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1 out of 8: the BBC Proms opening week

July 11, 2014

Proms concert audience
Photo: Michael Reeve

Next Friday, 18 July sees the opening concert of the celebrated BBC Promenade Concerts, the world’s largest music festival. Planning the programmes for the daily schedule of concerts during the 8-week jamboree must be a headache. There will always be those who focus on the lack of this or an imbalance in that, but the remarkable attendance figures suggest that the organisers have got their heads firmly screwed on. Rather than opining about the overall repertoire line-up, we thought we could dip into a few of the concerts taking place during the first week of the festival and see if anything of interest pops out from the menu.

Sir Edward Elgar
Portrait: Chai Ben-Shan

Composers don’t come more British than Sir Edward Elgar, so it’s unsurprising that he should be in the spotlight at the first two concerts: the first night features his oratorio The Kingdom, while his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 (8.557273) opens the second. This extract, in which Elgar himself conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1927 (8.111022), takes the march at quite a brisk pace, constantly leaning into the wind.

You’ll probably be familiar with the music, but have you ever wondered about the title? Its source is to be found in Act III of Shakespeare’s Othello:

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war.

The war that was to burst out in 1914, seven years after the work’s composition, was of course far from glorious. But the music survived unscathed and was last heard by a significant global audience in 1981, when it was played as the recessional music at the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer.

Illustration: Philippe Semeria

Wrapping up that July 19 concert is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The piece was originally written for solo piano, but it probably gets more airings in Ravel’s orchestrated version, from which here’s an extract from Gnomus (Gnome) (8.550051).

Many others have followed in Ravel’s footsteps, each trying to put their own stamp of authority on the best way to enhance Mussorgsky’s original piano timbre. Leopold Stokovski was one of the 20th-century’s greatest conductors. He was also a seasoned transcriber, making some 200 arrangements for orchestral forces. Among them was Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Here’s his version of Gnomus (8.557645).

It was perhaps inevitable that someday a compilation would be made of versions of individual movements by different composers to make a patchwork whole. Leonard Slatkin did exactly that and recorded the collage for Naxos (8.570716). From that disc, here’s Russian composer Sergey Gorchakov’s Gnomus.

Gnomus painting
By Wassily Kandinsky

Before we leave Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, we should mention the favour it found with Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian abstract painter, who was persuaded to devise a stage composition to be delivered in tandem with a performance of the original version for piano. Moveable sets, lighting and live performers were all involved to make a rare, one-off experience. And, lest we forget, here’s how Gnomussounds in its original version (9.80033).

Josef Strauss
Portrait: Chai Ben-Shan

The BBC Sport Prom on July 20 includes one piece that will probably be unfamiliar to the majority of listeners. It’s Josef Strauss’ Sport Polka (8.223563). At the time of its composition in 1864, all the established sports were experiencing rapid growth in Vienna. And the cover of the piano version suggests that Strauss had horse-racing, his favourite sport, in mind when writing the piece. The image sports a jockey with a female partner in a whirlwind dance together.

Rameau died 250 years ago. His Pièces de clavecin en concerts (8.550464) feature in a lunchtime concert on July 21. The movements have intriguing titles, many referring to noted personalities of Rameau’s time, such as La Marais, the composer and viol player; Le coulicam, the Persian Conqueror Kouli Khan; and La Rameau, giving us an idea of what a fly on the wall might have heard in the Rameau household at practice time.

July 22 sees a performance of Strauss’ opera, Der Rosenkavalier. Richard Strauss, that is. Not to be confused with Josef Strauss mentioned above, the brother of Johann Strauss II and part of the Viennese Strauss musical clan. If anyone is new to the family name and finds this disorienting, just remember:

Johann Strauss wrote Fledermaus;
Richard Strauss wrote properer opera.

Sir John Tavener
Portrait: Chai Ben-Shan

The concert on July 23 will be notable for the posthumous first performance of Gnosis (not to be confused with Mussorgsky’s impish Gnomus) by the British composer Sir John Tavener (1944-2013). The title refers to spiritual knowledge, a recurring element of Tavener’s output. Its running time of 12 minutes puts it among his more concise expressions on the subject.

Glagolitic script

Rounding off this first week of the Proms on July 24 is a performance of Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass (8.572639), the title reflects the fact that the text is written in the old Slavonic script. Janáček said of the work: “In the tenor solo I hear a high priest, in the soprano solo a girlish angel and in the chorus our people.” But it’s the orchestra and organ that has the brilliant final say.

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