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  PROM 20 - Stravinsky, Schumann and Mendelssohn: Nicholas Angelich (piano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Brindley Sherratt (bass). Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) Royal Albert Hall London 31.7.2009 (MMB) 

Igor Stravinsky  – Pulcinella, ballet in one act

Robert Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Felix Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 5 in D minor, “Reformation”

Prom 20 was formed of an interesting and varied programme, demonstrating various musical genres and featuring one of this year’s anniversary composers: Mendelssohn, so continuing the celebrations of his 200th birthday. It was also part of this season’s Stravinsky ballet-cycle, which sees the performance of the music from eleven of the composer’s scores for ballet.

The evening started with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, one of the many ballets he composed for Diaghilev and his famous “ballets russes”. The plot is taken from an 18th century Italian commedia dell’arte episode and the music was based on various compositions of Italian Baroque composer, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). This was an idea by Diaghilev  - who, at the time, needed a new ballet quickly and  presented Stravinsky with music by Pergolesi asking him to adapt it into a ballet. Stravinsky did so brilliantly. While he used modern textures, like combinations of flute, oboe, pizzicato strings or trombone and double bass, to create some engaging and witty moments, he kept Pergolesi’s melodic and rhythmic contents unchanged, which contributes greatly to the charm of the score. Another clever element was to include three vocal parts, integrated into the orchestra, as additional instruments, rather than portraying  individual characters.  For this reason, Stravinsky  subtitled the work “ballet avec chante”. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, led by young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making his Proms debut, provided a very impressive interpretation of the work and a promise of an excellent musical evening.

I sometimes find difficult to enjoy ballet music without the dancers, but  I must say that Nézet-Séguin’s and the SCO’s performance was as pleasant as it was skilful. He managed a dynamic and genuinely balletic interpretation of Stravinsky’s imaginative score, effectively conveying its carefree, lively and witty characteristics. The three solo singers were also excellent. Karen Cargill has a beautiful mezzo tone though her diction could be improved, as it was not always obvious in which language she was singing and tenor Andrew Staples was very effective; his voice is clear, with distinctive vowels and a solid technique. In my opinion, thoug the best singing performance of the evening was by bass Brindley Sherratt who possesses a powerfully expressive, dark tone, with clear diction and perfect Italian pronunciation. In fact, his mastery of the language is so good that my companion, a native Italian asked me if Mr Sherratt was also from Italy. She was rather surprised when I pointed out his name.

The second piece of the night was Schumann’s beautiful Piano Concerto in A minor, which he composed for his wife Clara Wieck Schumann, a virtuoso pianist and a composer in her own right. Schumann started this concerto in 1841 and originally  did not mean it to be in three movements. What he wrote was a Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in A minor because he was interested in an even handed treatment of the orchestra and soloist, rather than a virtuoso piece. This became the first movement; he then added the second and third, four years later, in 1845, arguably because it would be easier to market if it was written in the traditional classic sonata format. However, the concerto is really not traditional and was very innovative for its time. It shows, like much of Schumann’s music, the composer’s shifting moods, but despite the interval between the composition of the first movement and the other two, it is a piece with great inter-movement unity, demonstrating the kind of balanced treatment of soloist and orchestra that Schumann intended.  The American pianist, Nicholas Angelich, also making his Proms debut, delivered a very impressive performance of this gorgeous piece. His technique is precise but never dry and he  expressed the romanticism of the piece effectively without ever becoming sentimental. Personally, I think that his interpretation would have benefited from a more delicate and sensitive touch in the lyrical passages of the first movement and in especially in the second His delivery of the third movement however, was simply brilliant, gloriously lively, demonstrating an excellent understanding of the composer’s intentions. Mr Angelich was wonderfully accompanied by the SCO and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, combining their own lyricism with a moving and vivacious interpretation of Schumann’s pioneering concerto.

The final piece of the night was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, usually known as Reformation. Although my favourite of his symphonies is the “Italian” for its luminous sound, I think that No. 5 is arguably one of the composer’s better symphonies. For reasons that are not quite clear, Mendelssohn was not happy with it and never made much of an effort to get it published: indeed this only happened in 1868, twenty-one years after his death. As stated on the programme notes, Mendelssohn’s intention with this piece was to compose something for the 300 year celebrations of the Augsburg Confession, a key moment in the Protestant Reformation (hence the symphony's name ) in 1530 when the Catholic Emperor Charles V was presented with the 28 articles which formed the basis of the Lutheran faith. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 is  a very powerful piece to my mind, which interestingly enough does not show us a kind and friendly God but exactly the opposite, which is indeed often the Bible’s description. More than with any of the previous pieces, the SCO and Yannick Nézet-Séguin really came into their own here. Nézet-Séguin is a very dynamic conductor who injected the piece with energy and enthusiasm. Under his lively leadership, the orchestra delivered an eloquent, dazzling interpretation, negotiating Mendelssohn’s rich orchestration and glorious harmonies with great effect. This was a marvellous finale to a great musical evening, which totally fulfilled the promise implied by the opening Stravinsky ballet. 

Margarida Mota-Bull


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