Robert Schumann died in a lunatic asylum on 29th July 1856. On 29th July 2017, at Prom 20, British pianist Stephen Hough gave a performance of a work suffused with melancholy and darkness, the composer Johannes Brahms’ response to the tragedy of Schumann’s mental illness.

According to Brahms’ friend and colleague Joseph Joachim, who conducted the première of the First Piano Concerto in Hanover in 1856, the work reflects Brahms’ emotions on hearing Schumann, his artistic patron and musical father figure, had attempted suicide in the Rhine. The concerto opens with a ferociously portentous drum roll and darkly-hued, angst-ridden orchestral tutti, and the entire first movement charts a terrain of pain and instability, in which orchestra and piano seem at odds, engaged in a battle of drama and rhetoric. Given that this is the work of a young composer “without his beard” (Stephen Hough), the darkness and profundity of the First Concerto is shocking, its message visceral and emotionally charged. It flames with intensity and rhetoric.

Read the full review here

This weekend I headed off to “sarf-east” London for a rather unusual Prom featuring music by American minimalist composer Steve Reich who is 80 this year….

For those of us more used to the highly refined atmosphere of London’s finest chamber music venue, a brutalist concrete lump with low ceilings and unremittingly grey walls cannot possibly be a good place to hear music, whatever the genre. The acoustic should be appalling, a brisk wind slices through the performance space, riffling music, which is pegged to the music stands to stop it blowing away, and the music is regularly interrupted by rattling trains and the sounds of the street below….

Read my full review here

the venue
Multistory Orchestra conducted by Christopher Stark
part of the Derek Jarman garden at the Bold Tendencies multi-storey carpark
leaving the carpark after the concert

The Proms – London’s annual eight week festival of (mostly) classical music – is over for another year, despatched with the traditional Last Night pomp and circumstance and noisy flag-waving enthusiasm.

This year I attended more Proms than at any other time during my adulthood, and out of the 10 I attended, I reviewed 6 concerts. I also deliberately chose Proms outside my usual “comfort zone” of piano music and this gave me the opportunity to experience some truly wondrous orchestral music including Messiaen’s joyful and ecstatic Turangalila Symphonie, two Sibelius symphonies, an all-Brahms Prom (with the splendid Marin Alsop) and a superb Schubert C major Symphony with Bernard Haitink. As a pianist who (mostly) plays music conceived with orchestral textures in mind (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert), to see and hear live orchestral music was extremely instructive. Aside from that, the infectious atmosphere and good-humour of the Proms, and going with a companion or companions to each concert, undoubtedly contributed to my enjoyment.

Every spring, when the Proms season is announced there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and this year was no different. In fact, if anything the anxious and dissenting voices were louder than usual because with the BBC Charter up for review, the BBC’s activities under extreme scrutiny by the Conservative government, and a general antipathy towards classical music, also on the part of this government, it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. As usual there were howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” (with concerts such as the Radio One Pete Tong “Ibiza” Prom or the Sherlock Prom), or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too little coverage on BBC television – and so on. The adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of time” is particularly apt for the Proms, but each season the Proms has a pretty good go at doing this – and usually gets it just about right, in my opinion. The Proms enjoy a pre-eminent position as a national treasure, and for every detractor there are hundreds of others vociferously standing up for them (myself included). That the Proms attract such noisy debate every year is surely a good thing, and a sign of their enduring importance in our national cultural landscape.

When the Proms were originally conceived, by Robert Newman (not Henry Wood as many people assume), the intention was to bring classical music to a wider audience by presenting “easy” pieces and gradually introducing more challenging repertoire. They were called “Promenade” concerts because a large part of the seating area at Queens Hall, their first home, had no seats and so patrons had to stand during performances. Patrons were also allowed to eat, drink and smoke in the auditorium, though were requested not to strike matches during the quiet passages. The first Promenade concert programmes were lengthy affairs, often lasting three hours and certainly challenged the audience with Beethoven and Wagner nights, and new works which were called “novelties”.

The spirit of the original Proms continues today, with modern and contemporary music and new commissions being presented alongside more familiar repertoire, and “themed” concerts: this year, for example, solo Bach in separate concerts featuring works for violin, cello and keyboard (Andras Schiff’s magical performance of the ‘Goldberg Variations’). There were “novelties” too, such as all five Prokofiev piano concertos in a single concert: for some this was too much Prokofiev in one night, or nothing more than an “ego trip” for conductor Valery Gergiev; but for others (myself included) it was an extraordinarily immersive experience, with fine pianism on display from Daniil Trifonov, his teacher Sergey Babayan, and Arcadi Volodos. As for the “gimmicks”, these were largely successful and very popular (and let’s just pause here to recall the fuss and eye-pulling that erupted the first year the John Wilson Orchestra performed at the Proms – and how they are now an integral part of the festival, ever popular and always attracting a full house).

Nowhere else can one enjoy such an international range of artists: leading orchestras, and celebrated conductors and artists from all around the world converge on the Proms between July and September, and this year there have been fine performances by established artists such as YoYo Ma, Andras Schiff, Bryn Terfel, Mitsuko Uchida and Daniel Barenboim, as well as the younger generation of performers, including Martin James Bartlett, Nicola Benedetti and Benjamin Grosvenor. In addition, in recent years there have been spin offs such as the excellent Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall, and Proms in the Park, as well as pre-concert talks and lectures, and Proms Extra programmes on television.

The Proms also remain affordable – you can Promenade for a fiver – and the more relaxed atmosphere means that classical music “newbies” are more likely to sample the Proms rather than a concert in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall. When I attended the all-Brahms Proms with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Marin Alsop, I shared a box with a family who had never been to the Proms before – and they loved it: the special Proms atmosphere, the music, the whole experience.

We’re very lucky to have the Proms and we should celebrate rather than criticise them. Of course not every concert is going to appeal to everyone, but for every person who enjoyed the Sherlock Prom or the Ibiza Prom, I can guarantee that there are countless others who have enjoyed total immersion in Sibelius or Bach, Brahms or Bruckner. And if the more “populist” Proms encourage people to explore classical music, then the Proms are definitely doing it right. Of course there’s more the Proms could do – more coverage of women composers, for example – but one hopes that the organisers and concert planners learn from past seasons, while looking at what other artists and orchestras are doing in order to move the great behemoth of the Proms forward each year. And as of this year, the Proms has a new director, David Pickard (formerly of Glyndebourne). Described as down-to-earth, enthusiastic and deeply musical, it will be interesting to see what developments and innovations he brings to the concerts.

I for one am already looking forward to next year’s season with interest and excitement

Concert planners, performers and even audiences often like to find a common thread which runs through a programme, and so Jeremy Denk’s Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall could be said to have darkness and light as its main focus, opening with Scriabin’s demonic “Black Mass” piano sonata and closing with Beethoven’s otherworldly Op.111. The middle section of this philosophical musical sandwich was Bartók’s Piano Sonata which offered a contrasting respite with its wit and humour.

This was Jeremy Denk’s debut recital at the BBC Proms (he performs with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall on Sunday 30th August), and he is a pianist I have been curious to hear live for some time. A musical thinker, I have enjoyed his articles on music and his blog on the life of the performing pianist.

Read my full review here
(Picture credit: Michael Wilson)

Prom 52 offered a fascinating musical journey with French organist Thierry Escaich, who juxtaposed the organ music of J.S. Bach with responses to it by Mendelssohn and Brahms, as well his own improvisations on themes by Bach.

Thierry Escaich © Guy Vivien

(Thierry Escaich © Guy Vivien)

Escaich is part of the grand French tradition of organ improvisation which dates back to the 19th century, and he succeeded another great French composer and organist at St Etienne du Mont, Maurice Duruflé. Escaich calls the art of improvisation “composition in real time” and in an interview for BBC Radio 3 explained that he can often improvise for 20 minutes during a Catholic mass “in Bach style, in Romantic style”. In discussing Mendelssohn, whose Organ Sonata in A major featured in this programme, Escaich described this music as Bach “with a little more romanticism”, and explained that in his own improvisations he adds his own personality to the music of Bach, while honouring Bach’s themes, textures and idioms. The end result is music which shines a new light on Bach’s original, while demonstrating the exciting range of possibilities offered by this genre.

Read my full review here

(photo credit: Paul Mitchell)

Prom 29 had a distinctly French flavour, featuring music by Ravel and Messiaen, two composers who idolized Mozart, whose music opened the evening. The concert was bookended by two works in which dance featured strongly, from Mozart’s elegant post-Baroque ballet sequence for Idomeneo to Ravel’s swirling, breathless portrait of the disintegration of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ravel also looked to Mozart’s piano concertos as a model for his own, and the vibrant, jazzy G major concerto formed the second part of the first half of the programme, performed by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Read my full review here