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The best classical concerts of August 2023, reviewed

Sep 22, 2023Sep 22, 2023

In Prom 27, pianist Yuja Wang met a rapturous reception in a glorious evening of Rachmaninov and a Jimmy López Bellido premiere

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;

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;

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.

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

See this concert on BBC Four on Sunday August 6. See and hear this Prom on the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds for 12 months.