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Proms Chamber Music 13 - Schumann, Brahms, Martinů and Mahler:Antoine Tamestit (viola), Daniela Lehner (mezzo), Shai Wosner (piano), Emily Beynon (flute), Tai Murray (violin), Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Alice Coote (mezzo) and Steven Osborne (piano). Cadogan Hall, London 30.8.2009 (JPr)

As part of the BBC's ongoing commitment to recognising and developing young talent, BBC Radio 3 launched the New Generation Artists scheme in the autumn of 1999. So, of course, 2009 sees the scheme enter its 10th year. In Helen Wallace’s programme note she begins: ‘It’s hard to imagine musical life in this country without the Belcea, Pavel Haas and Jerusalem quartets, singers such as Christopher Maltman, Alice Coote, Elizabeth Watts and Sally Matthews, pianists Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis, string players Natalie Clein, Lisa Batiashvili and Alina Ibragimova, and, on the jazz scene, Gwilym Simcock and Tom Arthurs. They come from all over the world but have one thing in common: all are, or were, BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists.’

The scheme is continually expanding and the initiative to invite a jazz musician to join is a relatively recent one (2006) and in 2008 they took on an Early Music specialist for the first time. The small group of chosen musicians join the scheme each year for a two-year period and are offered unique opportunities across Radio 3 to develop their considerable talents. These include concerts both from London (Wigmore Hall as well as LSO St. Luke's) and throughout the UK and elsewhere, appearances and recordings with the BBC Orchestras, special studio recordings for Radio 3, and, last but not least - as here - appearances at the Proms.

Fifty or so of those artists involved since 1999 were shoe-horned into a three-day celebratory series of chamber music concerts at Cadogan Hall and as Adam Gatehouse (Editor, BBC Radio 3) wrote in the programme; ‘It was obviously no good just asking each one to do a little turn – that would be rather tedious and predictable. No, we had to do what the NGA scheme has always prided itself on, which is to bring people together – that, after all, is what parties are all about.’

This was a very worthy idea and perhaps my reaction is affected by having attended only one of the 14 concerts but for me this was a rather inconsequential event. Everything but the Mahler would have benefitted from greater rehearsal time to give a greater unity of purpose to the musicians involved although to be fair, the two Brahms songs had to overcome the relatively late change of soloist. Little of this music was ‘presented’ to the live audience and the musicians seemed to be playing and singing simply for themselves and the BBC Radio 3 broadcast. Even the time-filling interviews for the live broadcast conducted on stage by Sara Mohr-Pietsch seemed obviously under-prepared.

There was barely 50 minutes of music for a concert advertised to last for well over an hour and for that members of the public were charged a top price of £12; so it was not surprising there were so many empty seats in the hall. If the BBC are so willing to support these young artists, then perhaps they should give them a packed hall in which to perform. And if the concerts cannot be free, which would seem to me ideal, then £5 would be more than enough to pay for so little music.

Another problem for me was that neither the printed programme, the artists interviewed nor the presenter gave enough information to the Cadogan audience (or to BBC Radio 3 listeners?) about the music. Perhaps I should have been more prepared but I would like to have known that Martinů’s Promenades for flute, violin and harpsichord were composed in Paris in 1939 where the Czech composer was living during WWII. There is and edginess to this music in the danse macabre-like scherzando; here pizzicati from the violin follow on from a Bach-like opening to the poco allegro hinting at Martinů’s conflicting moods at the time. The flautist, Emily Beynon, who said she was playing twentieth-century music with harpsichord for the first time, was her normal refined self and Tai Murray’s violin coped well with the composer’s shifting moods. However I found Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord rather too jaunty and twangy, but without further information to hand, it may be that this is how Martinů wanted it to sound.

The programme opened with an elegiac account of Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A flat major from Antoine Tamestit’s mellow 1672 Stradivarius viola against Shai Wosner’s comparatively bright piano accompaniment. The musicians were then joined by Daniela Lehner who proved a refined soloist for Brahms’s Two Songs for alto, viola and piano, published in 1884 – a fact I had to find out for myself later. The beginning of Gestillte Sehnsucht is redolent of the influence of Schubert on the composer. Here and in the Geistliches Wiegenlied, Ms Lehner revealed some nice phrasing, giving both songs rather intimate performances because of her seemingly smallish voice. The only moment of real vocal attack came at ‘Grimmige Kälte’ (Grim cold) near the end of the second song and both might have benefitted from being better projected out to the audience.

There was no problem with projection from Alice Coote in her four songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Her deeply resonant mezzo voice reverberated throughout the hall and probably was heard outside in Sloane Square. She skipped quite pleasantly throughout the ‘one happy song’ as she called it, Rheinlegendchen, and on to – as I would describe it – the typical Mahlerian misery of Das irdische Leben, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen and Urlicht; this final song Ms Coote felt she could not introduce but ‘can only sing it’. I have no complaints with either Ms Coote’s wonderful voice or Steven Osborne’s subtle and understated piano accompaniment, although I did find a little fault in her presentation of the four songs. I found that her emoting - and employing the same techniques as she might use for an operatic aria - led to a rather mannered performance at odds with the texts. Although Urlicht ended with an exquisitely floated ‘Leben’, I was not certain that she had internalised these songs in the way a great recitalist should.

Jim Pritchard

For further details about forthcoming performances by 2009 BBC Proms the website

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