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Todays series of proms marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the reformation concluded with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort performing Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion in its original liturgical context.

This isn't a new concept for the Dunedins: they released an excellent studio recording in 2013 which featured the same sequence of the pieces; a godsend when I was trying to puzzle out the identity of the organ piece preceeding the passion — it was Buxtehude's Prelude in F-sharp BuxWV146. In fact, the only really significant differences between the recorded version and tonight's performance, other than the expanded choral forces, was the decision to sing the congregational hymns in English — expecting an unprepared proms audience to sing in German was probably considered a little bit of a stretch — and Stephen Farr's addition of a muscular organ accompaniment to the final verse of Now thank we all our God to round the night off on a rousing note.

The performers were consistently excellent, with Nicholas Mulroy strikingly good as the evangelist and Matthew Brook, who I've raved about before, on fine, angry form as Jesus. The St John Passion, shorter and more intense than the contemplative St Matthew, makes a fine piece for the proms and the notion of getting the audience involved — John Butt apparently spent half an hour coaching them before the start of the performance — worked particularly well.

Another standout concert from the 2017 season.
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As part of the BBC's on-going commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his Ninety-Five Thesis on the door at Wittenberg, today's set of three proms formed a mini Reformation Day series. The first, an organ recital by William Whitehead and Robert Quinney, alternating Lutheran chorale preludes from Johann Sebastian Bach Orgelbüchlein with contemporary pieces setting hymns not included in Bach's little organ book.

The newer pieces started with Cheryl Frances-Hoad's prelude on Luther's hymn Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott — which one of the presenters describes somewhere as the rallying cry of the Reformation. The prelude starts with a slow, contemplative statement of the theme in a very Bachian registration with a gentle harmonisation in the pedals. The piece gradually changes as more complex harmonies are added in the middle voice, building as registrations change to end with a powerful fortissimo that is a world away from the opening bars.

The second new prelude features Jonathan Dove's version of the baptismal hymn, Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam. The piece begins with a restrained, shimmering accompaniment with glittering accents from the flute stops before the chorale theme enters, quietly at first in the middle voice, then stated again in the pedals at much greater volume, building through the rest of the to a loud final statement. It's a truly superb piece that sounds very, very English and different to Bach's take on the same chorale in Clavier-Übung III. It's also an tour-de-force for the Albert Hall's organ, showing its range from beautiful, subtle, quiet colours to commanding tutti.

The third new piece was a prelude by Daniel Saleeb on Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, followed by a toccata on the same theme. The piece starts with piano, uncertain harmonics, never quite straying into Messiaen territory but certainly skirting its borders, with interjections of the chorale theme in the upper voice. The toccata, a much showier take on the same material, starts very quiet but swells rapidly, with dramatic flourishes, before dropping away to finish on the quietest of notes.

These new pieces, interspersed with JS Bach's preludes were followed by Mendelssohn's third organ sonata and Samuel Sebastian Wesley's duet, Prelude to the Grand Organ Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, which appropriately enough, preceded Bach's vast triple themed fugue in E-flat major from Clavier-Übung III, the companion to the prelude that opened the program.
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Something tells me Simon Rattle and the LSO's performance of Arnold Schoenberg's vast, late Romantic masterpiece Gurrelieder is going to be one of the highlights of this season's prom. The soloists were excellent — Simon O'Neill very clear heldentenor worked perfectly with the big orchestral sound — and the choir and the playing was first rate. Particularly astonishingly, the concert also marked Thomas Quasthoff's proms debut!

Rattle's comments before the concert were particularly striking. He described the piece as young man's music — Schoenberg was in his twenties — and a summation of 19th century music; he said it was almost as if Schoenberg was demonstrating his complete mastery of Romanticism in order to reject it in favour of the development of his twelve-tone method...
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Powerful performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 from Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO. I liked both Elizabeth Watts and Elisabeth Kulman a great deal — the quiet opening to Urlicht was very fine indeed. I think, on balance, comparing tonight's performance with my benchmark — Rattle's excellent version from early in his tenure with the CBSO — I prefer Rattle's legato and the smoother sound of the CBSO chorus. Although, admittedly, it's unfair to compare a live performance with a recording especially in Mahler 2, where the choir have a long unaccompanied section at the start of the langsam that presents a real challenge for the singers...
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The second of Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin's two proms, open with the UK premier of Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time — an intriguing and engaging piece that shows Birtwistle at his best. Rather touchingly, the piece was dedicated to the memory of Birtwistle's old friend Peter Maxwell Davies, who died last year. The second half rounded out the programme started by Staatskapelle Berlin on Saturday, with a performance of Elgar's Symphony No. 2 — a piece I like more than the first — with Nimrod from the Enigma Variations as an encore. After a short, impassioned speech from Barenboim which talked about cross-cultural communication and which, very deliberately, didn't mention Brexit by name, the orchestra rounded off with another performance of Land of Hope and Glory; a pointed message from a man who has devoted a great deal energy to breaking down barriers.
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A classical opening to tonight's program, with Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe performing Mozart's Symphony No. 38 — the Prague — followed by an elegant performance of the Violin Concerto No. 3 with Isabelle Faust as soloist. The second half featured a engaging performance of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 2, closing with Mendelssohn's sparky Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream as an encore.
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The first of two proms from Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, and the start of their mini-series of Elgar symphonies. The program kicked off with Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto with Lisa Batiashvili as soloist; a solid and enjoyable performance. The performance of Elgar's Symphony No. 1 seemed fine, but I'm not greatly fussed on Elgar's symphonies, so I can't say that I was listening particularly deeply. The program closed with Sibelius' Valse Triste and Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 as an encore.
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Superb start to the 2017 season, kicking off with the world premier of Tom Coult's St John's Dance. Igor Levitt and Edward Gardner had a particularly nice dynamic in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, and Levitt closed the first half with a pointed statement: Liszt's piano transcription of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. But the real standout piece of the evening was a stunning performance of John Adams' Harmonium. The rapid, rhythmic opening, a setting of John Donne's The Negative Love, featured supremely clear and beautifully articulated singing from the combined forces of the BBC SO Chorus and the Proms Youth Choir. The second movement, Emily Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop for Death, was quiet and polished, blending smoothly in to the ecstatic setting of Wild Nights before dropping away to pianissimo finish. I don't think I've every heard Harmonium performed quite so well.
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Catching up with my proms backlog, I discovered Ákos Ács' delightful encore — part of Béla Kovács Sholem-alekhem, Rov Feidman!. And now it seems there's a video of Ács having entirely too much fun with Ivan Fischer and some members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra:

It's a truly delightful piece and performance, and much, much too short!
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This year's proms seasons has featured a couple of accompanied encores. First Sol Gabetta in Petris Vasks' Dolcissimo. Then Pekka Kuusisto singing a Finnish folk song, assisted by the entire Albert Hall audience. And yesterday, Narek Hakhnazaryan in Giovanni Sollima's strikingly effective Lamentatio:

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Ah, um, well, not at all sure what to make of yesterday's prom combining bits and pieces of A Midsummer Night's Dream with Mendelssohn's incidental music for the same. My immediate suspcious is that, on radio at least, neither item did the other any favours; however I'm willing to believe it may have been different in hall.

On the plus side Matthias Pintscher's piece, Reflections on Narcissus for cello and orchestra which opened the concert, came off much better.

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Despite not writing much about this year's proms, I've been assiduously making keeping up with the concerts on R3. Highlights over the last few weeks have included Huw Watkins' Cello Concerto written for his brother Paul and Tai Murray's premier of Malcolm Hayes' Violin Concerto.

The Sixteen's late night concert, mixing Bach motets with Arvo Pärt's Nunc Dimittis and Triodium was particularly good. The audience had an amazing, focused silence during the Pärt pieces which the BBC's engineers did a superb job of capturing, really adding to the spiritual quality of the broadcast.

The East-West Divan orchestra's prom really stands out a particular highlight. Not only did it feature the legendary Marta Argerich in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 but the encore was a true delight: Argerich and Barenboim in Schubert's Rondo for two hands; two brilliant pianists for the price of one in a piece that almost outlasted the conerto that proceded it.

The second half was a series of orchestral interludes from Wagner starting with the overture to Tannhäuser, move through the Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey to the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung before ending with the astonishing counterpoint of the overture to Die Meistersinger. As an encore concert finished with the prelude to act III of Die Meistersinger and then, as a final surprise send off, a really constrast to the brooding Meistersinger prelude: a fast, exciting version of the prelude to the third act of Lohengrin.

I also very much enjoyed yesterday's concert performance of Janáček's The Makropulous Affair. Not a piece I know at all — despite one of my friends learning the part of Emilia Marty when we were at university — I though it was fascinating, especially the shift from the conversational form and constantly shifting music of the majority of the opera to its resolution in the last 10-15 minutes of the piece.
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Enjoyble prom with an interesting new piece from Helen Grime — the second part of which opens Sunday's concert — a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, possibly the only piece by Tchaikovsky I actually like, and Petrushka to finish. The concert was greatly spiced up by Pekka Kuusisto's hugely entertaining encore. He gave a very funny introduction to the traditional folk song from Karelia:

...this first surfaced in a collection in 1850, this is still time when Russia used to be a part of Finland! depending on your point of view, of course. I was going to make a Brexit joke, but they're not really funny...

He the sang along with the piece as he played it, pointed out that the chorus kept on coming back, and, after a couple of practice attempts, got the audience singing along with him in Finnish. Definitely well above and beyond the usual post-concerto encore!

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A single work in tonight's prom: Mahler's vast third symphony conducted by Bernard Haitink, that most supremely experienced of Mahlerian conductors, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his first appearance at the proms. The performance seemed characteristic of Haitink's approach to Mahler: measured, clear, and thoughful. It reminded me of just how little I know the piece and how I really ought to listen to it more often, despite its size — for the record, today's performance came it at around 104 minutes...

ETA: listening again it's noticeable that, just as the applause starts, there's an enormous whoop from the audience as someone, either close to the microphones or otherwise possessed of a superb set of lungs, shouts a huge "Yes!" indicating just how much they enjoyed the performance...
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Really rather lovely swansong from the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in their final concert before their merger with the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra. After opening with a Berlioz overture, we got Beethoven's fourth piano concerto with Robert Levin, followed by a dazzling encore in the shape of the Intermezzo from Robert Schumann's Faschingsswank aus Wien — a piece I didn't know at all and which really impressed me.

The final piece on the programme was a clear and direct reading of Brahms first symphony showing all the merits of Roger Norrington's charactertically insightful approach. After a short encore — one of the Hungarian Dances — there was a poignent moment when Natalie Chee, the orchestra's leader, addressed the audience, saying farewell on behalf of the company.

The orchestra's final send-off was a very beautiful performance of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, a piece which benefited greatly from Norrington's no-vibrato approach and which seemed all the more touching for its brisk tempo and lack of the great, swooping Romantic gestures that often make it seem cloying. It was a delightfully affecting ending and I'm pretty sure that Martin Handley had a wobble in his voice as he concluded the concert and handed over to his colleagues in Broadcasting House.
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Michael Berkeley's striking violin concerto formed the centre-piece of tonight's prom, with Chloë Hanslip as soloist. Written following the death of the composer's wife, the piece features an astonishing section on the electric violin which sounds like nothing quite so much as a great cry of pain.

The concerto was prefaced by Paul Dukas' La Péri, which I didn't know at all but which I thought was really rather good, with particularly fine orchestration. The evening was rounded off with a selection of pieces from Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet — a I piece I remember so clearly from childhood that it came as something of a shock to discover that it was, first and foremost, a play rather than a ballet...
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Not quite sure what to make of Tchaikovsky's symphonic fantasy The Tempest, which opened tonight's prom. But I liked Anthony Payne's Of Land, Sea and Sky far more and thought it made a good companion piece to Ralph Vaughan Williams' superb Towards the Unknown Region which closed the concert.

In between was Ray Chen's engaging performance of Max Bruch's first violin concerto — he wrote others, believe it or not! — with a charming version of Paganini's Caprice No. 21 as an encore.
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Not much to say about tonight's Rossini prom. Sounded nice enough but, unlike the opera seria of Boris Godunov, I think this sort of opera buffa only really works as a whole if you're there in the hall, able to see the singers acting it up — and, in a concert performance, hamming it up with the conductor and orchestra.
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Better programming today, with the world premier of Magnus Lindberg's Two Episodes opening this evening's prom. The orchestral writing was characteristic of Lindberg, creating an open and approachable sound world with definite echoes of the second piece in the concert: Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

The Beethoven was somewhat idiosyncratic, with Jurowsky and LPO emphasising some elements more than others — the winds in the last movement holding their own against the the strings in the early parts of the last movement — and there were some interesting tempo choices. It all seemed to work and made the old warhorse seem fresher than it usually does.
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Slightly odd programming in yesterday's prom: a huge bleeding chunk of Wagner in the form of Act 3 from Die Walküre followed by the entirety of Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time. I'm not sure the combination worked. Neither piece seemed to add much to the other and they don't seem to have a great deal in common. Still it was good to hear A Child of Our Time again. For all the awkwardness of the text, it still feels like it has a great deal of beautiful music to offer.


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