Category Archives: classical music

Víkingur Ólafsson's debut at the Proms was epic. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

PROMMERS WARM TO VIKINGUR ÓLAFSSON

BBC Proms Saturday 14 August 2021 S.Prokofiev Symphony no.1,  J.S.Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056, W.A. Mozart Piano concerto no.24, D. Shostakovich Symphony no.9

 

With the Philharmonia Orchestra’s new principal conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali unavailable, due to the government’s quarantine and testing requirements (he is mainly based in Finland and Sweden), a reserve conductor had to be found with less than a week to go.

I’m sure Rouvali will prove to be a marvelous addition for the venerable London orchestra in the near future, but the ‘super-sub’ that was brought in is in a different league. Paavo Järvi is an outstanding conductor with an air of old-fashioned poise and natural authority. Could he be the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s next chief conductor?

Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony will be very familiar territory for Järvi, but there was not a trace of routine about this performance. The allegro was swift, pert and slightly coquettish. The larghetto had a lightness of touch that made the musicians appear to levitate above their seats. The gavotta was perfectly danceable, quite slow, in a baroque kind of fashion and even though it perhaps to the original audiences sounded deliberately ‘clumsy’ (because of the uncoventional musical progressions), in my modern ears it sounded more ‘bumkinish’and full of haydenesque humour. The finale sounded like a super fast jolly ride that was sure to end in victory. The flute part (often given as an audition piece) in the 4th movement is technically fiendishly difficult, but principal flutist Charlotte Ashton nailed it perfectly.

Víkingur Ólafsson was one of this Proms season’s most anticipated soloists and this was also the Icelandic pianist ‘s festival debut. Many people have been watching his regular online solo concerts from Reykjavik during the lockdown.  This explained the rapturous welcome that he received in a nearly packed Royal Albert Hall (finally, it has looked half-empty for many concerts so far). Ólafsson may dress like your private wealth manager, but his playing is honest and always neat.

He totally ignores the early music movement’s progress and his take on Bach is unashamedly romantic, including a lot of pedalling. I am in his camp and don’t particularly like the mechanical sound of the harpsichord, particularly not as a solo instrument.

Víkingur Ólafsson makes his Proms debut, as soloist in both Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F minor, and Mozart’s pioneering Piano Concerto K491. The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.
Photo by Mark Allan

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Keyboard concerto in F minor was written for Collegium Musicum, a university society that gave weekly concerts in the coffee house Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. Despite the fact that the opening movement is clever, with its chromatic use of the returning theme, it can feel a bit like tracking the Bach family index on the BFSE (Bach family Stock Exchange). Of course it wouldn’t have sounded anything like this 280 years ago. This is intricate stuff. And the way Ólafsson approached the 2nd movement’s largo would have taken the composer by total surprise.

First of all the extremely quiet and delicate phrasing that Ólafsson displayed would have been impossible on a harpsichord. This was ol’school, romantic, contemplative playing and I got a sense of sacred wilted flowers. Yes, I’m not sure what that means, but Ólafsson added a religious touch to a secular piece. The plucked basses and soft pizzicato string accompaniment gave it at times even a jazzy feel. I have never heard any other pianist attempt to play so softly in this great hall and you could have heard a coffee bean drop.

It wasn’t just a gimmick because it made the final presto movement feel lika a battle of wits between Ólafsson and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Bach is any serious musician’s House God and the Old Testament of classical music. There are many different interpretations of the Old Testament but who in the end gets to decide which interpretation is right? This was a pure Godsend.

After the interval Ólafsson returned to play Mozart’s piano concert no.24 in C minor K 491 (1786). One of Mozart’s rare piano concerts composed in a minor key, but it is also a piece with a lot of very satisfying orchestra work for oboes, bassoon, clarinets and bassoon. There is some marvelous interplay between the pianist and those instrumentalists. While writing this concert was very busy with a number of operas including The Marriage of Figaro. The intro K491 could easily have worked as an overture to an opera. The soloists entry is tentative, but the mood is clear right from the start. A melancholy and a sadness must be expressed and the orchestra is in on the act. Ólafsson shows academic restraint, but after finishing a longer passage he will swing his upper body towards the orchestra and lift his arms as if to say: your turn! Ólafsson plays his own cadenza, but I have heard more convincing ones.The opening allegro was an important inspiration for Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto.

It is in the larghetto, the slow movement, you get a sense of how deeply felt this material touches Ólafsson. We heard Mozart the pre-romantic. The interplay between Ólafsson and the wind instruments was exquisite, delightful, but this remains very dark writing for being Mozart. The finale

The finale is built around theme and eight variations. With the woodwinds leading the way. The mood almost changes and gives a sense of hope, with a switch to major, but no luck, in the end there is a sense of bitterness. This was a splendid performance by Ólafsson, but less exceptional than the Bach.

We were treated to two encores and first came a transcription of the second movement of an organ sonata by Bach and then a Liszt transcription of a Mozart piece. Once more he achieved absolute transcendence. We can be sure that Ólafsson will be back at the Proms.

Photo: Mark Allan

While the Soviet troops were driving the nazis back into Germany Shostakovich started work on his Ninth symphony (1945) which was going to celebrate the ‘Great Victory’. Authorities expected something in the vain of Beethoven’s ninth. But for some reason Shostakovich decided to take the mickey, well almost. That’s how many listeners saw it. The work seemed more like a buoyant satire with a fanfare, ‘farting ‘ trombones and a number of passages that sound like circus music.

But in the fourth movement, the largo , the composer realises that he’s gone too far and turns plaintive. Mournful winds and a long suggest bassoon solo suggests that every victoory has its downsides. But hold on, the bassoon suddenly goes all folky and the rest of the orchestra joins in and the mood turns cheerful again. No, not cheerful, but a rather desperate sense to create joyful celebration after half a decade of destruction and mass murder.

Paavo Järvi is of course Neeme Järvi’s son and this is the reason why he as a boy met Shoshtakovich. They did not exchange notes about the Ninth symphony, but Paavo studied the work at the Leningrad Conservatory. The dark layer or undertone only comes to the fore in the largo and, yes, you can feel the nervous, towards the end nearly hysterical cheerfulness. But this remains , in my mind, quite an unsatisfying work, but I feel that Järvi and the Philharmonia presented this ‘musical mischief’ as well as I have ever heard it played. It was in the Shostakovich it became more than clear that Järvi was an ideal sub for Rouvali, who could not have gotten more out of this splendid orchestra.

The Philharmonia’s principal bassoonist Emily Hultmark deserves a special mention. She was the magnificent, superb soloist (subtly accompanied by violas)in the Ninth and also made me aware of the bassoon part in the Mozart. I give this concert nearly five stars, nine points!

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla's conducting style is elegance embodied. Photo:

MIRGA MAGIC DELIVERS THE BRITISH GOODS

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla's conducting style is elegance embodied
Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla’s conducting style is elegance embodied. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

BBC Proms 5 August Ruth Gipps Symphony No.2 in B major, Thomas Adès’ The Exterminating Angel Symphony, Johannes Brahms Symphony No.3 in F major

I have been sitting it out for nine months, waiting for proper concerts with a live audience to recommence.

The BBC Proms is this year my reintroduction to concert going and there can’t be many better ways to start a new concert season than seeing  Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla conduct ‘her own’ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO)?

Two Proms premiere performances by British composers in one evening should have attracted a capacity audience. But perhaps the extremely wet weather dampened the spirits of some regular concert goers.

Ruth Gipps (1921-99) used to be a CBSO oboist and also performed as a solo pianist with the same orchestra. She had her first composition performed at the age of 8 and later studied with Gordon Jacob and Ralph Vaughan Williams. In her thirties a shoulder injury put an end to her career as a soloist which meant that she focused on composing.

Gipps’s Second Symphony (1945) was supposed to celebrate the end of WWII, but the composer admitted later that she had tried to depict the effect of the war on a young woman’s private life. Gipps’s own, at times traumatic, experience of the war comes to the fore in a number of passages. Ruth’s husband went off to fight and she didn’t see him until the war ended. This one-movement symphony has a fairly classic structure and Gipps makes no attempt to adhere to any modernist trends. The opening section depicts the almost carefree mood before the war, which pretty soon converges with the stark realisation that war is inevitable. The sadness creeps in with the short solo violin passage, but there is still time for a burst of hope that it will soon be over. The pastoral element that follows, with echoes of Vaughan Williams, was rendered movingly by the CBSO. The second section with its fanfare and march sees Gipps’s husband departure for the theater of war. Yes, it’s all rather theatrical, maybe even filmic. Once the soldiers have disappeared into the distance the soldier’s wife is left to reflect on a very uncertain future. The adagio with its muted tones of deep despair reminds me of Sibelius and even if I have no evidence that Gipps knew his work, her teacher Vaughan Williams was positively a fan. But the work ends in a fanfare of joy and not only does Gipps’s husband return, there is a powerful sense of hope in the final section of the work. The multi-talented Gipps was also a prolific conductor and I’m sure that this fact inspired Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla together with the CBSO to deliver a superb performance of a work that deserves more regular outings.

Clarity is Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s middle name. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Thomas Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel (2015-16) is based on Luis Buñuel‘s Mexican film (1962) with the same name. Last year Adès composed  a symphony adapting some of the music from the opera as well as adding a newly composed movement . It’s interesting to note that the original film contains no music.The first movement focuses on the entrance of the guests. In the film this happens twice. In the symphony the unstable entrance of the bourgeois guests to the palatial house also receives a slightly amended reprise. The grand dinner party gets under way, but pretty soon it emerges that some mysterious compulsion stops the guests from leaving the room. As the guests become increasingly hostile towards each other and anxious, all survival tactics seem futile and the tribal nature of a society in free fall emerges. In the second movement this descent into hell is illustrated by a snare drum led ostinato reminiscent of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony (first movement). Does this relentless music represent the exterminating angel of the title?  Buñuel wanted to mock the church and the pretensions of the (Mexican) upper class, but Adès struggles to convey that in the music without the words. The third movement depicts the suicide of two lovers with a fairly predictable mock (?) sentimentality. It is perhaps the fourth movement with its wonky waltzes that comes closest to reflecting Buñuel’s surrealist style. Adès’ has described the Waltzes, that can be heard in the fourth movement, as ‘joining together the bits of a broken porcelain object’. Here the off-kilter instrumental humour is used to great effect and in the vein of Buñuel’s film. There is no waltz in the film but I imagine that Adès sees the Viennese dance as a symbol of glamour and easy seduction. But Adès’s waltzes are not meant to be seductive, they are disturbing  and eventually wipe the smile off your face, when you realise that the exterminating angel is already in the (Albert) hall, sitting in your seat.

The CBSO’s musicians were still forced to sit at a social distance from each other which seemed to enhance the clarity and accoustics, or perhaps it was further evidence of the magic that is Mirga’s elegant conducting style.

 

 

 

102 years in the making: the debut of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms, photo:Chris Christodoulou

BERNSTEIN IN ALL HIS GLORY (SLAVA)

Prom 60, Royal Albert Hall, 27 August 2018

Does Leonard Bernstein 28 years after his death really need an advocate? In this country  we are particularly keen on celebrating or commemorating the births and deaths of composers. In March it was 100 years ago Debussy died and his music has been heard all over this scepter’d isle, this blessed plot, this England. Leonard ‘Lenny’ Bernstein was born the same year Debussy died. Lenny was not as prolific a composer as Claude, but he more than made up for it by being a very active conductor and enthusiastic pedagogue. The focus has lately been totally on Bernstein because his centenary was on the 25th of August. BBC radio 3 and the magnificent BBC Proms festival are very good at marking these kind of celebrations with concerts, documentaries and podcasts.

Bernstein is a gratifying subject because he lived so many different lives and careers simultaneously. He was a most remarkable conductor, pianist, composer, educator, humanist and political activist. There are still a great many people around that can talk about the different aspects of his character and his many talents. On YouTube you can find a seemingly endless amount of concerts conducted by the maestro. Many of his best educational programmes that he recorded for American TV are also available online. No, Bernstein is far from forgotten, but some of his compositions deserve to be played more often. And who better than Marin Alsop to look after his compositional legacy? Alsop was a protégé of Bernstein, but of course she is also a marvelous conductor in her own right. She has been the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) since 2007 and this was their debut concert at the Proms. Alsop is much loved by Proms audiences (having conducted The Last Night of the Proms twice) and the welcome she received while walking to the conductor’s rostrum was thunderous.

Bernstein's most convincing interpreters photo:Chris Christodoulou
Marin Alsop is one of Bernstein’s most convincing interpreters photo:Chris Christodoulou

The concert started out with a piece never heard before at a Prom. For Slava! A Political Overture (1977) Bernstein decided to incorporate two numbers from his musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had tanked the previous year on Broadway. Slava was dedicated to the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich who had just become Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Slava means glory or praise in Russian and it was also Rostropovich’s nickname. I am  sure this occasional piece is very political to the initiated, but the snippets of pre-recorded election speeches that are shouted over the music make no sense to me.  Apparently President Carter was in the audience at the premiere in 1977 and perhaps that is the most political aspect. This overture is perfectly loud, brash and entertaining but really quite inconsequential. I think it would have worked better as an encore.

After this fluffy appetizer I was ready for some music of consequence and with meaty content: Bernstein’s second symphony. Quite honestly I was unfamiliar with the work before this year’s centenary celebrations, but now I consider it one of Bernstein’s best compositions.

Bernstein told an interviewer that after having read W.H Auden’s 80-page (!) poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ the music almost immediately started to sing. The poem is mostly set in a New York bar and consists of conversations between four strangers: three men and a woman. They end up in the woman’s apartment, but two of the men leave and the third one passes out drunk. Perhaps the woman should be relieved. In many ways the main themes are loneliness and a search for meaning in a recently war-torn world. The poem was published after the war(1947) but it reflected the emptiness that many people felt after all the misery that they had experienced.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet can play Bernstein's symphony blindly photo: Chris Christodoulou
Jean-Yves Thibaudet can play Bernstein’s symphony blindly photo: Chris Christodoulou

Alsop and the BSO treated the Prologue with its clarinet duet with a good deal of gentleness and a sense of trepidation. The descending scale played by the flute forms the bridge to the Seven Ages: Variations 1-7 . Then we are introduced to the piano setting out a slightly dissonant melody. The piano transports us from one variation to the next, with each variation elaborating on an idea or theme from the previous one. After three or four variations it becomes clear that this really is a piano concerto in all but name. The French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet recorded this concert five years ago with the same orchestra and conductor. On this occasion Thibaudet’s interpretation displayed even more flair, neurosis and a sense of life’s struggle than on the recording (available on Naxos). It was a nice touch to hear the jazzy Masque scherzo (for piano, bass, timpani and percussion) played without too much stomp and bravura. This seems to signal that the carousing at the woman’s apartment is not a bacchanalian feast after all. It is certainly one of the most memorable movements in American orchestral music. One could argue that the piano represents Bernstein’s own voice and at times I thought that Thibaudet perhaps was trying to portray the composer’s multi-faceted personality in this piece, one could hear so many different shades. The Epilogue is a different beast. In the revised edition from 1965 (played here) the piano is given a cadenza that seems to suggest a sad and lonely life, but then the orchestra takes over and signals a sense of hope and it all ends with the big orchestra treatment that you will find in so many American films from the 40s and 50s. The plaintive element and “loss of faith” may dominate the symphony and therefore the optimistic spin added on at the end can seem an afterthought, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra make it all sound perfectly obvious and matter of course the way only Americans can. All in all, splendid!

Sir Mark Elder conducting the Hallé

HALLÉ AT THE PROMS: WAGNER, DEBUSSY AND STRAVINSKY

The Hallé is one of  Britain’s oldest orchestras and it is no surprise that they have championed many compositions at an early stage, before they became true classics.

The orchestra’s founder, Charles Hallé, put Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture on the repertoire (in the 1860s?). Under Hans Richter’s stewardship (1899-1911) the Manchester audiences would have heard quite a lot of Wagner. After all, Richter worked closely with the composer and conducted the first performance of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. Therefore the Hallé can claim that it has Wagner in its DNA, a fact that the orchestra’s current Music Director Sir Mark Elder is well aware of. Elder is an expert Wagnerian and member of a select group of British conductors that have conducted at the Festspiele Bayreuth. The orchestra recently performed Siegfried, thereby completing its presentation of the Ring Cycle while at the same time consolidating its reputation as one of the foremost Wagner orchestras in the land.

At home with the Wagners. Wahnfried in Bayreuth. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
At home with the Wagners. Wahnfried in Bayreuth. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Prom 16 saw the Hallé present the original Dresden version (1845) of the Tannhäuser overture. The horns, clarinets and bassoons were incredibly pianissimo in the opening Pilgrim’s Hymn theme. The trombones were not much louder when they repeated the tune. With the lure of the Venusberg the volume increased, but Elder made sure that the bacchanal remained a fairly measured affair. Only when the profane and the sacred clashed was the orchestra let off its leash. When the pilgrims returned, hailing ‘salvation’s grace’, the murmuring violins were doing just that, murmuring, while the wind instruments were giving it some brass. This was the Hallé at its rich, harmonic best, replacing Wagnerian pomp with English understatement, but it was perhaps not the most theatrical of interpretations.

Debussy had a love-hate relationship with Wagner’s music. He was so aware that his first version of Pelléas et Melisande sounded too Wagnerian that he destroyed it and started anew. La damoiselle elué (1887-8) was luckily not ripped up by Debussy, despite the fact that there are hints of the Siegfried idyll and the spirit of Parsifal clearly inhabits this masterful cantata. I own three different recordings of the work, but had never heard it in concert and clearly didn’t really appreciate its celestial beauty. Inspired by a poem by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti Debussy composed ”a little oratorio, in a mystic, slightly pagan vein”, as he put it.

La Blessed Damozelle by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painting based on the poem that inspired Debussy
La Blessed Damozelle by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painting based on the poem that inspired Debussy

The work is scored for two sopranos, female chorus and orchestra (the piano version is also perfectly charming). Amazingly this accomplished work was Debussy’s first orchestral work to be performed (in 1893). The symbolist poetry seems to evoke the Victorian idea of medieval imagery. The blessed and chaste damozel, ‘leaning out from the gold bar of Heaven’, laments the brief time she spent with her lover. The narrator sets the scene, but musically has little to offer. It is the female chorus that has all the best lines and music. The combined forces of the Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir executed this to perfection. The subtly shifting harmonies would have confused some contemporary listeners, but shocking or incomprehensible it wasn’t (like the opera Pelléas). Harp, oboe, English horn, flute and the strings provide the most memorable colours and to me, this sounds like Art Nouveau set to music. The title role was sung by Sophie Bevan who took over from the indisposed Sabine Devieilhe at very short notice. After an initial, slight hesitation she was marvellous and the Hallé could hardly have been more supportive.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale takes its inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Nightingale. Stravinsky set out in 1908 to compose an opera but he didn’t get very far because he received a commission from Diaghilev in Paris to write The Firebird. This made the critics take notice of the then-unknown composer. Two more ballets, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring followed resulting in fame and fortune. In 1913 Stravinsky took up the opera project again and Le Rossignol(The Nightingale) was premiered just before WWI with the singers in the pit and Ballets Russes’ dancers miming and dancing the roles! After the war, Stravinsky created a symphonic poem with music from the opera. I am not sure how much of this music I would have appreciated if I hadn’t read a synopsis of the story provided in the programme. It helps to know what characters the instruments represent, but the music is a bit too descriptive for my liking and gets tedious. The musical ‘Chinese’ references sound comical because they are pure cliché. But there are ample opportunities for various soloists in the orchestra and they execute their solos well.

After this not wholly satisfying symphonic poem, we were treated to two short Russian folksongs sung by the Hallé Choir. The reason being that these songs are quoted in The Firebird. This was followed by the third version of the suite (1945) which has some added extras but also boasts a tighter orchestration and a stripped-down orchestra. Today the Firebird doesn’t sound as exotic (the eight-note diminished scale) as it originally did, but the magic of this music is that it hasn’t dated in any way. Surely this music appeals to anyone (?)almost everywhere,  and particularly when it is performed so well. The soothing horn solo that signals the end of the berceuse and the start of the vibrant finale summed up perfectly, in 40 seconds or so, why the Hallé at the moment is such a wonderful orchestra that doesn’t seem to be able to set a (dance) foot wrong. I can’t recall that I have heard The Firebird performed better anywhere and this is a Prom I will revisit in the BBC Prom archive.

The Marktkirche in Halle and the Händel statue seen from behind (lower left). Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

SAMSON AT HÄNDEL FESTSPIELE HALLE

Sunday 27 may 2018, Handel Festival Halle

The late-Gothic Ulrichskirche in Halle (Saale) has been a concert hall since the 1970s and the massive concert organ is now a bit of a feature. It is not old, but if you visit the iconic Marktkirche you can during the Händel festival in June on a daily basis hear the original Reichel organ in action. This is the very organ that Händel played in his youth. J.S.Bach also almost certainly had a go on it. Today the sound is as splendid as ever.

The famous Reichel organ in the Marktkirche in Halle. G.F. Händel played on it in his youth. Altar painting by Cranach's workshop. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The famous Reichel organ in the Marktkirche in Halle. G.F. Händel played on it in his youth. Altar painting by Cranach’s workshop. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Only a little over a month after having composed The Messiah in September 1741, Handel turned his hand to the oratorio Samson. This was an incredible feat, considering that the work is nearly 3 ½ hours long. After finishing Samson Handel left for Dublin, but he returned to London to revise the work and in February 1743 it had its premier at Covent Garden.

The Scottish Dunedin Consort have so far made critically acclaimed recordings of Handel’s The Messiah, Acis & Galatea and Esther, all conducted by their music director John Butt. They are planning to release a recording of Samson in the not too distant future. This was to be my maiden Samson and I couldn’t have wished for a better qualified ensemble.

The Ulrichskirche also seemed a perfect venue for an oratorio with a biblical story. But Handel didn’t intend his oratoria to be religious, they were simply operas on a sacred subject.

Samson includes two famous arias: ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ and ‘Total eclipse’. It helps that the story about Samson and Delilah is  well-known and not as complicated and convoluted as Handel’s opera Berenice (see https://acge.net/handel-festspiele/). The libretto by Newburgh Hamilton was a bit of a cut and paste job. The main source is John Milton’s drama Samson Agonistes, rather than the Book of Judges (which features the ‘original’ story). There are also quotes from many poems and odes by Milton, as well as bits and pieces from the Book of Psalms. But the story remains rather straightforward and sets the Israelites against the Philistines, the worshippers of false gods. This is where Mendelssohn got some of his ideas for the oratorio Elijah. Every time Samson was performed in the 1740s and 50s it turned out to be a hit.

Dunedin Consort in Halle's Ulrichskirche, which foundations were laid by the Servite friars in 1339
Dunedin Consort in Halle’s Ulrichskirche, which foundations were laid by the Servite friars in 1339. photo:Thomas Ziegler

We meet Samson in Gaza where he has been imprisoned after he has had a severe haircut and his eyes gouged out. No wonder he is bewailing his fate. It helps to know that John Milton was blind and Handel’s eyesight was beginning to fail when he composed Samson. Previously his title roles were mainly written for castrati but Samson, being a man’s man, was created for a tenor.

In this concert performance tenor Joshua Ellicott (Samson) was giving it his best shot, but in the first act it seemed that there simply weren’t enough memorable moments – apart from the aria ‘Total eclipse! – No sun, no moon!’. The plot is very static to begin with and the singers were in the opening act, with the exception of Ellicott, focusing a little bit too much on just singing. I know, this was a concert performance, but even so I could have done with a bit more interaction between the soloists. I respect that John Butt probably wants to perform the whole oratorio uncut, but in a live performance it is an unwise idea.

Jessica Dandy (Micah) is a great talent with a wonderful contralto. The role of Samson’s friend Micah was originally sang by a woman, but today a countertenor usually sings the part. Dandy placed her score on a big music stand and thereby put up an invisible barrier between herself and the audience. Her voice sounded at times underpowered and she could seem more absorbed by the music than connecting with the audience (or at least with me). I repeat, her voice is very attractive, warm and glowing like burnished bronze and with some more guidance she could become a top Handel interpreter.

Sophie Bevan (nearest to the viewer) shines as Dalila in Handel's Samson. photo; Thomas Ziegler
Sophie Bevan (nearest to the viewer) shines as Dalila in Handel’s Samson. photo; Thomas Ziegler

The soprano Sophie Bevan knows the tricks of the trade and never puts her score on the stand. She wasn’t afraid to immerse herself in the role of the two-faced Philistine Dalila. I did every now and then get that feeling, and you only get rarely in the concerts, that she was singing to me personally. Joshua Ellicott responded accordingly. Samson and Dalila’s heated exchange in the second act consequently became one of the highlights of the night. I also want to single out the bass Matthew Brook (Manoa). Samson’s father is by no means an essential character (and could be cut by at least a third) but Brook  squeezed every bit of tenderness out of the role that you could wish for. The nine soloists also doubled as chorus of Israelites, Philistines and Virgins.

Handel scored Samson for a large orchestra and there was some particularly brilliant individual playing. The solo trumpet in ‘Awake the trumpet’s lofty sound’ and ‘Let the bright seraphim’ was outstanding. Butt directed from the harpsichord, but much of the time he was standing while at the same time playing the keyboard. He kept the pacing fairly crisp and was not tempted to speed too much in the final act. Dunedin Consort is Scotland’s finest when it comes to Handel and Bach, but sometimes they perhaps need to be less of a slave to the material. My advice is once more: omit parts of the ponderous first act!

Dunedin Consort will perform Samson at the Edinburgh Festival

https://www.dunedin-consort.org.uk/diary/handels-samson-2/

Joyce DiDonato with il pomo d'oro at the Händel Festspiele

WAR AND PEACE IN HALLE, DIDONATO WINS

Händel Festspiele Halle 2018,  26 May, 2018 Georg-Friedrich Händel Halle

Correct me if I am wrong, but surely the Kansas-born mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is our generation’s biggest opera diva. On top of that a prima donna who doesn’t put on any airs. The opposite is true. She gives a lot of time to good causes and is genuinely interested in working with young singers. She also believes that “Art is a valiant path to peace”. But I struggle to conceal my cynicism when the audience is handed a Hallmark invitation card  at the entrance of the concert hall in Halle with a personal greeting from DiDonato. It contains  a few thoughts about discord and harmony and the belief that art unifies.  And then she poses a question which she hopes that we find time to answer and post in the box provided for that purpose : “…in the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?’ I have to confess that I didn’t fill in an answer. I let DiDonato’s singing do the talking.

On her whirlwind tour to two cities in the former East Germany DiDonato also found time to pick up a couple of awards. Halle is Handel’s birthplace and DiDonato, who is the composer’s foremost interpreter in the US, was given the town’s prestigious Händel-Preis. This price doesn’t include a remuneration, it is simply a mark of distinction. Two days later DiDonato appeared in Dresden (which lies 130 km further east), where another splendid music festival is taking place simultaneously as the Handel festival . The Glashütte Original MusikFestspielPreis (offered by a local watchmaker) does come with a decent sum of money, € 25,000. DiDonato decided to donate the prize money to El Sistema Greece, an organisation that provides regular music education for children who live in refugee camps in Hellas (Greece).

Yes, proof, if needed, that DiDonato is not only an internationally acclaimed opera star, but also has plenty of heart.

DiDonato wants your response ©️Brooke Shaden
DiDonato wants your response ©️Brooke Shaden

The modern Georg-Friedrich-Händel Halle in Halle rarely gets used during the festival (see also my previous blog from the festival). Its capacity is greater than the audience numbers that most of the Händel festival concerts and performances attract. Joyce DiDonato and Il pomo d’oro have no problem filling the large concert and congress hall. People fly from all over the world to see DiDonato perform.

When the audience enters the auditorium the artist is already on stage, albeit in the shadows upstage left and therefore many audience members don’t spot her straight away. She is dressed in clobber designed by Vivienne Westwood but not as heavily made up as she is on the cover of the CD ‘In War and Peace, harmony through music’(2016). Clearly visible in the foreground, and naked from the waist up, sits a dancer on the floor, face down. A low hum can be heard through the sound system. This sets the serious and solemn mood of the concert. Unfortunately the audience starts to clap when the orchestra enters and that upsets the momentum temporarily. DiDonato has together with the film director Ralf Pleger created a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk in which voice, music, dance, costumes and lighting design are meant to come together. I have my doubts about the necessity of this concept. If DiDonato was a lesser singer I would perhaps welcome this approach, but I ‘d rather concentrate on her voice and watch the excellent orchestra than be distracted by a lone dancer and the occasional flickering lighting effects.

The recording of ‘In War and Peace’ features even (out of fifteen arias)  by Handel. In this concert she presented in total nine arias and a song (by Richard Strauss and not featured on the album). Six were composed by Handel.

The first half of the concert concentrated on five different heroines who are embroiled in deadly conflicts. The arias all deal in one way or another with war.

In the opening DiDonato flung herself into ‘Scenes of horror, scenes of woe’ aria from Handel’s oratorio Jephtha. The audience luckily cottoned on pretty quickly to the fact that they were not meant to clap after every song. There was a superb , slowly intensifying rendition of Henry Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’. The mezzo-soprano turned this lament a few years ago into a tribute to victims of intolerance and injustice when she performed it in The Stonewall Inn, the famous gay bar in Greenwich Village.

Sitting on the stage she finished the first half of the concert with a very fine, pianissimo and lentissimo rendition of ‘Lascia, ch’io pianga mia cruda sorte’ (from the opera Rinaldo).

DiDonato can create magic out of thin air ©️Brooke Shaden
DiDonato can create magic out of thin air ©️Brooke Shaden

Throughout the concert Il pomo d’oro performed a number of instrumentals to allow DiDonato’s voice some rest in between arias. This was an opportunity for the orchestra (and the dancer) to shine. Il pomo d’oro play on period instruments and they mainly specialise in opera. Emilio de Cavalieri considered that his work Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo (1600) was the very first opera and that was reason enough for the ensemble to give us the sinfonia from that work.

The young Russian Maxim Emelyanychev, who next year will become the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal conductor, put Il pomo d’oro through its paces. Maxim conducts with gusto, occasionally jumping up from his harpsichord to stress a bar, a note here and there.. He also turned out to be very adept at playing the cornetto. An even bigger surprise came in the second half when Anna Fusek, one of the second violinists, got up from her seat to join DiDonato downstage. Fusek proceeded to play the tricky soprano flute solo in Handel’s charming aria Augelletti (Little birds, you who sing, Little zephyrs, you who breathe) from Rinaldo!

Joyce DiDonato doing her best Stevie Nicks impression ©️Brooke Shaden
Joyce DiDonato doing her best Stevie Nicks impression ©️Brooke Shaden

in the second half of the concert DiDonato returns barfoot. The second half is supposedly devoted to peace, but Purcell’s ‘They tell us that you mighty powers above’ (from The Indian Queen) is sung by the Inca Princess Orazia while she is waiting to be put to death together with her lover, the Aztec Montezuma. DiDonato and the orchestra perform this piece at speed as if there is no time to lose for contemplation. It is rather odd that on her album this aria is featured in the War section. There is more Handel with the virtuous Susanna bathing naked in ‘Crystal streams in murmurs flowing’ (from the oratorio Susanna). But this peaceful scene will after this aria be disturbed when the two dirty old men, that have perved on her, reveal themselves and demand sex.

DiDonato’s encore is Handel’s well-known Dopo Notte which is not included on the War and Peace album. But after a concert with much darkness and turmoil it is wholly appropriate to end on a positive note. because indeed: Dopo notte, attra e funesta, splende in ciel piu vago il sole (After night, dark and mournful, the sun shines more radiantly).

Svitlana Slyvia (Selene), Filippo Mineccia (Demetrio) get ready to share a selfie with the Halle audience.

BERENICE FINALLY CONQUERS HÄNDEL FESTSPIELE

The Handel festival has taken place on an annual basis in the composer’s birthplace Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, since 1952. This year’s premiere of the original Italian version of the opera Berenice means that all of Georg Friedrich Händel’s 42 operas have been staged in Halle, which is a feat that no other city can boast (according to the festival organisers). This Handel festival (there are two others in Germany)  features many local productions, but this year some of the baroque genre’s most celebrated singers are visiting Halle : Joyce DiDonato, Magdalena Kožená, Nathalie Stutzmann and Max Emanuel Cencic are among the solo performers.

An anti-German clique, absurdly with the support of the Prince of Wales (an Hanoverian!), started the Opera of the Nobility company in London. Händel’s company, the Royal Academy of Music, couldn’t compete with the star-studded casts that the upstarts presented. This caused Handel a lot of stress and a month before the premiere of Berenice, Regina d’Egitto in 1737 the composer suffered a mild stroke or possibly even a heart attack. This meant that he neither conducted or attended the premiere of the new work. It is often reported that the opera was a failure with the public but there is no actual evidence of that. But it is a fact that the work until recently was rarely performed and was dismissed by most experts. The minuet from the overture continued to be popular in versions for different instruments.  eleven years later Handel included the sinfonia from the third act in the overture to the famous Music for the Royal Fireworks.

 Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) is slumming it
Svitlana Slyvia (Selene) is slumming it © Anna Kolata

The subject of this opera seria in three acts is the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra Berenice III. The libretto is only very vaguely based on historical facts. Rome, which rules over Egypt, wants Berenice for political reasons to marry her stepson Alessandro, who has actually fallen in love with her. The queen on the other hand loves Demetrio, but he is already romantically involved with her sister Selene. And to complicate it all there is the Egyptian prince Arsace who is in love with Selene. What ensues is a classic tale of thwarted romances and erotic encounters.

Berenice doesn’t display the musical fireworks that you can find in some other Händel operas and by his standards it is a fairly restrained piece. In that sense this  exuberant staging at the Halle Opera seems to suggests the opposite.

The Berenice possie get ready for a groupfie
The Berenice possie get ready for a groupfie © Anna Kolata

Director Jochen Biganzoli sets the action firmly in today’s self(ie)-obsessed world. One can see parallels with vainglorious circles during the Baroque period, but this production at times works a little bit too hard at dragging the plot into modern times. The costumes are a mixture of contemporary and historic but the set is modern. Handel’s operas and oratorio have a tendency of becoming rather static and this is where the revolving stage comes to  good use, particularly when it turns fast like a carousel with the characters chasing after each other through adjacent rooms. But the backdrop, which projects a mixture of various news media updates and messages sent in various forms between the characters, is in the long run a terribly distracting concept. It works for half an hour and then it gets tedious. Biganzoli charges the piece with narcissist and voyeuristic aspects and he is right in stressing sex as a political weapon

If you want to stay with the spirit of this opera it is closer to the Age of Enlightenment than our modern media age. But Biganzoli’s argument for a total visual overhaul of the plot is, all told, pretty successful.

With the risk of sounding patronising I was surprised by the high standard of some of the Halle Opera ensemble’s own singers. The soprano Romelia Lichtenstein might be slightly too old for the role of  queen Berenice but her voice shows no signs of aging. She was splendidly furious in the Traditore, traditore aria and effortlessly nailed the bravura aria Chi t’intende which ends up as a duet between queen and the oboe. It was the production’s highlight and most tender moment when Romelia, dangling her legs in the orchestra pit, sat next to the standing (and rather brilliant) oboist. It all ended comically with the pair sharing a selfie.

Ki-Hyun Park (Aristobolo) and the burlesque dancers
Ki-Hyun Park (Aristobolo) and the burlesque dancers do their thing. © Anna Kolata

Berenice’s sister Selene is turned into a comical character with a strong sex drive. The Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Svitlana Slyvia handles all that is thrown at her by the director with aplomb (including the heavily tattooed look) and it could easily have become a 3D printout of a cutout cardboard, but Slyvia manages to give the role plenty of depth. This in-house production features a number of guest stars. Demetrio is the most multi-facetted male character: he plots against Berenice, together with her younger sister Selene, while at the same time pretending to be the queen’s lover. The Italian countertenor Filippo Mineccia portrays the  jealousy and lust for vengeance in the Su Megera, tesifone, aletto! aria very well. Demetrio’s Si, tra i ceppi aria is easily the opera’s most recognisable and here Mineccia didn’t let us down either. His rather ridiculous cool-lover-man act was greatly helped by his silly Kenny G perm wig.

I expect in the near future to hear more from Samuel Mariño, the young Venezuelan countertenor with a soprano voice. He more or less stole the show and got the biggest and longest applause at the end. His lovelorn Alessandro walked around with a naive smile while  clinging on to a giant coke with a straw. It was almost inevitable that this little-boy-lost would win the queen’s hand in the end. In the voice department  Mariño could still learn a trick or two, but he already has a remarkably assured stage presence and is still fairly inexperienced.

Conductor Jörg Halubeck doesn’t let the, at times frantic, action on stage affect the music and he keeps the very competent Handelfestspielorchester der Staatskapelle Halle in check. Handel’s arrangement was only for strings, oboes and basso continuo (in this case a harpsichord) and why Halubeck (?) deemed it necessary to add some modern style percussive effects to the score, is not clear. The score is quite descriptive as it is and  I think it suffices that  mobile ringtones played on harpsichord and other instruments have been added for comical effect.

But I do recommend you catching this production, particularly with this cast in place.

There will be two more performances during the Händel festival: June 2 and 7 at the Oper Halle.

FINLAND CELEBRATES ITS CENTENARY

The BBC Symphony Orchestra with its Finnish chief conductor Sakari Oramo at the helm will perform an all-Sibelius programme at the Barbican hall in London on the 6th of December. This is a significant date for a small state that on this very day celebrates 100 years of independence.

Finland had been a part of Russia since 1809 and had for a long time benefited from a fair amount of autonomy.  The Finns were  for almost 90 years quite content with the Russian domination, but during the latter part of the reign of Emperor Nicholas II (yes, the Tsar was called Emperor in Finland), the russification programme of the Grand Duchy intensified.
The imminent defeat of the Russians during the First World War opened up an opportunity for complete secession from the union. After the Bolsheviks, in November 1917, had seized power in Petrograd, the Finnish parliament moved very quickly. There was real danger of a red revolution and a general strike was called in Finland. Luckily parliament managed to gain some measure of control.
On 4 December, while the ‘red’ revolutionary forces were staging protests outside the Senate,  a draft was submitted to Parliament. Two days later a fairly basic declaration of independence was added to the draft.  The general reaction from the public was lukewarm. There were no big celebrations on 6 December 1917.
Lenin recognised the sovereignty of Finland on New Year’s Eve and most other major countries followed suit. Great Britain and the United States, on the other hand, were more cautious and only after much lobbying did they give their recognition in the spring of 1919.

The Finnish Civil War, which was an extremely bloody affair, broke out in January 1918. The true scale of the horrors committed by both the ‘Reds‘ and the ‘Whites‘ led to much bitterness, which unfortunately still lingers on, unresolved, in some people’s minds.  Let us hope that the centenary celebrations will finally put an end to the old divisions.

he BBC SO conducted by Sakari Oramo with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on piano perform Schmitt: symphony No.2, Franck: Symphonic Variations, Ravel: Piano Concerto for the left hand, Sibelius: Symphony No.3 in the Barbican Hall on Friday, 27 October 2017. Photo by Mark Allan/BBC
The BBC SO conducted by Sakari Oramo with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on piano perform  Ravel: Piano Concerto for the left hand and bent leg,  27 October 2017.
Photo by Mark Allan/BBC

The Brits have more than paid back for their initial reluctance to recognise Finland’s independence. Many orchestras have, or have had, Finnish chief or principal conductors over the years.  Paavo Berglund and Osmo Vänskä  have come and gone, but Esa-Pekka Salonen, (Philharmonia Orchestra), John Storgårds (chief guest conductor with BBC Phil) and Sakari Oramo are still very much active in this country.
Tonight’s programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oramo opens with Sibelius’ Press Celebrations Music, written in 1899 as a quiet protest to the russification and censorship that was starting to affect Finnish culture. The original music was not published until almost a centenary after the first performance.  This will be the UK premiere of the work. The last movements of this  partly reconstructed and quite rarely performed suite  were some months later reworked by Sibelius and became the now well known tone poem, Finlandia.
You can find more on the history of the Press Celebrations Music here: http://www.sibelius.fi/english/musiikki/nayttamo_sanoma.htm

The very talented Guy Johnston, former BBC Young Musician of the Year,  takes the solo part in Cantique and Devotion for cello and orchestra, 1914-15. This work can either be played by a solo violin or cello with orchestra (small or large) and it has been suggested that it originally may have been intended as church music.  Sibelius composed it while he was stuck in Finland, because of the war, and in dire need of money. But it is by no means a quickly churned out work to satisfy his publisher. The concert ends with Sibelius’ Symphony No.1 in the version first performed in Berlin in 1900. These are the original programmatic titles for the movements:
I          A cold, cold wind is blowing from the sea.
II        The pine of the North is dreaming of the palm of the South.
III       A Winter’s Tale.
IV      Jorma’s heaven.

It is difficult to hear any of these suggestive titles in the final work – but I think we can all agree that it  is a rousing, fiery and romantic work showing clear influences from Tchaikovsky and Berlioz. If you want to read some nationalistic message into it, you may.

“The  BBC Symphony Orchestra has a tremendously rich Sibelius tradition,” notes Sakari Oramo. “They made one of the great early Sibelius recordings with their live performance of his Seventh Symphony in 1933 under Koussevitzky and have retained a deep collective understanding of the composer’s music. I look forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence with them.”

The original inspiration for von Wright's Fighting Capercailles (1882) by Audubon Altright
The original inspiration for von Wright’s Fighting Capercailles (1882) by Audubon Altright

You can hear  this concert live on the BBC Radio 3 and shortly after the broadcast it can be downloaded on the website.

Ateneul Roman or the Romanian Athenaeum, a gem of a concert hall. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

A MUSIC JEWEL IN BUCHAREST

Bucharest is not a place you fall in love with straight away. It might take a few days. Or, as in my case, a return visit.

Seventy years ago the monarchy was abolished and instead a Romanian People’s Republic was proclaimed. 43 years later the first democratic elections were held in Romania. The communist era had a devastating effect on Bucharest and many other cities and villages.  Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship  (1965-’89) initially could count on tacit support from the West. But as the leader’s policies  became more and more outlandish  and the secret police secured an iron grip on every aspect of society,  it seemed only a matter of time before something had to give. Ceaușescu ordered the destruction of thousands of villages and flattened whole neighbourhoods in Bucharest, replacing them with soulless blocks of flats and offices. It will take at least another generation before the ugliest edifices have been pulled down. Meanwhile they have a function in housing people and gathering pollution.

There is one fantastic exception from the communist era that deserves to be preserved: the Palace of Parliament, Ceaușescu’s crazy project that was started in 1984 and never finished. There may be no administrative buildings (technically it should not be classified as a palace, as it has no bedrooms) on you bucket list, but this has to be seen to be believed. There are more than 3000 rooms, taking up 330.000 sq. metres. Only the Pentagon is bigger. But only a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex could have ordered a building like  Palatul Parlamentului. Yes, Nicolae and his horror of a wife both were very involved in the design and many of the details. Book the full tour and take some time to contemplate the  views from the balcony. This could be the HQ of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World.

There are a number of other places in Bucharest that are well worth a visit. No, I am not very keen on the Historic Centre and the Old Princely Court area with all its restaurants and bars. The streets are narrow and during the summer months the terraces take up half the space. During the weekend the throng of tourists and locals pushing through this area I find unbearable.

to survive on éclairs alone, is possible in Bucharest.Photo;Albert Ehrnrooth
to survive on éclairs alone, is possible in Bucharest. Photo; Albert Ehrnrooth

For a more relaxed atmosphere I recommend the area between the Romanian Athenaeum and Bulevardul General Gheorghe Magheru. Here you will find several good restaurants serving ‘honest’ Romanian food (La Mama is a good example).

I do have a soft spot for the National Art Museum which used to be a ‘real’ Royal Palace. It houses the country’s largest art collection in two separate galleries. I particularly recommend the medieval collection. The 19th century palace, with a 1930s façade stuck on to it, looks out over the Revolution Square. Cross the busy Calea Victoriei, walk past the Rebirth Memorial without reflecting too much on the quality of the work and pause a moment in front of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building. This is where more than 100, 000 Romanians in December 1989 were forced to listen to, what turned out to be, Ceaușescu’s very last speech. The masses quickly became unruly and the leader was completely taken by surprise by the people’s loud protestations. It all happened on live television. Nicolae and his wife Elena had to withdraw while the police and the military that night mowed down more than 1000 demonstrators. The next day the dictator again tried to address the crowd but was jeered and fled in a helicopter with his wife. Four days later they were executed after an unanimous and anonymous court decision.

The Rebirth memorial (olive on a stick) and the Central Committee Communist Party building where Ceausescu held his final speech. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The Rebirth Memorial (olive on a stick) and the Central Committee Communist Party building where Ceausescu held his final speech. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

To the west of the Interior Ministry (the former Central Committee building) you will find the very impressive Romanian Athenaeum (1888), which probably is Bucharest’s finest building. Reading about it, I get the impression that it was designed by a whole host of architects and advisers. But the Frenchman Albert Galleron gets the final credit. A number of different styles have been incorporated for good measure. Amazingly it is a very good mix. The façade with its lean ionic columns supporting the pediment suggests Greek temple, the dome says baroque and the circular auditorium seems to indicate that we are in a circus. This is Romania’s premier concert hall. The impressive marble entrance hall is spacious and palatial. Four spiral staircases made of Carrara marble lead up to the concert hall on the first floor. There is seating for nearly 900 people and the acoustics are surprisingly good for this slightly odd concert space. The richly decorated vaulted ceiling and the monumental fresco on the circular wall certainly will keep you occupied should the performance not capture your imagination. The fresco (1933), relating the history of Romanian peoples in 25 painted scenes, is hardly a masterpiece, but certainly worth a few glances during a concert. The fresco starts with the Romans and the Dacians reminding us of the roots and rich heritage of the Romanians. The 75 metres long and 3 metres high painting ens with the unification of the Romanians.

During the biennial Enescu festival this is definitely my favourite concert venue. There is much to be said for a visually attractive venue . It enhances the musical experience.

In Bucharest stunning buildings are few and far between, but the Ateneul Roman is a gem and a gift to all the people who are looking for a holistic concert experience.

 

Julius Rachlin rips it up with Chailly and his Filarmonica band providing the accompaniment. Foto Alex Damian

A GRANDIOSE CLASSICAL MUSIC FEST IN BUCHAREST

The biennial Enescu festival is a classical music fest with a difference. In my previous blog I have tried to explain why it is so unique and absurdly grandiose. In that sense it is reminiscent of the Palatul Parlamentului ( Ceaușescu’s monstrous monument to megalomania). Of course I realise that it is very unfair to compare the largely empty Palace of Parliament with the very busy and ambitious Enescu Festival. The former is a pipe dream on an unbelievable scale, completely at odds with the poor state of the country (during the communist era). The Enescu festival is, when it comes to the quality of the performers, an absolute dream. If this event would be organised in London or New York people would be queuing for returns for hours.  In Bucharest they almost seem to take it for granted that you can sometimes hear three top orchestras and soloists a day within an area of 500 m2.

The orchestras and soloists that are invited to the festival are all requested to play a piece composed by the man who lent his name to the event. It is a clever concept which means that the visiting symphony and chamber orchestras usually also perform that same work in their home country. It guarantees in a way that Enescu’s works every other year get some extra exposure around the world. In my previous blog I already explained that the quota of world famous names is extremely high. One reason that the Romanians manage to attract so many stars might be that the festival takes place in September, just after the plethora of summer festivals have finished and just before the new concert season kicks off properly.

I flew in on a Friday afternoon to Otopeni and the drive into the historic centre took about half an hour. I was sharing transport with a Canadian-Iranian percussionist who I was to see in action the next day. This was my second visit to Bucharest so I knew what to expect. There is a distinct lack of glamour and charm, but most aspects of the actual Festival function perfectly. If you base yourself in the centre of town somewhere around Revolution Square (Piața Revoluției) you will have no problem walking to all the four main venues where concerts take place.

Some street art in Bucharest clearly inspired by Banksy's Naked Man. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Some street art in Bucharest clearly inspired by Banksy’s Naked Man. Photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Most of the concerts featuring symphony orchestras are held at the Sala Palatului which is an ugly remnant from the heydays of communism built in1960. It was built as a conference centre but this century is has mainly been used as a concert hall. The acoustics are, not surprisingly, pretty appalling but some improvements have been made over the years and the situation is now passable. Some years ago the number of seats were cut from 4000 to 3000. One of the problems is that the stage and the hall are far too wide, but as long as you can get a seat in the centre stalls or up in centre circle the levels are reasonably balanced.

The Filarmonica della Scala led by their principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly dealt with this acoustic problem by fielding a massive orchestra. They started off with their ‘obligatory’ Enescu piece, in this case one of the composer’s most performed works, Rhapsody no.2 in D major op.11 (1901). The first Rhapsody is heard more often because it is ebullient, danceable, folky and very easy on the ear. The second rhapsody has a more reflective character. Its point of departure is a popular ballad which after a slow and quiet development moves into a contrapuntal stage while borrowing from another folksong. Past the halfway mark there are signs of increased activity but in the end we return to the quietness of the countryside. This was all handled with poise by Chailly and the Filarmonica, but I must conclude (and I own an early Romanian interpretation of the work) that this piece doesn’t grip me. I don’t consider it to be one of Enescu’s most interesting works.

Jukian Rachlin playing The Bartok Viola Concerto with Chailly and Filarmonica della Scala. Photo: Alex Damian
Jukian Rachlin playing The Bartok Viola Concerto with Chailly and Filarmonica della Scala. Photo: Alex Damian

It has been pointed out to me that Béla Bartók is as Romanian as he is Hungarian. The town in the Banat region where he grew up became part of Romania in 1920, so many decades after he moved away (make of that what you like). Bartok’s viola concert, SZ 120, BB128 had not been finished by the composer when he died of leukemia in 1945. It was completed by his friend Tibor Serly but there are also a couple of other editions of the work. Which one was presented at this concert wasn’t made clear. The festival’s programme leaflets are, how shall I put it?,  severely spartan.

The Lithuanian violinist Julian Rachlin had a music stand in front of him with some notes but he was perfectly prepared and there was no sign of uncertainty. Maybe he had written out third movement cadenza This is a work with moments of great agitation and difficulty. The odd folk tune makes an appearance ( a Scottish one is heard in the 3rd movement rondo)and the principal bassoonist gets a starring role in the 2nd movement. The viola concert contrasted with and was at the same time compatible to the earlier Enescu piece. Rachlin and Chailly had it all under control and it is interesting to consider that the concerto was composed at the same time as the 3rd piano concerto (which was the last work he finished).

But for me the highlight was Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome.The  cascading fountains were presented first and this rendition came close to picture postcard perfection with boosted colours. The Fountains of Rome start very quietly and then gradually work their way up to pompousness. The Pines are even more fun with playing children, ghouly catacomb music, offstage trumpet and flugelhorns (or buccines), an organ, a singing nightingale and finally a whole legion of Romans marching along Via Appia. The orchestra and Chailly clearly cherished this kind of theatricality and being at the centre of the action on stage, instead of down in the pit at La Scala, made for some very precise playing. To top it all we were rewarded with a rousing encore. The overture to La Forza del Destino brought a smile on the faces of quite a few of the musicians and the roar of the audience afterwards even took the performers and conductor by surprise.