Royal Albert Hall, LondonThe BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor, Sakari Oramo, find a winning formula featuring Scandinavian giants Sibelius and Nielsen
The Proms are going through an interregnum between the departure, last July, of their previous director, Roger Wright, and the arrival, this coming autumn, of his successor, David Pickard. Under acting director Edward Blakeman, this year’s programme replaces Wright’s often themed approach with something more straightforward, and the amalgam of established classics, rarities and new music includes major surveys of the piano concertos of Mozart, Beethoven and Prokofiev, a late-night Bach series, a weighty 90th birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez, and retrospectives devoted to the two giants of Scandinavian music, Sibelius and Nielsen, the 150th anniversaries of whose births fall this year.
Both composers featured prominently in the first night, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor, Sakari Oramo. Sibelius was represented by his rarely performed suite of incidental music to Belshazzar’s Feast (a 1906 play by the Swedish-speaking Finnish writer Hjalmar Procopé), paired in the second half with William Walton’s familiar cantata on the same subject.
St John’s Smith Square, LondonPaul McCreesh’s semi-staging of this politically inclined opera was played with sensuousness and majesty and sung with consistent finesse and elan
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Hearing King Arthur at St John’s Smith Square – round the corner from the Houses of Parliament and overlooking what was once Conservative Central Office – is to be reminded, if nothing else, of its status as establishment propaganda. Purcell’s 1691 entertainment, a sequence of songs and masques for a play by John Dryden, is one of the glories of English music theatre. But it also aimed at shoring up the Stuart dynasty by aligning its achievements with those of Britain’s legendary past.
Durham CathedralBacked by His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts, John Butt’s consort made intrepid use of the cathedral’s vast space for this compelling Vespers
It’s debatable whether Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 stands on a direct evolutionary line with the Floral Dance, but since the Durham brass festival has diversified into the classical field, anything with a sagbutt (or sackbut) is permissible. Even Monteverdi’s cornetts, which are made out of wood but require a brass-style playing technique, just about slip under the wire. As one of the world’s pre-eminent early brass ensembles, His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts have been adding pomp and circumstance to performances of the Vespers for more than 30 years, including John Eliot Gardiner’s landmark live recording from St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, in 1989. Here, they brought dark resonance and dazzling virtuosity to a brisk, modern reading by John Butt’s Dunedin Consort.
It’s intriguing to trace how ownership of the piece has transferred in recent years from large-sounding British choirs to lither, lighter European counterparts (Christina Pluhar’s version with L’Arpeggiata was the first to zip through the entire sequence on a single disc). The Dunedin’s approach neatly cleaves down the middle: Butt’s tempos are ceremonial and spacious where required, but he ascribes a single voice per part and allows a fresh young team of soloists to express their individuality.
Garsington Opera at Wormsley, StokenchurchThis production of Shakespeare’s play, complete with a live backing of Mendelssohn’s score, is as brilliant as it is rare
In the 19th century, well-appointed theatres could commission incidental music on a grand scale. When King Frederick William IV of Prussia asked Felix Mendelssohn to supply music for a production of Shakespeare’s comedy at Potsdam in 1842, a substantial orchestral score, with a female chorus and a couple of small solo parts, was the result – although the composer had a head start in being able to draw on a concert overture he had written on the same subject back in 1826, when he was 17.
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Katie Derham and Tom Service introduce the first of this year’s Proms concerts from the Royal Albert Hall. This is the 150th anniversary of the birth of two great Scandinavian composers: Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius. By way of birthday gifts, the programme features Nielsen’s Maskarade and Sibelius’s Belshazzar’s Feast, along with William Walton’s version of the latter, a world premiere of new work by British composer Gary Carpenter, and German pianist Lars Vogt taking the solo on Mozart’s Concerto No 20 in D Minor. Andrew Mueller
A young Elder conducted the second-ever performance at Sydney Opera House. Now he’s back to put Australian Youth Orchestra ‘athletes’ through their paces
The young tend to get a bad rap these days. Noses buried in phones, attention spans decimated by social media, seemingly succumbing to a collective attention deficit disorder. Mark Elder is here to tell us otherwise.
The chief conductor of the Halle orchestra in Manchester has an enduring interest in young people; in training them, encouraging them, helping develop their careers. He thinks they’re far from flighty.
Minguet Quartet/Claron McFadden(Wergo)
Jörg Widmann’s five string quartets make up a kind of meta quartet – a massive web of musical dialectics that celebrate, explode and generally redefine the genre’s lofty, loaded heritage. No other contemporary composer has grappled with quartet form quite so intelligently or so probingly. It’s astoundingly virtuosic stuff, mentally and musically, and jaw-droppingly beautiful at times: just listen to the gossamer-fine and haunting textures of the fourth quartet, or the stark violence that ends the third.
In the spirit of the concert series’ opening night, Tom Service honours the long tradition of presenting new music at the Proms
The First Night of the Proms starts – well, after the rip-roaring high spirits of Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture – with the first performance of a new piece by Gary Carpenter, Dadaville, named after the sculptural painting by Max Ernst. Carpenter is one of the most winningly and thrillingly versatile composers: he’s worked on the score for The Wicker Man, has written musicals admired by Stephen Sondheim, and has composed an impressive catalogue of orchestral, chamber, and vocal works. Having had a sneak preview of it, his Proms commission seems like a teemingly imaginative and ebullient score, shot through with moments of satisfying strangeness and surreal changes of pace, texture and tune, all within just a few minutes. According to Carpenter, the piece imagines what might lie behind the weird and oppressive gates of Ernst’s picture (Ernst used cork to make them, but they give an impression of iron-hewn solidity). He reveals a musical clue just before the end of the piece about what lurks on the other side of Dadaville, but we’ll have to wait until Friday night to discover what that might be.
In the spirit of this First Night novelty, and honouring the long tradition of new music at the Proms (which is bound into their creative raison d’être, as espoused by Henry Wood, who confidently introduced “novelties” alongside the wider classical repertoires to his audiences) here are some personal highlights from the history of the Proms’ relationship with new music, in six pieces which were all premiered at the festival.
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Van Zweden(Challenge Classics)
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Bruckner has never sounded quite so upbeat. Conductor Jaap van Zweden began his career as a violinist – at 19 he was the youngest-ever concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, just down the road from where he is now honorary chief conductor of the excellent Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Given that he knows orchestras from the inside out, it’s not surprising that he gives plenty of agency to individual sections and players: this performance of Bruckner 1 (the rustic Linz version) brims with conversation and unfolds without force. It’s less urgent than a lot of interpretations and Van Zweden almost always prioritises warm sound over brusque energy. The first movement is all optimism, an adventure of good, clean fun; the Adagio is more Mendelssohn than Mahler in its sweetness and buoyancy; the Scherzo and Finale bounce along with neat, clipped rhythms. Textures are luminous throughout: those who like their Bruckner laid on thick will want darker colours, but for me the classical lightness and clarity is a breath of fresh air.
Jack Quartet/red fish blue fish/Schick(Mode)
Lewis Nielson, garage rock guitarist turned composition professor at Oberlin College, writes music that loiters on the fringes: almost tangible, nearly lyrical, subversive to a point. Strands of moderate wit and eloquence mix with stylised modernism, but vanish as soon as they surface. This disc features three recent-ish chamber works. The Jack Quartet gives an acrobatic account of Le Journal du Corps, all squeaking, bouncing, grunting bows and a ticking clock that makes a heavy-handed metaphor. Another laboured jolt comes when the players start to sing vehement passages of Aimé Césaire over fragile chords.
The nervy Tocsin uses six percussionists (a fiery-sounding red fish blue fish led by Steven Schick) to whip up the discord, belligerence and doubt of crowds on the brink of revolution. Axis, for percussion (Schick) and string quintet, is a sequence of gestures that don’t seem to have much impact on what comes before or after. The take-home message is disquieting, and the Jack’s playing is bright and shimmering.
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