A harmonious 75,000-mile journey with Jordi Savall at the Usher Hall, plus the best of August’s classical concerts

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Hesperion XXI - David Ignaszewsk
Hesperion XXI - David Ignaszewsk

Edinburgh International Festival: Hesperion XXI, Usher Hall ★★★★☆

The classical music world has its fair share of visionaries, the musicians who aspire to something more than just doing exactly what their peers and rivals do. Catalan musician Jordi Savall is one of them. For almost half a century, it’s been his mission with the group Hesperion XXI to reveal the many threads that linked the ancient music of West and East, before imperialism spoiled things.

Now a silvery-haired, somewhat fragile-seeming sage, Savall presided over the 20 members of his group with smiling benignity, only occasionally contributing a tiny, beautifully turned solo on the Western viola da gamba, a Renaissance form of the cello. Alongside him were players of the medieval guitar, the hurdy-gurdy and small portable organetto; apart from them, this multi-national group all played Near or Far Eastern instruments.

There were zithers from Madagascar and the Middle East, a Balkan end-blown flute, Arab ouds and lutes, Indian and Near Eastern drums, and four singers. Within this mélange of plucked and blown sounds you could hear lovely silvery highlights of the hammered dulcimer and Chinese lute and zither.

Such a bizarre group could never have existed historically, but Savall had a particular purpose in mind. He wanted to recreate the music that may have been encountered in the 14th century by Ibn Battuta, an Arab traveller whose incredible 75,000-mile explorations of the Middle East, Spain, Sardinia, China, Arabia and Africa make Marco Polo’s travels look quite modest. Of course, it was speculative, and it didn’t need any great scholarship in “ancient world music” to know that for a player of the Chinese zither or zheng (the wonderful Minh Trang Nguyen) to join in with a lusty Catalan song, or a dance from Mali, or an 11th-century Mozarabic (Spanish) prayer, was actually quite peculiar.

But eventually I stopped worrying, because the pieces themselves were often so beautiful, and the performances were done with such flair as well as tact. Sometimes the music took on a strong flavour of one region, as in Daud Sadozai’s musing, quietly ecstatic Indian raga, or Katerina Papadopoulos’s dignified but piercing rendition of an Arab lament. More often, all 20 musicians were joined together in rumbustious dancing energy. It was a moving image of a universal human harmony, impossible to achieve in real life, but for the space of two hours at the Usher Hall it seemed almost within reach. IH

Festival continues until Aug 28; eif.co.uk

Ivan HewettProm 40, RPO/Petrenko, Royal Albert Hall ★★★☆☆

Vasily Petrenko with the RPO and trombonist Peter Moore - Chris Christodoulou
Vasily Petrenko with the RPO and trombonist Peter Moore - Chris Christodoulou

The Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, who resigned from his Russian conducting post in protest at what he calls the “moral failure and humanitarian disaster” of the Ukrainian war, has already achieved some great things since taking over the directorship of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In Tuesday night’s Prom, he led the orchestra in a programme which placed Copland’s ballet score Appalachian Spring from 1944 alongside Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, completed the same year. It’s an odd pairing because the first is as limpid as water and essentially modest, whereas the second is bombastically triumphal and overblown.

So each poses its own kind of difficulty, which these performances didn’t quite solve. Another problem with Copland’s ballet is that its down-home simplicity and quietness is easily lost in the huge spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps Petrenko hoped that by making the quiet, wide-open-spaces introduction wider and quieter than usual it would fill that space more effectively, but in fact the opposite was true. The piece sank into a nearly-inaudible torpor, from which it woke with startling abruptness when the high-kicking dances arrived. But overall a lighter, brisker touch would have helped.

One could say the same about the performance of Prokofiev’s symphony, but for different reasons. This symphony was premiered in January 1945, with the sound of victorious Russian artillery salvos thundering outside the concert hall, and the symphony at times is equally deafening. This performance certainly registered the work’s colossal grandeur, especially at the climax to the second movement, which Petrenko controlled with just the right iron inflexibility. This was thrilling, but other moments like the dying-away ending of the middle section of that movement, seemed too long-drawn-out and too emphatically underlined. This is a symphony that needs no extra emphasis to be overwhelming.

So only two cheers for these well-known pieces, but for the practically unknown Trombone Concerto by African-American composer George Walker, born exactly 100 years ago, three are certainly in order. The performance from soloist Peter Moore married the elegance of a ballroom dancer with the lyrical tenderness of a violinist, and the orchestra and Petrenko played with just the right combination of incisive character and tact. They revealed a wonderful piece, poised with typically Walker-ish exactness between a lithe neo-classical balletic quality and more abstract-modernist but still lyrical expressiveness.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for George Walker’s 150th anniversary before we hear it again. IH

Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/prom

Prom 39, Mark-Anthony Turnage premiere, BBC SO/Oramo, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou

The nature of English music has become a politically fraught topic, but on Monday night the Proms stopped worrying and simply revelled in a familiar sort of Englishness arising from folkiness, rumbustious humour, buttoned-up nobility, and transcendence glimpsed in a peaceful English meadow.

But where did the evening’s premiere from Mark-Anthony Turnage fit into all that, you might wonder, given that he’s someone who doesn’t seem misty-eyed about England (the dystopian vision of London in his 1988 opera Greek is burned into the memory of anyone who witnessed it) and his influences seem far from English? Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein are the influences listeners most often spot, plus a nocturnal sad bluesiness.

Those things certainly appeared in his new orchestral piece Time Flies, composed in 2019 and thanks to Covid only now being premiered, but nevertheless it had a very English ring. The three movements evoked “London Time, “Hamburg Time” and “Tokyo time”, in honour of the orchestras in three different cities that commissioned the piece, and London launched off with an unmistakable reference to “Boys and Girls Come Out to Play”. That gleeful opening phrase soon morphed into bell-chimes, layered one above another in joyous scampering, and reappeared at the end stretched into a giant striding bass.

The central movement seemed almost too close to a Copland fanfare at first, but soon developed its own distinct personality, the grand very public-sounding brass chorales coloured with something more intimate. The last movement gestured towards 1950s big-band music of the Gil Evans variety, but the jaunty squeaking clarinets, which reminded me irresistibly of George Cole as “Flash Harry”, seemed English to a tee.

It was not a large step from that to the gently galumphing humour of Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto. The brilliant young German tuba player Constantin Hartwig revealed the reflective soul of the piece, especially in the evening-glow-over-the-meadows lyricism of the slow movement, but he relished the virtuoso challenges of the outer movements too.

Finally came the hugely dignified yet somehow repressed melody that opens Elgar’s First Symphony, soon pushed aside by something at the opposite pole of emotional turbulence. The ensuing search for a resolution, marked by furious outbursts and interrupted at times by glimpses of some happy, tranquil past, was projected with huge intensity by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its conductor Sakari Oramo. The BBC SO may be the Proms’ workhorse, but it’s certainly playing like a thoroughbred. IH

Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/prom

Prom 34, BBC Phil/Ollikainen, Royal Albert Hall  ★★★★★

Eva Ollikainen conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou
Eva Ollikainen conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s newest work, ARCHORA, is a score that will travel far, and not just because it is a co-commission by many of the world’s leading musical organizations. Yet while its massive and mysterious soundscape could perhaps come only from the composer’s native Iceland, it felt as if it had been conceived with this world premiere at the BBC Proms in mind and certainly made the most of the Royal Albert Hall’s idiosyncratic acoustics.

Much credit here is also due to the conductor Eva Ollikainen, in her Proms debut. A Finn currently based in Reykjavik as chief conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, she brought a Nordic perspective to the whole programme but made an especially impressive start with the Thorvaldsdottir, controlling the music’s steady yet shifting pulse with an ear for its detail and drawing excellent playing from the BBC Philharmonic.

Exploring the notion of primordial energy, ARCHORA (Thorvaldsdottir’s titles frequently reflect a fondness for capital letters) opens slowly and with a low growl in the orchestra, building towards a dark mass of sound from which flecks of detail escape momentarily. Full of surprises yet satisfyingly logical, Thorvaldsdottir’s brand of Nordic spectralism is summed up in this work scored for large orchestra including organ (but no trumpets), and in which melodic contours emerge as the piece lulls itself towards resolution.

ARCHORA feels a little like a contemporary answer to Sibelius, and that notion was underlined here in the organic flow of Ollikainen’s performance of the Finnish composer’s Second Symphony. Not so much primordial as elemental, this symphony can be understood in part as a northern longing for light, and that was reflected in the unfolding of spring in the second movement and the blaze of the finale.

The concert’s centrepiece was something different but no less remarkable: a highly personal account of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in which Kian Soltani was the questing soloist. He made the opening movement’s sad song feel like endless melody, but then everything had a sense of musing introspection and he found more intimacy than usual by bringing such virtuosic lightness to the second movement. The chestnut tone of Soltani’s cello was ideal in this autumnal work, and together he and Ollikainen explored the inevitability (despite the trickle of later works) of this Elgarian swansong. Soltani’s own arrangement for cello and strings of the Ukrainian folksong “Lovely Minka” made a haunting and meaningful encore. JA

Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/prom

Prom 25, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆

Theramin virruoso Carolina Eyck and the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou
Theramin virruoso Carolina Eyck and the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms - Chris Christodoulou

Thursday night’s Prom could have been entitled “Miracle on Kensington Gore”. The miracle happened when Carolina Eyck, a virtuoso performer on the electronic instrument known as the theremin, performed the concerto Eight Seasons written for her by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho.

The instrument itself, invented by Russian engineer Léon Theremin in 1919, looks deeply unimpressive: a shiny standing rod and a tower and a box with dials at Eyck’s feet that she sometimes twiddled. But mostly she performed delicate hand-movements in the space between them, which disturbed a magnetic field around the machine. There emerged in response an uncanny sound somewhere between an angelic voice and a bird-call. A twitch of a little finger would raise the trembling “voice” a fraction; a cat’s paw feint would produce a sci-fi swoop. As if that weren’t enough Eyck would sometimes sing duets with the machine.

All this was entrancing. As for Aho’s piece, it evoked the Eight Seasons of the Sami people of Lapland with delicate suggestiveness. There were sudden storms with Eyck in duet with high horns, surprisingly warm major chords, frozen nights evoked by impossibly high notes on the theremin, echoed by beautifully mournful playing from the BBC Philharmonic under conductor John Storgårds. It was poetic but indulgently long and shapeless, and it was only Eyck’s amazing artistry and that extraordinary sound that saved the piece from outstaying its welcome.

Then came the two-movement orchestral piece Vista from 2019 by another Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. It was apparently inspired by the Californian coastline, but the sounds suggested a deep Finnish fog, broken by shafts of wan sunlight when a single assertive note would emerge through the dense web of sound. In the second movement the piece tried vainly to whip itself into rhythmic life, but the music would always sink back to a beautiful but essentially dispiriting torpor.

After that, the clarity and economy of Shostakovich’s 15th (and final) Symphony felt like an invigorating jolt of energy. The deliberately trivial little melodies and Rossini quotations, mingled with a funeral chorale for brass and echoes of Wagner at his darkest were disconcerting enough. But there were also moments where Shostakovich ventured into abstract modernism, with three tempos unfolding at once in the strings, and two impenetrably dense chords like patches of colour in an abstract painting. It added up to a perfect enigma, which this performance caught with aloof, razor-sharp clarity. IH

Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/prom

Prom 22, Aurora Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

The Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon - Mark Allan
The Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon - Mark Allan

A Prom can give you width of musical experience, or depth, but rarely both. Either you’re enthused and entertained and leave with a smile on your face, or you get a profound spiritual journey that makes you reluctant to applaud at the end.

The wonderful thing about this Prom was that we got both.

In the first half, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto took us to a very lost and lonely region of human experience; in the second we returned to light and life with Beethoven’s immortal Fifth Symphony. Sandwiched in between came a listening guide to the latter, which was brilliantly enjoyable as well as hugely informative.

On stage was the Aurora Orchestra, that extraordinary group of young musicians who’ve shaken up the orchestral world with their elegantly choreographed events, in which the orchestra reconfigures itself before our very eyes. We would see a fine example of that later in the guide to Beethoven’s Fifth, but we got a hint of it at the very beginning with a performance of O-Mega, the final piece of the great Greek modernist Iannis Xenakis, who was born 100 years ago. The ritualised exchanges between a lone percussionist high up on the choir terraces and groups of string, wind and brass players below and either side of him were diamond-hard and perfectly enigmatic.

Then came Shostakovich’s concerto, in which the soloist was the diminutive, fiery Moldovan Patricia Kopatchinskaja. In the opening Nocturne, the packed hall was reduced to utter stillness by her wavering melodic line, infinitely fragile yet somehow indomitable. In her hugely long solo passage (“cadenza”, as it’s known), she began so quietly I doubted whether listeners in the balcony could hear her, but it meant that the savagery of the final Burlesque registered with immense force.

After the interval came that guided tour to the Beethoven masterpiece from the orchestra, broadcaster Tom Service and conductor Nicholas Collon. They didn’t just tell us about the myriad transformations of that famous Da-da-da-DUM rhythm, and the connections between the symphony and the Marseillaise and Mozart’s great 40th symphony – they showed them by playing simplified excerpts, with different players moving centre-stage as their parts became more prominent.

Finally came a performance of the whole piece, played (like Xenakis’s) from memory, and with the players standing to attention. Did it seem so riveting and overwhelmingly joyous because our ears and minds had just been sharpened, or because the performance itself was so wonderfully balanced between urgency and grace? It was delightfully hard to say. IH

Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms

Prom 21, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆

Prom 21: Gaming Prom: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Ames, at the Royal Albert Hall - Mark Allan
Prom 21: Gaming Prom: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Ames, at the Royal Albert Hall - Mark Allan

The first ever Gaming Prom brought a packed crowd of gaming fans, of all ages. There were the chaps of a certain age who probably cut their gaming teeth on Space Invaders back in 1978, and even bigger numbers of young ones.

They were clearly delighted by this concert, which traced almost the entire history of gaming music in chronological order, from the stiff little melodies and slapstick burps and swoops of 1980s music to the intoxicating full-orchestral panoramas of the 2000s. The younger listeners seemed to enjoy the “primitive” scores just as much as the older fans did, suggesting that nostalgia is built into the whole gaming experience.

The challenge of this event was to allow us to enjoy the real live sound of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on stage, while conjuring that massive, essentially digital immersive sound that creates the feeling of an alternative universe. It must be said that everyone involved – the sound engineers, the arrangers who adapted the music for the concert situation, and the players of the RPO – rose to the challenge magnificently.

In the music for the older numbers, there was the additional problem of reinventing primitive early-digital sounds for the orchestra. Matt Rogers wittily evoked the tedium and sudden excitement of loading a game from a cassette machine in his Loading Chronos, but the evening’s real triumph of recreation came from the composer Chaines, whose recreation of scores for Pokémon, Ecco and Secret of Mana was so uncannily close they prompted delighted laughter from the gamers all around me.

Then we were onto the Hollywoodish grandeur of The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy VIII, Kingdom Hearts and others. Never have I heard so many impressive orchestral climaxes laden with cymbal crashes, combined with a wide-open-spaces sound that make me think the true ancestor of gaming music is the classic Hollywood Western score. The outlier in all this was the dark, dystopian score of Battlefield 2042. Although the arrangement by the evening’s conductor Robert Ames was ingenious, the music lost some of that metallic, shiny horror that is its essence.

Finally it was back to grandeur, for the score to the 2012 game Dear Esther. Just two lush major chords, rocking back and forth, with a big melody over the top; it could hardly have been simpler. Like gaming itself, it delivered the kind of massive sugar rush that stills all criticism, and it drove the audience wild.

See this Prom on BBC Four on Friday at 8.00pm. Available on BBC Sounds and iPlayer until Oct 10. The Proms continue until Sept 10. Tickets: 020 7589 8212; bbc.co.uk/proms


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