The Greatest Of August’s Classical Concerts Are Included Together With Jon Hopkins’ Cosmic Blandness At The Proms

ByQuyen Anne

Sep 29, 2023
Jon Hopkins is known for his huge, cosmic soundscapes, but even the BBC Symphony Orchestra couldn’t make them sound less generic

Proms 2023, Jon Hopkins/Jules Buckley, Royal Albert Hall

Jon Hopkins at the Royal Albert Hall

Standing ovations are not so rare at the Proms, and there have been a few this year. But last night was the first where every one of the 5000 or so audience members rose instantly to their feet, as one. It was like the moment in church when the rubric says “all stand.”

The uncanny unanimity was in response to the shy man who’d been on stage for only two of the eight pieces we’d just heard, to play a few hesitant, tinkly notes on the grand piano. This was Jon Hopkins, a hugely successful maker of electronic soundscapes who has collaborated as composer, arranger and keyboardist with many pop and “ambient” music luminaries, as well as film directors.

Last night’s Prom was extraordinary in another way. It was the first I’ve ever witnessed where the brand-new BBC commission – normally the main event in a Prom – was effectively hidden from view. The composer told us in the programme note that his new piece, Athos, was a piece for choir and orchestra inspired by the monks of Mt. Athos in Greece, in which he was “trying to create a feeling of awe and a collective trance-like state.”

But that’s a good description of nearly all the music we heard: huge, slow-moving soundscapes newly arranged for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers, conducted by Jules Buckley with perfectly impassive efficiency. Just a touch of electronic reverb was added, to give the “heavenly” voices that extra cosmic feel. Which among these pieces was Athos was a secret, except for those who happened to know all of Hopkins’s music.

That chimed in with the general tone of the evening, which was one of ponderous mystification. Hopkins has a very shrewd sense of timing; he knows how to reveal a musical process like a repeating chord sequence bit-by-bit, the gathering swell leading eventually to a sunburst of choral-and-orchestral affirmation – with the Albert Hall organ brought in at the climactic moment. Hopkins’s numerous arrangers certainly did an excellent job of translating his electronic visions to the orchestral medium. If you were one of those fans the result had the force of a divine revelation. If you were not, the disparity between the skills and musicality of all those wonderful musicians, and the utterly generic, threadbare nature of the music they were called on to express was profoundly dispiriting. Ivan Hewett

Handel's Samson performed at the Proms
Handel’s Samson performed at the Proms CREDIT: BBC/ Sisi Burn

Proms 2023, Handel’s Samson, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

After a somewhat lacklustre performance of Schumann’s strange oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri on Tuesday, Wednesday night’s performance of Handel’s oratorio Samson came as a heartening and uplifting blaze of glory. But it was not an uncomplicated rejoicing in light. The blaze at the end is a long time coming because the hero spends the oratorio shrouded in darkness, having been blinded by the Philistines after he is betrayed by his wife Dalilah. It’s a double blindness, moral and physical, and it’s only at the end, when Samson brings down the Philistine temple, that he recovers his stature.

It’s a tremendous emotional journey, portrayed with huge emotional force in this performance from the Academy of Ancient Music. At its heart was tenor Allan Clayton, who caught the essential dignity of Samson as well as his despair. The great aria where he bemoans his blindness, “Total Eclipse”, was sung almost at a whisper, yet it filled the hall and held us spellbound. Surrounding him was a superb cast who took turns to console, tempt and challenge the stricken hero. American soprano Jacquelyn Stucker as Dalilah trilled and cooed “hear me, hear the voice of love” in a way that was more blatantly sexy than tender, but Samson was having none of it. Their final duet where they poured hate and scorn on each other was one of the best musical cat-fights I’ve ever witnessed.

Another highlight was bass Brindley Sherratt as the Philistine strongman Harapha. His craggy-voiced rendition of Harapha’s sneering contempt was hugely enjoyable, as was Clayton’s furious response to it. American soprano Joélle Harvey was affecting as the Israelite Woman who embodies the hopes of the tribe, as was Jonathan Lemalu as Samson’s grieving father Manoa. But the most impressive singer on stage apart from Clayton was Jess Dandy. The role of the always sympathetic and wise friend is hard to make dramatically interesting, but this thrillingly rich-toned contralto managed it.

Just as vital to the success of the evening was the Philharmonia Chorus, who were on absolutely thrilling form, and the players of the Academy of Ancient Music. The lovely aria where the blind Samson pictures the shades in the underworld got much of its uncanny beauty from the soft soughing of the string players. And I can’t not mention the fantastically energised and yet relaxed and flexible direction of Laurence Cummings. He was truly the evening’s other hero. IH

Proms 2023, LSO/Simon Rattle, Royal Albert Hall ★★★☆☆

For his penultimate Prom as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle could have chosen one of his thrilling, extrovert party pieces, such as Messiaen’s Turangalîla symphony. Instead he offered what must be the gentlest,  most intimate oratorio ever penned, Robert Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri (Paradise and the Peri), based on a German translation of an “exotic” poem by the Irish poet Thomas More. No stern Jehovah here, just the winsome offspring of a fallen angel and a mortal who yearns to be re-admitted to heaven. An offering to touch the hearts of the heavenly hosts is required, and the oratorio follows the Peri as she tries out one tearfully affecting scene of devotion after another.

If you’re thinking that sounds like a recipe for sentimentality, you’d be right. Another problem with the piece is its kitschy Orientalism. In her search for the beautiful moment, the Peri visits the “lunar mountains of Africa”, and declares at one point “My feast is now of the Tuba Tree”. It sounded better in German.

The Orientalism leaves barely a mark on Schumann’s music, apart from moments of jingling “Turkish” percussion not far from Mozart, which the orchestra and Rattle rendered with just the right “Once upon a time” naivety. They caught the music’s delicate plaintiveness too, especially at the exquisite opening, which was worth the ticket price on its own. The mournful sound of Juliana Koch’s oboe drifted over the performance like pink clouds at sunset.

But there’s something amiss with a performance when the oboist is first thing you want to praise, and the chorus (the London Symphony Chorus) is more consistently engaging than the six soloists at the front. Only intermittently did they infuse Schumann’s gentleness with genuine passion.

There was certainly an arresting edge to the soprano voice of Jeanine De Bique, playing the young maiden who sacrifices herself for love. Baritone Florian Boesch was affecting as the old sinner whose tears eventually open heaven’s doors to the Peri, and Magdalena Kožená made an affecting angel. But tenors Andrew Staples and Linard Vrielink left me unmoved, as did Lucy Crowe, who was pure in sound as a Peri should be, but without that edge of passion that makes purity interesting. Perhaps the best thing about the performance was Rattle’s tender shaping of every moment, which almost convinced me Schumann’s strange work really is a masterpiece. IH

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until Sept 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441;

Proms 2023, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions with Jules Buckley’s Orchestra and Cory Henry, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆

Keyboardist Cory Henry was the astounding centre of the Proms' tribute to Stevie Wonder
Keyboardist Cory Henry was the astounding centre of the Proms’ tribute to Stevie Wonder CREDIT: Andy Paradise

There was plenty of cause for genuine wonder at Prom 48, in which conductor Jules Buckley and his Orchestra offered a heartfelt reimagining of the work of soul legend Stevie Wonder. Yet the thing that first had me scratching my head was a huge teleprompter visible at the back of the Royal Albert Hall set to display lyrics for performers on stage.

I am not entirely sure how much the supremely talented sextet of backing singers would have benefited from instructions that initially read: “Dodo do do doo dodo / Do doo dodo doo / Do doo dodo doo doooooo …” Scrolling down as the ensemble launched into a supple, jazzy version of the song Visions, the read-out continued: “Do doo do doo doo …” You get the idea.Whatever the transcriber’s intentions, the music pouring forth was glorious almost beyond words. The backing vocalists led by Vula Malinga delivered those doo doos in perfect harmony, while virtuoso American jazzman Cory Henry splashed dexterously around on Hammond organ as he sang a somewhat more lyrically complex lead vocal about escaping into visions of paradise

Perhaps in honour of the master, Henry wore impenetrable dark glasses throughout, so I don’t suppose he was dependent upon the teleprompter. A keyboard player of dazzling nimbleness, he was the astounding centre of this tribute to Wonder’s groundbreaking 1973 funk and soul masterpiece Innervisions, singing with a bold, jazzy inflection on Wonder’s familiar vocal style, and switching deftly between organ, piano and synthesiser. The fusion with the orchestra offered a richly textured soundscape for a set of utterly fantastic songs, yet I did also wonder about the relative merits of the constituent parts.

There were three other keyboard players in the ensemble, plus an electric guitarist, bassist, percussionist and a drummer borrowed from Stevie Wonder’s actual band. The strings sounded particularly fulsome filling out ballads, and the swells, stabs and swinging interplay of the horn section were thrilling on the funkier numbers, but it was the electric band who were doing all the heavy lifting. The bearded Buckley stood at a podium, swaying to the rhythm and pointing his baton to introduce various musical elements, yet in effect his role seemed more akin to musical director than conductor, with the rhythm of the band holding everything in tight place.

An encore of Superstition (from Wonder’s 1972 album Talkin’ Book) had the whole room on its feet grooving to the pulse of a Clavinet keyboard, but when charismatic guest singer Sheléa Frazier led the crowd in a spontaneous singalong coda, it was notable that only the band musicians jumped in to vamp along, whilst the orchestra watched from their seats, out of their element when it came to improvisation. There would be no jammin’ til the break of dawn.

Buckley is a fascinating adventurer in the hinterland between modern and classical music, constantly seeking inventive ways to blend orchestral instruments with contemporary genres. At previous Proms he has paid homage to Quincy Jones, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, and elsewhere has worked closely with DJ Pete Tong to reinterpret electronic dance music. There is no doubt that he has a deep feeling for this music, and you can’t argue with the palpable joy of the occasion. Yet once again I found myself wishing he might dare to jettison his dependence on electric elements to anchor the sound. Might it be possible for classical instruments alone to replace the synths and drum machines that have rendered orchestras almost redundant in pop? Now that really would be a thing of wonder. NMC

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until Sept 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441;

Castalian Quartet, EIF ★★★★☆

The Castalian Quartet at the EIF: Sini Simonen, Yume Fujise, Ruth Gibson and Steffan Morris
The Castalian Quartet at the EIF: Sini Simonen, Yume Fujise, Ruth Gibson and Steffan Morris CREDIT: EIF

First things first, and credit where it’s due: second violinist Yume Fujise, a last-minute stand-in for the Castalian Quartet’s indisposed Daniel Roberts, did a remarkably assured, thoroughly idiomatic job across a long, demanding programme in the ensemble’s morning recital at the Edinburgh International Festival. Most importantly, Fujise allowed the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new quartet Awake to go ahead.

Truth be told, though, the premiere must have been the least of Fujise’s worries. Turnage’s new piece was a calm, assured, deeply reflective work in two slow movements, whose title, the composer indicated, referred punningly to both ‘woke’ political ideas and also a funeral wake – in this case a belated one for violinist George Bridgetower, who gave the premiere of what became Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata.

Turnage’s new work began with an angular, thorny, Kreutzer-esque violin solo, dispatched with thorough conviction and chiselled articulation by the Castalian’s first violinist Sini Simonen. What followed, however, was far less assertive and attention-demanding, but a lot more thoughtful. Through dense, thick harmonies – sometimes quite reminiscent of Bartók, sometimes quite jazzy (complete with a distinctive funky bassline from cellist Steffan Morris) – and even the beginnings of a textbook fugue to kick off the second movement, Turnage conjured an air of quiet calm, posing plenty of questions without offering many answers. While it might not have set out to shock and provoke, there was plenty to sit back and admire in Awake’s unforced craftsmanship and its easy-going confidence.

It also provided the launchpad for the tightly conceived concert’s two other pieces. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata inspired a novella by Tolstoy, which in turn inspired Janáček’s First String Quartet, the Castalians’ opener. They offered a blisteringly vivid, energetic account, definitely not for everyone with its unpredictable, free-form rhythms and its occasional rasping, almost pitchless figurations. But it was a performance with – appropriately – a story to tell, and the Castalian players were determined to tell it, even if a few details might not have been quite the letter of what Janáček intended.

Ironically, their closing Beethoven Op. 130 Quartet was surprisingly calm, even tentative by comparison: its succession of vividly dispatched movements felt like the fire and fury of earlier were suddenly absent. The players were holding things in reserve, though, for a blistering, raging Grosse Fuge finale, which they played as if through gritted teeth, with a return to the attitude and aggression of their opening Janáček. The ever-present fugue theme felt etched in rock at its every appearance – but there were just as many high spirits in the movement’s major-key sections. A truly memorable performance. DK

The Edinburgh International Festival continues until 27 August. Tickets:

Proms 2023, Endgame, BBC SSO/Ryan Wigglesworth, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

Endgame, at the 2023 BBC Proms
Endgame, at the 2023 BBC Proms CREDIT: BBC/Sisi Burn

Since its premiere at La Scala in Milan almost five years ago, György Kurtág’s only opera Fin de partie (Endgame) has been seen in Amsterdam, Valencia and Paris, and Pierre Audi’s original production is set to travel to New York. British audiences are by now used to getting concert versions rather than full stagings of important productions that tour elsewhere, but with Endgame – featuring little “action” – this matters less, and Victoria Newlyn semi-staging at the Albert Hall felt satisfyingly complete.

Perhaps the most truly Beckettian response there is in music to the writings of Samuel Beckett, the Hungarian composer’s opera is all stillness. Three of the four characters are immobile and rooted to the stage – the blind and crippled old Hammand his even more geriatric parents Nell and Nagg – and only their lame servant Clov can move, albeit with difficulty. Putting this bleak picture on stage at the Proms required just costumes and the two dustbins in which Nell and Nagg live, plus a symbolic chess piece alluding to the knight in the text and the endgame manoeuvres.

Kurtág was 92 when his perfectly bleak opera was premiered and, at 97, he still reserves the right to expand a work he has subtitled “scenes and monologues”. But Endgame feels complete. It’s at once quintessential Kurtág – spare and delicate – yet different from anything else he has composed for being so much bigger; at two hours’ duration, it adds up to about one-fifth of his entire output.

Waiting for a tune in it may be like waiting for Godot, but there is plenty of humour in the score, not least Hamm’s yawning set so onomatopoeically to music and the giant orchestral alarm clock that accompanies Clov’s waking of Nagg. From the softly menacing brass fanfares that launch the work to the aching chords at its close, the conductor Ryan Wigglesworth kept superb control of the music and its many silences, inspiring a remarkable feat of concentration from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

All four singers were superb, three of them having created their roles in Milan: Frode Olsen as an inscrutable Hamm, Hilary Summers bring her ethereal contralto to Nell and Leonardo Cortellazzi’s Nagg relishing his part in the tender bickering of these old crones. As the newcomer, Morgan Moody caught perfectly the fussiness of Clov.

Opera companies here ought to have been queuing up to present this challenging work, one of the most significant new operas of the 21st century, so more power to the Proms for having presented this British premiere. JA

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until Sept 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441;

Prom 41: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko ★★★☆☆

Alexandre Kantorow, BBC Proms
Like a romantic poet: Alexandre Kantorow CREDIT: Andy Paradise/BBC

Last night’s Prom brought yet another full house, for a programme that was not exactly a crowd-pleaser. It launched off with one of those infinitely remote orchestral soundscapes by Hungarian modernist György Ligeti, continued with Beethoven’s most intimate piano concerto, the Fourth, and ended with the most perfectly formed and perfectly tragic of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the Tenth.

So plenty of depths for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and its Music Director Vasily Petrenko to plumb. Which they did at times, and yet the evening didn’t really hit the heights. The opening piece, Ligeti’s Lontano needs an inhuman perfection in performance to shine, with turns between different sorts of music that are as absolute and instantaneous as a cinematic jump-cut. Here one or two were just slightly blurry, which compromised the lovely playing elsewhere.

In Beethoven’s concerto the orchestra played beautifully, with just the right almost-casual delicacy. The problem here was the soloist, Alexandre Kantorow. A recent winner of the Tchaikovsky piano competition – the world’s most prestigious – Kantorow is wonderful in romantic music, and he even looks the part of a slender, distracted-seeming romantic poet. But he seemed uncertain how to handle Beethoven’s concerto. Sometimes, as in the modest, almost throwaway opening he strove for weightiness, pulling the tempo around and lingering over details.

At other times Kantorow went the other way, emphasising the lightness of the music’s silvery filigree so much the bass register seemed to disappear. As a result the piece seemed like a succession of interesting moments, without a core of real feeling. It was a reminder that to make this music speak a soloist really needs the courage to be simple. Perhaps one day Kantorow will find it.

With Shostakovich’s 10th symphony, a piece often described as a portrait of the horrors of Stalinism, Petrenko was on his home territory. The orchestra certainly gave its all, and there was some wonderful solo playing; the huge, world-weary sound of bassoonist Richard Ion was especially affecting. But overall the tragic weight of the piece seemed over-emphasised. In the tip-toeing third movement the pace was so heavy the music’s irony was actually diminished. And the introduction to the grotesquely cheerful Finale was taken so slowly it lost its character as an introduction and seemed indulgently long and directionless. Shostakovich may be the great musical memorialist of totalitarianism, but even his most tragic memorials need some light and shade. IH

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds;

Prom 36: A Space Odyssey at the Royal Albert Hall
Prom 36: A Space Odyssey at the Royal Albert Hall CREDIT: Mark Allan

Proms 38 and 39: Budapest Festival Orchestra/Ivan Fischer, Royal Albert Hall ★★☆☆☆/ ★★★★☆

The idea of giving a Proms audience the chance to choose its own concert programme from a list of 200 pieces was bold. But as this Prom from the Budapest Festival Orchestra proved, if you want a genuinely interesting concert, ask a professional to plan it. After a convoluted and seemingly endless voting process we ended up with an ad-hoc ‘symphony’ with movements culled from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Beethoven’s Pastoral, Dvořák’s Seventh and Mendelssohn’s Scottish – all fine in themselves, but not exactly original choices. Fischer could barely hide his disappointment.  And strung together they sounded bizarre. The orchestral playing was uncharacteristically rough-edged as if the players were sight-reading the music, which of course they were.

The best things musically were the fiery Hungarian folkdances and an arrangement of “Tea for Two”, slipped in by small groups of players to fill time during the voting shenanigans. They reminded us just how characterful the individual players of this orchestra are, and that character shone out brightly in the orchestra’s main evening concert.

The aching nostalgia of the Third Piano Concerto by Béla Bartók, composed by the great Hungarian when he was mortally ill and thousands of miles from home, owed much to the lovely solo playing of clarinettist Ákos Ács and flautist Anett Jóföldi.

But it owed even more to the rich, ripe playing of the great Hungarian-born pianist Sir András Schiff. Schiff showed a keen awareness of the many different sides of this deceptively gentle piece, and how the music turns between them in a moment: the elegant neo-classicism, the hymn-like feeling of the central movement, the rumbustious folkdance of the final movement.

Schiff was not the only distinguished soloist of the evening. The young German soprano Anna-Lena Elbert made a spell-binding appearance as the comic Chief of the Secret Political Police in a scene from György Ligeti’s absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre. The orchestra responded to her crazed yet perfectly tuned shriekings in kind, the percussionists scrunching paper bags with comic fury and Iván Fischer throwing in some nonsense shoutings from the podium. It deservedly brought the house down.

After all this nostalgia and nihilism Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was a refreshing blast from an era when the future could still inspire hope and confidence. To bring out that quality, many conductors give the piece an edge-of-the-seat speed and electricity. Under Fischer’s more expansive direction, and with the BFO’s special Central-European orchestral glow, Beethoven’s immortal symphony took on an epic but still exciting breadth.

Listen to these Proms on BBC Sounds;

Prom 36: A Space Odyssey, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

Edward Gardner conducting Prom 36: A Space Odyssey
Edward Gardner conducting Prom 36: A Space Odyssey CREDIT: Mark Allan

No doubt about it – the Proms has a magic power to take big risks, and be rewarded for them. Where else in the world would 5,500 people turn out to see a monstrously difficult, ear-bendingly dissonant modernist masterpiece and cheer at the end?

Admittedly this particular masterpiece, the Requiem by Hungarian composer György Ligeti, whose 100th anniversary falls this year, has one huge factor in its favour: it featured in the soundtrack of director Stanley Kubrick’s most famous film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and so is half-known to millions. In this concert it sat alongside two other pieces made famous by that film, Ligeti’s short choral piece Lux Aeterna and Richard Strauss’s vast orchestral “tone-poem” Also Sprach Zarathustra.

On stage for the Requiem were no less than 284 musicians. An enlarged London Philharmonic Orchestra filled the platform, and rising in seemingly endless serried ranks behind them were the singers of the London Philharmonic Choir, the Royal Northern College of Music Chamber Choir, and the Edvard Grieg Kor, all the way from Bergen in Norway.

In its atmosphere of terror and desolation, Ligeti’s work feels like a Requiem for the end of religion. At times it sounded as if all the voices of humanity were joined in a rising murmur of distress, rent by shrieks from the brass, floor-shaking basses from the organ and double-basses, and sudden silences.

For this to feel awe-inspiring rather than simply odd all those hundreds of musicians needed to be razor-sharp in sound and timing, which they certainly were. The two soloists, soprano Jennifer France and mezzo-soprano Clare Presland, conjured the right uncanny purity of sound, and conductor Edward Gardner maintained an electric tension across those explosions and yawning silences.

After the interval came a piece which showed a very different response to the end of God: the heroic creed of Nietzsche’s Superman, as expressed in Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Once again Gardner paced the narrative very shrewdly, pushing forwards from that famous trumpet-and-organ opening to Strauss’s portrayal of Zarathustra’s restless search for a new sort of faith.

The uncanny ending of Strauss’s piece, played by the LPO with luminous perfection, is normally the most haunting moment in any concert in which it appears. But not here. For sheer strangeness it was outdone by György Ligeti’s short choral piece Lux Aeterna, sung by the Edvard Grieg Kor from somewhere out of sight, high up in the balcony. It seemed as if an icily pure yet somehow tender Music of the Spheres had descended into the darkened hall, and for me was the Proms’ best moment yet.

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until Sept 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441;

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ryan Wigglesworth, Usher Hall, EIF ★★★★☆


The challenging, contemporary aspect of classical music is something the Edinburgh Festival has always tiptoed around, with a couple of premieres sprinkled here and there to give the impression of genuine commitment. To her great credit, the EIF’s new director – the superb violinist Nicola Benedetti – wants to change that. In her pre-concert introduction to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Sunday, she spoke of wanting to encourage “a deeper culture of listening” and launch a conversation about what “new music” is for: the values it can serve, the feelings it can create.

What followed was indeed an inspiring lesson in just how deep those feelings can be. We heard four superb works composed in recent decades (the newest was from 2013, the oldest from 1989) that set the mind racing and the heart beating quicker. All four were defiantly high-art utterances, inspired by those twin pillars of the classical music realm: art and nature. Politics didn’t get a look-in, which some might say gave a lop-sided view. For example, one of Frederic Rzewski’s ruggedly socialist pieces would have provided a useful counterweight to all the aestheticism.

But the big advantage of Benedetti’s choice was that the pieces, despite their differences, cohered into a deeply satisfying whole. The two that took their cue from nature were Virga by Edinburgh-born Helen Grime, inspired by that mysterious rain that evaporates before it hits the ground; and American composer Elizabeth Ogonek’s as though birds. In each case, immediately apprehensible sounds (mists in the one, twitterings in the other) burgeoned into something rich and strange, stirring up feelings that normally lie untouched, and connecting them with these aspects of the visible world.

More overtly emotional was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes, which took the dispassionate darkness of Francis Bacon’s reimaginings of the 17th-century Pope Innocent X, and made of them something almost gleefully violent and horrifying. Most moving of all was Let Me Tell You by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, which imagines the rich inner world of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was suffused with melancholy and a tender, solemn gravity unique in contemporary music, to which the singing of Jennifer France gave a piercing, poignant edge.

The performances by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth were superbly honed and magnificently impassioned. And if Benedetti and broadcaster Tom Service, on hand to provide linking commentary, were sometimes at a loss for words, that was all to the good. It showed why we need music: to say all those impalpable things that words cannot reach. IH

The Edinburgh International Festival continues until 27 August. Tickets:

Tan Dun: Buddha Passion, EIF ★★★★☆

Chen Yining with her lute during Buddha Passion, composed and conducted by Tan Dun (r)
Chen Yining with her lute during Buddha Passion, composed and conducted by Tan Dun (r) CREDIT: Jess Shurte

“Where do we go from here?” is the theme chosen by Nicola Benedetti, star violinist and new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, for the 2023 edition – and Saturday night’s opening concert suggested an answer. It was given over to a performance of the huge Buddha Passion by Chinese composer Tan Dun, the message of which couldn’t be mistaken: throw off your ambition and your desire, and embrace the Buddha’s creed of compassion for all things.

Tan Dun is among a new generation of Chinese composers who’ve built flourishing careers in the West. He may be the best-known of them all; certainly, none is operating on such a grand scale. This Passion is modelled on JS Bach’s two extant Passions, which tell the story of Christ’s final days on earth. It unfolds as a series of grand choruses alternating with numbers for solo or duet voices, with an orchestra swelled by sloshing bowls of water, and Tibetan prayer-bowls that emit a throbbing hum.

One oddity of Tan’s Passion, however, is that, unlike Bach’s, in which Christ and his torments on the Cross are continually present, here the Buddha was curiously absent. Little is known, in reality, about this quasi-mythical figure, but we do know that he found enlightenment after witnessing human suffering and mortifying his own flesh. Most composers would seize on the opportunities that such a biography offers for darkness and sorrow, so as to make the musical climax more dazzling, but Tan preferred to dwell on other legends about Buddha’s life and his disciples, such the compassionate Deer of Nine Colours, who saves a human being, but is then killed, in a parable of human greed.

It was hard to avoid the suspicion that Tan did this, in part, to avoid spoiling the picturesque quality of his music. The Buddha Passion is rooted in the pentatonic scale used widely in South-East Asia, which has historically been deployed in the West to evoke a supposed timeless innocence: see, for instance, the opening of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Nonetheless, Tan’s score was coloured with undeniable skill, blending elements that sometimes were Western (such as the Brahms-like off-beat chords in the horns), sometimes Eastern, and sometimes both at once. At both the midpoint and the end, he fashioned an impressive long, slow build towards a huge, overwhelming choral-and-orchestral climax.

The performers in this taxing piece were beyond praise. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus and RSNO Youth Chorus had to master rhythmically tricky parts in Mandarin and Sanskrit, and the seven soloists were superb, above all the dancing lute player Chen Yining and blazingly heroic soprano Louise Kwong. Most impressive of all was Tan himself on the podium, moulding the performance with exquisite sensitivity and energised decisiveness. Was it all a bit kitschy? Yes – but it was also profoundly moving. The Buddha’s message of universal compassion remains as timely as it has ever been. IH

The Edinburgh International Festival continues until 27 August. Tickets:

Proms 2023: Yuja Wang plays Rachmaninov ★★★★☆

Yuja Wang and Klaus Mäkelä perform at the Proms
Yuja Wang and Klaus Mäkelä perform at the Proms CREDIT: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

The Proms can always be relied on to muster some proper classical music stars, and last night it offered two: Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang and the 26-year-old Finnish conductor who’s now her partner, Klaus Mäkelä. Put that together with what is perhaps Rachmaninov’s best-loved piece, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and you have a dream ticket. It seemed as if the entire audience was shooting illegal videos on their smartphones.

Wang’s breath-taking musicianship, however, took centre stage. Every variation on Paganini’s famous melody shone out in its own special sombre-brilliant colours. Wang had a seductive way of giving Rachmaninov’s sensuous melodic curlicues a feline dangerousness. There was always a bite behind the caress. On the podium, Mäkelä made sure that the BBC Symphony Orchestra was just as sharp as the soloist next to him. All this meant that when that immortal melody arrived it had the air of a miracle, something tender and soft emerging from under the claws – before the dangerous glitter returned. Afterwards Wang, clearly delighted at her rapturous reception, threw off two encores including Tea for Two, and again it was the springing softness of her sound that entranced.

Wonderful though this was, it didn’t throw the rest of the evening in the shade. The evening’s premiere, Perú negro, an evocation of Peruvian folk song and dance by Peruvian-born composer Jimmy López Bellido, was that rare thing, an avowedly populist piece that managed to offer more than pizzazz. True, the harmonic moves underneath the exotic Latin percussion were remarkably close to the exoticism of Rimsky-Korsakov. But the exactness of López Bellido’s orchestral imagination, every idea seeming to spring from the soul of the instrument it was written for, was a joy. And his melodic ideas were as sculpted and memorable as the opening of a Bach fugue.

What could follow all this aural splendour and magic? More of the same but taken to the nth degree, was the answer, as the BBC SO and Chorus came together for that Proms favourite William Walton’s brazenly dramatic Belshazzar’s Feast. Both were on terrific form, both gave their all under Mäkelä’s rivetingly incisive direction. Famed American baritone Thomas Hampson seemed ill-at-ease in the role of the narrator, which needs a stentorian force and lurid colouring that don’t really suit this most aristocratic of singers. That aside, it was a magnificent performance. IH

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds for 12 months. The Proms continue until September 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441;

Proms 2023: BBC Philharmonic ★★★☆☆

James Ehnes, soloist in Walton's Violin Concerto
James Ehnes, soloist in Walton’s Violin Concerto CREDIT: Mark Allan

Every Proms season brings its crop of brand-new pieces, nearly all of them BBC-commissioned; and one always hopes that among them will be a wild card, something that aims higher than the shinily optimistic, easy-on-the-ear curtain-raiser that so many commissions turn out to be.

Thursday night’s new piece, in the third of the BBC Philharmonic’s four Proms this year, scored highly for its title alone: Kafka’s Earplugs. And the chances of hearing something extraordinary seemed high, as its composer, the Irishman Gerald Barry, has spent his entire career following Jean Cocteau’s advice to “always go too far”. Barry’s pieces are uproariously loud, manically energetic and often wildly funny.

His idea, then, of conjuring the sound-world of Franz Kafka, a famously neurotic and maladjusted writer who tried to shut out the noise of the world by plugging his ears, was full of potential both comic and pathetic. One could imagine the orchestra mimicking the sounds of overheard arguments and laughter, and popular Czech and Viennese songs on the neighbour’s gramophone, all heard indistinctly, as if filtered through gauze.

This is more or less what we got – except that the sounds were devoid of pathos or comedy. Clouds of blurry melody rose and fell, in rhythmic tandem with equally cloudy bass lines, all in a ghostly pianissimo; there was barely a change for 12 minutes. Far from being amusing, Barry’s piece was an exercise in pitilessly austere modernist abstraction. At least it prompted a cry of “rubbish” from the audience, showing that the Proms hasn’t entirely sunk into respectability.

After Kafka’s Earplugs, the rich Mediterranean warmth of William Walton’s Violin Concerto felt like a sensuous paradise, not least because the performance from soloist James Ehnes was so lyrical. Ehnes isn’t a forceful player, but he doesn’t need to be. His tone was so sweet, the difficult double scales so perfectly tuned, that he dominated the orchestra anyway.

Then came that orchestra’s chance to shine, with Sibelius’s First Symphony. Under the vigorous, emphatic direction of the orchestra’s Finnish chief conductor, John Storgårds, we were made aware of the sheer unruly energy of the piece, the way its massive contrasts of direction and sound venture perilously close to incoherence. This made the glowing triumph of the final movement even more convincing, though the ending – a sudden retreat to intimate quiet – came as a surprise. Here, in a symphony from more than a century ago, was the evening’s real wild card. IH

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds for 12 months. The Proms continue until September 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441;

Proms 2023: Felix Klieser/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra ★★★★☆

Felix Klieser, Proms
Deftness and precision: Felix Klieser CREDIT: Mark Allan

In the 118-year history of the Proms there have been many ‘firsts’ but perhaps never anything as extraordinary as what we saw in last night’s Prom from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. German horn-player soloist Felix Klieser, a man born with no arms, performed Mozart’s Fourth Horn Concerto with the aid of the toes of his left foot. It was mesmerising, to see Klieser’s toes moving with the deftness and precision of fingers. Once we’d been humbled and moved by this example of determination and talent overcoming what seemed like impossible odds, we could enjoy the joyous, stylish musicality of his performance – and that of the temporarily slimmed-down BSO.

That was perhaps the main reason this Prom drew a 96 per cent house, which was more heartening evidence that the Proms has finally thrown off post-Covid blues. But there was much else to be moved by. The BSO’s Ukrainian Chief Conductor Kirill Karabits has enriched the orchestra’s programme with many fascinating and (to us) unknown pieces from Ukraine and the old Soviet Union. We were offered one last night: the Concerto for Orchestra no 1 by Karabits’s father Ivan, subtitled  ‘A musical gift to Kiev’, and composed in 1981 when Ukraine was firmly under the Soviet yoke.

Unlike the Ukrainian premiere heard on the 1st Night of the season, which had a mystically Utopian flavour offering a musical refuge to the horrors now engulfing Ukraine, Karabits’ piece was rooted in sounds and sights of the city. Bells were a recurring presence, especially in the joyous opening, and delicate descending arabesques, suggestive of birdsong and the cool of monastery cloisters. These reflective passages were eventually caught up in a swelling grandeur (remember those ‘Great Gates of Kiev’ in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) leading via a subtly managed transition to a vigorous closing section. This was rousing but less distinctive musically, and it was the bird-song curlicues that lingered in the memory.

But the evening’s emotional core was undoubtedly Rachmaninov’s symphony, which Karabits launched at an unusually slow tempo, to bring out its vast melancholy, and the climax of the movement seemed utterly despairing. All this, as well as the dark energy of the second movement and the sunset regret of the third brought forth some lovely individual playing, even if transitions and balances were sometimes a little rough-edged. The joyous final movement, when it came, had exactly the right feeling of a long hoped-for release. IH

See this concert on BBC Four on Sunday August 13. See and hear Proms on the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds for 12 months.  

Proms 2023, Isata Kanneh-Mason/BBC National Orchestra of Wales ★★★★☆

Isata Kanneh Mason, Royal Albert Hall
An auspicious Royal Albert Hall debit: Isata Kanneh Mason CREDIT: Yusef Bastawy

Russian music is plentiful in this year’s Prom season, a pleasing sign that the odium attaching to all things Russian no longer extends to Russian culture. Last night’s Prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales offered two sides of the Russian musical genius.

The first was that strange, entrancing world of Prokofiev, as multi-coloured and changeable as a harlequin. His Piano Concerto No 3 is much the best known of the five, and is a favourite vehicle for those brawny virtuoso pianists like Yefim Bronfman with a forearm smash to rival Carlos Alcaraz. Last night’s soloist Isata Kanneh-Mason – eldest of the fabulously musical Kanneh-Mason siblings – is more sylph-like than brawny, and at no point were the piano’s strings threatened.

However this hugely difficult concerto clearly held no terrors for her. As her recordings of Clara Schumann and “Childhood Tales” show Kanneh-Mason is especially at home in music of tender intimacy, and the rare moments of quietness in the concerto glowed with that quality, tinged with the children’s toy-box magic that was all Prokofiev’s own. And she flung the virtuoso passages off with palpable enjoyment. That rising flood of scales at the beginning had just the right combination of steely efficiency and naïve excitement, and the diabolical variations of the slow movement had a capering, grinning oddity. It was altogether an auspicious Albert Hall debut.

But we mustn’t overlook the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, on terrific form under its Principal Conductor Ryan Bancroft. Their one work in the spotlight was Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, a piece somewhat tarnished from sheer over-exposure, with a progression from Slavic gloom to brassy triumph that can seem obvious. Bancroft was determined not to be obvious. The doleful introductory hymn was so slow it seemed to lose the will to live—which was perhaps Bancroft’s intention. It certainly made the unusually fast, fluttering anxiety of the fast movement stand out even more vividly.

Throughout, numerous subtleties revealed the troubled, yearning strain in the music, thanks partly to some lovely individual playing (particularly principal horn Tim Thorpe and principal bassoon Jarosław Augustyniak).  Later the big waltzing melody of the third movement where the music finally smiles had an extra vernal freshness, owing to Bancroft’s flexible tempos and elegant phrasing. So many interesting details made for a somewhat bumpy ride, but the intelligence and emotional force of the performance were never in doubt. IH

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *