BBC Proms 2020 [BBC Proms On The World Service] [World Service]

Episodes

EpisodeTitleFirst
Broadcast
RepeatedComments
01London Symphony Orchestra Play Ad\u00e8s And Vaughan Williams2020090520200906 (WS)Thomas Adès: Dawn (BBC commission: world premiere)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 in D major
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Despite the profound disruption that Covid 19 has caused to live music everywhere, BBC Proms returns to the airwaves this summer. It's a much shorter season than usual and there is no audience in the Royal Albert Hall in London but the line-up of musicians is as impressive as ever.

In this visit to the 2020 season on BBC World Service, London Symphony Orchestra, one of UK’s finest, with their music director Sir Simon Rattle play a new work by the contemporary British composer Thomas Adès and the Fifth Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The subtitle of the Adès work is ‘Chacony for orchestra at any distance’. It references not just a musical form from the Baroque, much loved by the likes of Purcell, but also uncertainty about what exactly social distancing means for orchestral musicians in a live concert. And the composer has expanded the usual meaning of ‘distance’ to a cosmic scale: he said that the inspiration behind the piece was an image of dawn constantly breaking over different parts of the Earth as seen from space.

The first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony took place at the Proms in 1943, at the Royal Albert Hall, when the composer was in his early 70s. As it was his first major work in a number of years, it was an eagerly awaited occasion. The Prommers on that summer evening were treated to a radiant composition of serenity and grace, quite a contrast to the events of World War 2 then unfolding. For several previous decades, Vaughan Williams had been working on an opera based on Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. Afraid that he might not be able to finish it, he used some of the music in the symphony and the spirit of that 17th century parable suffuses the orchestral writing. As Neville Cardus, one of the prominent critics of the day, wrote: "The Fifth Symphony contains the most benedictory and consoling music of our time."

(Photo: Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in 2018 Credit: Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images)

Highlights from the 2020 season of BBC Proms, the UK's greatest classical music festival.

Highlights from the BBC Proms, the UK's greatest classical music festival

02Joy And Sorrow: Shostakovich's Piano Concerto And Ravel's Tribute To Lost Friends2020091220200913 (WS)Maurice Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin
Dmitry Shostakovich: Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings (Piano Concerto No. 1)

Benjamin Grosvenor, piano
Jason Evans, trumpet
Philharmonia Orchestra
Paavo Järvi, conductor

In our second visit to the 2020 season of BBC Proms, London's Philharmonia Orchestra, directed by the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi, play two contrasting works. The first is a gentle tribute to both the lost world of 18th century courtly dances and to friends of the composer, Maurice Ravel, lost in the First World War. The second is the exuberant Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Two young British musicians, pianist Benjamin Grosvernor and trumpeter Jason Evans, are the soloists in the Concerto.

The French composer Maurice Ravel wrote Tombeau de Couperin, which in this context loosely translates as a Memorial to Couperin, around the time of the First World War. Francois Couperin was a leading composer of the French Baroque era of the 17th and 18th centuries and Ravel's piece originally started as a transcription of one of Couperin's dances called Forlane. That was in early 1914. Then the First World War began and things changed for music, musicians and the rest of Europe. Ravel became a truck driver at the front and the carnage he witnessed affected him deeply. So what started as a good-humoured re-working of 18th century courtly music turned into a memorial to fallen friends. For instance, the last movement of the original piano version of the Tombeau is dedicated to the musicologist Joseph de Marliave: his wife Marguerite Long gave the premiere of the piano suite in 1919. Ravel, who had unparalleled command of orchestration, later turned four of the six movements of the piano version into a symphonic work that has remained popular ever since.

Dmitry Shostakovich started his musical career as a pianist. In fact, in 1927 he was among the finalists of the Chopin piano competition in Warsaw, perhaps the most stringent of the world’s piano contests. He wrote his Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings as a vehicle to show off his pianistic skills, giving the premiere in 1933 and continuing to play it for many years afterwards. The unusual inclusion of trumpet as a second solo instrument is explained by the work's genesis: it was originally conceived as a concerto for Alexander Schmidt, the principal trumpet of the Leningrad Philharmonic, whose playing deeply impressed the composer.
The mood and form of the Concerto is far removed from the tradition of big Russian romantic concertos, such as those by Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. Instead, Shostakovich uses just the limited colour palette of a string orchestra and produces an ever-changing kaleidoscope of short melodies and quirky harmonies, liberally peppered with distorted quotations from other composers' works and popular tunes of the day. Shostakovich spent much of this period writing for the stage and film and also had a lot of experience of accompanying silent movies on the piano. Perhaps some of the pastiche and parody, often used in these genres, has found its way into the Concerto.

(Photo: Benjamin Grosvernor, Jason Evans, Philharmonia Orchestra and Paavo Järvi play Shostakovich at a BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

Highlights from the 2020 season of BBC Proms, the UK's greatest classical music festival

Highlights from the BBC Proms, the UK's greatest classical music festival

Despite the profound disruption that Covid 19 has caused to live music everywhere, BBC Proms returns to the airwaves this summer. It's a much shorter season than usual and there will be no audience in the Royal Albert Hall in London but the line-up of musicians is as impressive as ever promising music-making of the highest standard.

Highlights from the 2020 season of BBC Proms, the UK's greatest classical music festival.