduced BBC Radio 3 had a very open, if time consuming, audition system.
The Aris (two women, two men) play standing, with the cellist on a raised podium. This is certainly more interesting to watch for the audience in the hall and it frees up the players to behave as four soloists (though the cellist Lukas Sieber’s knowing turns to us were too close to pantomime). This works well in baroque music but its drawback for the later classical and romantic eras is that it can often detract from the unity and concentration the form needs. It also, as here with the Aris, tempts players to lunge into accents with excessive emphasis.
The symbolism of the evening concert back in the full Albert Hall that evening needs careful listing. The links begin to look like a programmer’s Venn diagram. One circle contains the name of the orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan. The divan in this case is not a comfortable sofa but a collection of poetry by Goethe, published two centuries ago this year, celebrating connections between Europe and Persia and drawing on Goethe’s discovery of its 14th century poet Hafez. 20 years ago Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian-American writer Edward Said adopted the name to describe the orchestra that emerges each year from workshops bringing together roughly one half Arab, Turkish and Iranian and one half Israeli and European musicians in their twenties. They rehearse in Seville (once part of Muslim Spain) and work on music is followed by discussions that explore all the complications of dealing with the strain between their feuding cultures. In its two decades the political divisions have become ever more bitter but the orchestra’s tours remind us all that they can and should be bridged.
This year they brought Lutoslawski’s Concert for Orchestra to the Proms, the work that in 1954 bridged the divide between Western and Eastern Europe and made him accepted in both; traditional Polish enough for the communist regime at home, radical enough for intellectuals abroad. It has elements close to the music that other great advocate for peace, Michael Tippett, was writing at the time; complex, demanding but rewarding.
Reuniting Barenboim with his great Argentinian contemporary, Martha Argerich (they are both so globally famous it is to their credit that few people pinpoint them as being from the same city, Buenos Aires) was inspired. Sadly, asking her to play Tchaikovsky’s concerto was not. It can just about work if played by technical wizards anxious to make an impressive noise and not much else. But Argerich’s fingers no longer always find the notes accurately these days and she and Barenboim are simply too interesting to waste their time on this stuff. Surely Shostakovich’s second concerto would have completed the links more tellingly?
Put that aberration aside, though. As an illustration of how festival programming can stay fresh and challenging – continuously finding new works, discovering new audiences, and mixing little-known performers with the world’s finest – four days at the BBC Proms works superbly. I confess I have rarely missed a season completely since 1968 and I hope that continues for a good while yet.