By Colin Kaye
July 14, 2018 - July 20, 2018
Made in England
Albert Hall at the 2008 Proms.
Friday the Thirteenth
may have sinister overtones for some people, but this month it marks the
start of what’s been described as “the world’s greatest classical music
musical festival.” I refer of course to the Proms, an eight-week summer
feast of orchestral concerts held mainly in London’s Royal Albert Hall. With
over ninety orchestral concerts the Proms will draw some of the world’s
greatest classical musicians to the capital. The word “promenade” comes from
the French verb promener, meaning “to walk”. It was used to describe
the open-air concerts that were given in London’s parks and pleasure gardens
since the middle of the 18th century.
The present day Proms
began 123 years ago in 1895, inaugurated by the impresario Robert Newman and
the conductor Henry Wood. The concerts were held at Queen’s Hall, a massive
Victorian building in Central London with room for about 2,500 people. In
1927 the British Broadcasting Corporation took over the concerts and has
continued to the present day. Queen’s Hall was destroyed during a wartime
air raid in 1941 and the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall which has a
capacity for over five thousand people.
The season culminates
with the popular concert known as The Last Night of the Proms famous
for its British patriotic music accompanied by flag-waving and audience
participation. All this shenanigans is in total contrast the other concerts
which are much more conventional.
The Promenaders are
those who stand throughout the concert either in the large area directly in
front of the stage or in the gallery at the top of the hall which, if you
don’t suffer from vertigo, can offer a bird’s-eye view of the stage. There
are well over a thousand standing places available for each concert and
tickets are a mere Bt 500; half that if you are under eighteen. The hall
also has comfortable seating for those who are prepared to pay extra.
Last year 300,000
people attended Proms, though millions more heard the concerts on radio and
television. All the concerts are broadcast live on UK national radio or
streamed on the Internet and many will be televised on BBC Four. So this
week, let’s hear two works that will be performed on the opening night of
Friday the Thirteenth and recorded at previous Prom concerts.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958):
Toward the Unknown Region. Irish Youth Chamber Choir, National
Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and Youth Choir of Great Britain cond.
Vasily Petrenko (Duration: 12:20; Video: 240p)
The evocative title is
from a poem by Walt Whitman, whose writing influenced many young artists and
musicians during the late nineteenth century. Vaughan Williams was
fascinated by Whitman’s poetry and the collection of poems Leaves of
Grass was a constant companion. The Sea Symphony of 1910, written
for choir and orchestra uses Whitman’s poetry throughout.
Toward the Unknown
Region was first performed at the Leeds Festival
in October 1907 with the composer conducting. It was his first major choral
work, though it’s rarely performed today. This is a shame for it’s a
wonderful setting of the poem with superb choral writing, brilliant
orchestration and soaring melodies. This splendid performance, recorded at
the Proms in 2013 is as fresh and captivating as ever, with excellent audio
Gustav Holst (1874-1934): The
Planets, Op. 32. National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and the
CBSO Youth Chorus cond. Edward Gardner (Duration: 55:33; Video: 720p HD)
Scored for a huge
orchestra, this seven-movement orchestral suite may not have been written if
Gustav Holst hadn’t gone on holiday to Mallorca in the spring of 1913.
During the visit, his friend Clifford Bax (the brother of composer Arnold
Bax) introduced Holst to astrology and this gave him the idea for this work,
which was finally completed in 1918. The concept is astrological rather than
astronomical and the music portrays the supposed emotions and influences of
the planets on the human psyche.
The first movement
Mars, the Bringer of War has five beats to the bar and an ominous
insistent rhythmic pattern dominates the entire movement. At the opening,
the strings play this rhythm col legno which involves hitting the
string with the wood of the bow, producing an eerie percussive sound.
The fourth movement
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity includes a memorable tune that the
composer later adapted as a hymn. The last movement, Neptune, the Mystic
was one of the first pieces of orchestral music to have a fade-out ending.
It uses a female chorus which in this performance remains hidden up in the
Holst didn’t write a
movement for Pluto because the planet wasn’t discovered until 1930. This
however, hasn’t stopped other composers from trying. In 2000, the Hallé
Orchestra commissioned the English composer Colin Matthews, an authority on
Holst, to write a new eighth movement, which he called Pluto, the Renewer
and it’s included in this performance.
July 7, 2018 - July 13, 2018
in Perth, 1974.
We tend to associate
the word overture with opera because the two have existed side by
side for the last four hundred years. The word looks slightly French which
is not surprising, because it is. It means “opening” and it’s used to
describe the orchestral introduction to an opera. Even the earliest known
opera, written in the late 1590s by the Italian singer-composer Jacopo Peri
is preceded by a short instrumental section.
The custom continued
through the history of opera. Perhaps the original idea was to give the
audience sufficient time to shuffle around and settle down before the
serious stuff began. The notion of introductory music also crept into the
movie industry but served a different purpose: to provide an appropriate
mood setting during the opening credits.
By the end of the
eighteenth century, popular opera overtures were often played as separate
items in the concert hall. Not long afterwards, the so-called concert
overture began to appear. It was intended not as an introduction to an opera
but as a stand-alone piece, often played at the beginning of a concert.
The word overture was
adopted possibly because no one felt the need for an alternative. Many of
these concert overtures were based on literary themes and although Weber
wrote a couple of them, it’s generally assumed that the first genuine
concert overture was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) by the
seventeen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn derived of course by Shakespeare’s play
of the same name. Mendelssohn went on to write several other notable concert
overtures such as Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828) and The
Hebrides (1830) inspired by his visit to the Scottish island of Staffa
in the summer of the previous year.
By the middle of the
nineteenth century, the concert overture was firmly established and remained
a favourite among composers for generations. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian
Easter Festival Overture springs to mind as does Tchaikovsky’s old
pot-boiler, the 1812 Overture. The twentieth century saw the
appearance of countless others including Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive
Overture and Walton’s Portsmouth Point.
Arnold wrote A Grand, Grand Overture in 1956 which is a hilariously
vulgar spoof on the heroic concert overtures of the late nineteenth century.
It’s scored for an enormous orchestra with organ, three Hoover vacuum
cleaners, an electric floor polisher and four rifles. In contrast, these two
lively overtures are operatic overtures but they’ve become popular concert
pieces in their own right.
Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987): Overture to Colas Breugnon.
Conservatory Philharmonia cond. Andrew Litton
(Duration: 05:42; Video: 1080p HD)
This was the first
piece I heard through a pair of stereo headphones when I was about
twenty-two. It sounded wonderful at the time and still sounds a fresh as
ever. The sizzling opening section is tricky to bring off successfully and
there are several other recordings on YouTube in which the ensemble is all
over the place. Not so with these students from the New England Conservatory
who give a thoroughly professional performance.
Kabalevsky was a
prolific composer of piano music and made a significant impact on Russian
music education. Like Glinka, little of his work is known in the West with
the exception perhaps of the Third Piano Concerto and the Violin
Concerto. This really is a shame for he wrote some wonderful works
including four piano concertos and four symphonies. This overture is from
his three-act opera Colas Breugnon, written between 1936 and 1938 and
based on a novel by the French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian
and mystic, Romain Rolland.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990):
Overture to Candide.
Symphony Orchestra of Galicia cond. Leonard Slatkin
(Duration: 04:41; Video: 480p)
In case you’d forgotten
(or possible never knew) Galicia is an autonomous community in Spain which
lies in the farthest north-west corner of the country just north of
Portugal. Go any further north-west and you’d be sloshing about in the
Atlantic Ocean. The orchestra, under the distinguished American conductor
gives a superb performance of this Bernstein classic and I enjoyed it more
than that the famous one by Bernstein himself with the London Symphony.
Perhaps best known for
his opera West Side Story, Bernstein was also an author, music
lecturer, and brilliant pianist. Music critic Donal Henahan, claimed that
Bernstein was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful
musicians in American history.” His operetta Candide was first
performed in 1956 and based on the novella of the same name written almost
exactly two hundred years earlier by the French writer, historian and
The overture is a
lively and engaging work with a catchy opening theme which gives way to a
passionate melody (01:24) that recurs triumphantly later in the work. This
theme has a wonderfully fluid quality produced by using alternate bars of
two and three beats. The overture combines energy, delight, passion and
vulgarity and the exciting Rossini-style crescendo (04:57) drives this
heart-warming work to a satisfying conclusion.
June 30, 2018 - July 6, 2018
Portable, but only just
Fermín Villanueva. (Photo/Dirk Brzoska)
One day, when I was
about thirteen and walking with my classmates in orderly fashion along the
school corridor, we passed the Headmaster, who always stood at the same
junction during lesson changes when almost the entire school was on the
move. As I passed him, I was tapped on the shoulder and a magisterial voice
announced, “Kaye, I think you should learn the cello.” When you are thirteen
you don’t argue with the school dog let alone the Headmaster, so learn the
cello I did.
At first I was taught
by a large and kindly lady who kept her cello in a tattered canvas bag and
had a penchant for voluminous dresses which rendered her feet invisible. She
would float imperiously along the school corridors like a Spanish galleon in
full sail, followed by a vapour trail of stale beer fumes, for she was also
the proprietress of a local pub.
You need to have a
certain determination to learn the cello. It’s portable, but only just and
it can be awkward to carry on to buses and trains. As a teenager I developed
the useful skill of riding my pedal bicycle and carrying the cello under one
arm, though these days I don’t think I could do either.
The cello - or the
violoncello to use its full name - has always played an important role in
the orchestra. In many 18th century
compositions the cellos merely chug along with the double basses, but by the
early 19th century,
composers had become more adventurous and gave the cello more interesting
parts to play.
Few solo concertos were
written for the cello before the 19th century.
Perhaps the playing technique had not developed sufficiently for the
technical demands of a concerto. Whatever the reason, the cello didn’t come
into prominence as a solo instrument until the notable concertos by Schumann
(1850), Saint-Saëns (1872), Lalo (1876) and Dvořák (1894). Even so, compared
to the vast number of violin concertos, those for the cello are pretty thin
on the ground.
Édouard Lalo (1823-1892): Cello Concerto in D minor.
Fermín Villanueva (vlc), Romanian Radio National Orchestra, cond. Gabriel
Bebe elea (Duration: 34:10, Video: 1080p HD)
When you think of
French composers, Lalo (LAH-loh) is probably not the first name that
springs to mind. He’s probably best known for his Symphonie Espagnole,
a popular work for violin and orchestra. His cello concerto dates from 1876
and sounds as though parts of it were written by Schumann, for Lalo had a
rather Germanic style.
performance is given by the charismatic Spanish cellist Fermín Villanueva
who was born in 1993 in Pamplona, also the birthplace of the legendary
violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Fermin studied at the Higher School of Music of
the Basque Country and later at prestigious universities in Leipzig and
Vienna. He has been awarded numerous prizes in national and international
competitions and has performed with many European orchestras. The German
cellist, Peter Bruns, recently wrote “Fermín is a very gifted and advanced
cellist with highly-developed instrumental technique as well as with a wide
range of mental, stylistic and musical skills to express his musical ideas
on the cello.”
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Cello Concerto No 1 Op 107.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (vlc), BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Mark Wigglesworth
(Duration: 31.27, Video: 720p HD)
This concerto is
considered one of the most difficult works written for the cello and was
composed for the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who evidently
committed it to memory in four days. This is a remarkable feat because most
musicians would require four months at the very least.
Composed in 1959, it
famously opens with four notes played on the solo cello answered by the
woodwind. There are echoes of this motif throughout the concerto which is
cast in four movements though the last three are played without a break. The
second movement is in complete contrast to the energetic first one. The
music is forlorn and yearning, full of harmonic tension and the melody
played entirely on the cello harmonics adds an unworldly, ethereal quality.
The third movement is an unaccompanied cadenza which transforms from a
reflective mood into a frenzy of activity leading into the bizarre angular
opening theme of the last movement.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason was
born 1999 and started learning the cello at the age of six. When he was
seventeen, he won the coveted 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year award.
Since then his international career has rocketed and he’s already booked for
appearances with some of the top orchestras in Europe and America. Sheku
incredibly talented and gives a superbly musical performance of this
difficult work. Try to ignore the inane chatter from the TV commentator who
really ought to know by now when to keep her mouth shut.