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Reviews

PROM 14: BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds (conductor), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Louis Lortie (piano)
25 Jul 2018

John Storgårds takes the BBC Philharmonic on a musical journey at the BBC Proms

Fascinating programming from the BBC Philharmonic under their Finnish Chief Guest Conductor, John Storgårds. The mix of vocal music, arrangements and multiple pieces per half felt like a flashback to the early days of the Proms, offering eclectic mixes of vocal and instrumental soloists.

PROM 14: BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds (conductor), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Louis Lortie (piano)

A review by Colin Clarke

Above: Elizabeth Watts

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

 

Just as there was a variety of composers, there was a variety of performance standards; to the extent that it did not take too much to guess where the rehearsal time had been spent. The Wagner Meistersinger Overture was a casualty in this regard, the legato articulation of the opening and the very soft-sticked timpani basically offering Wagnerian sludge. On the plus side, the BBC Philharmonic’s sound is deeper, more burnished in the lower registers these days, the eight double-basses a real presence, and there were plenty of excellent individual contributions, most notably the tuba (Christopher Evans) and, in fact, the brass section in general, but there was a somnambulistic aspect to the performance that seemed markedly against the spirit of the music.

The excellent soprano Elizabeth Watts proved something of a turning-point in the concert’s trajectory, bringing superb shaping to each of the four Schubert/Liszt songs. The meeting of Schubert with Liszt’s unmistakable voice in the orchestrations is fascinating, and the performances were vibrant. Capturing the dark, stormy energy of Die junge Nonne, D828, to perfection, the BBC Philharmonic provided the perfect backdrop to Watts’ rich, resonant voice. Watts’ diction here, and throughout, was exemplary, not a syllable getting eaten up by the vastness of the Albert Hall. Her voice is free, allowing her to convey peace as well as anger inNonne; and how strong, too, is her lower register. The famous Gretschen am Spinnrade (D118) opened with a tapestry of strings over which Watts spun the drama of the young girl’s infatuation. Schubert’s great gift for simplicity came to the fore in Lied der Mignon, D877/3 (which included a lovely solo cello contribution from Peter Dixon); Watt’s superbly free voice once more soared. One of the most famous of Schubert songs, Erlkönig, found Watts acting the various parts of father, son and Erlking physically as well as vocally, thinning her voice for the son; filling it for the Erlking (and how delightful are Liszt’s woodwind additions to “Du liebes Kind”).

The idea of contrast and variety in this concert was massively confirmed by including Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Symphony in One Movement of 1947-51, heard in its 1953 revision (in which Zimmermann cuts the organ part of the original). The piece began with an existential cry; forthcoming textures were vibrant with dark energy. The sureness of the performance indicated careful rehearsal, the angst-ridden march rhythms, laden, heavy, contrasted strongly with woodwind passages of Zimmermann meeting Mendelssohn in terms of lightness. Block chords were superbly balanced by the conductor. No easy piece to listen to (or play), this performance seemed to sum up what the Proms is all about, introducing music of huge value to large audiences.

The second half held two contrasting pieces. Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy arranged for piano and orchestra by Liszt rubbing shoulders with Sibelius’ miraculous, seeming stream-of-consciousness yet in fact exquisitely structured, Seventh Symphony. Louis Lortie was the fine soloist (playing a beautifully toned and prepared Bösendorfer) in a performance of the Schubert “Wanderer’ Fantasy of terrific verve. The violin semiquavers at he opening in the violins were supremely together, setting the tone for the orchestral discipline on evidence throughout the performance. Lortie was technically commanding throughout, but he also found just the right depth for the prayer-like opening to the slow movement. Ländler rhythms lilted beautifully from all. This was a wonderful performance of this rarely-heard arrangement (the last time it was heard at the Proms, for example, was 1986, with the great Jorge Bolet as soloist).

Finally, Sibelius’ fabulous one-movement Seventh Symphony of 1924. The BBC Philharmonic trombones were tasked with Sibelius’ potent, noble theme that recurs at salient points, and delivered with beautifully creamy tone and a well considered sense of balance. Consonances or near-consonances glowed from within, and Storgårds ensured a real sense of organic unfolding; more, even. The BBC Philharmonic perfectly captures Sibelius’ stark, sometimes forbidding, landscape. Monumental brass, light wind in the scherzo-like Vivacissimo and superbly together strings all contributed to this stunning performance, the crowning brass (the Elgarian term ‘nobilmente’ sprung to mind) glowing.

Quite a musical journey over the course of the evening, then; and quite right that the Sibelius should be its crowning glory.

Colin Clarke

PROM 14: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Overture; Schubert/Liszt: ‘Die junge Nonne’, ‘Gretschen am Spinnrade’, ‘Lied der Mignon’, ‘Erlkönig’; Zimmermann - Symphony in One Movement; Schubert/Liszt - Fantasy in C, ‘Wanderer’, D760; Sibelius - Symphony No.7

Royal Albert Hall, London; 24th July 2018.

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