AMID all the hoopla of the Olympic Games, it was a bizarre -
albeit refreshing - experience to be listening to the simple
affirmation of the Nicene Creed three times in the space of a week
at the Royal Albert Hall. The most recent occasion was on 7 August,
when the Manchester Chamber Choir, Northern Sinfonia Chorus, and
Rushley Singers gave the first performance of Credo, a
20-minute stand-alone setting by James MacMillan.
MacMillan, whose Roman Catholic faith is central to his work,
has set the Mass many times, but, in his own words, "for various
reasons [has] never tackled the Credo until now". The opening is
quiet, the style chordal; there is greater variety in the second
section, with its threefold statement of "Filium" and
contrasting registers at "Crucifixus". In part three,
"Spiritus Sanctus", MacMillan - like many composers before
him - emphasises "unam sanctam . . . Ecclesiam" with
Rather more gripping were the orchestral postludes: especially
the first one, which featured a solemn tune on the brass followed
by skittering woodwind. After the interval, the BBC Philharmonic
under Juanjo Mena continued with a noble performance - brass to the
fore - of Bruckner's Sixth Symphony.
The previous evening brought forth the Proms première of Leonard
Bernstein's Mass. Simple affirmation, did I say? This
"Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" states the Creed
in syllabic, staccato unison. But it incorporates one trope headed
"Non Credo" and another that begins "I believe in God, But does God
believe in me?"
Mass was composed for the opening of the Kennedy Arts
Centre in Washington, DC, in 1971, a time when Bernstein was
regarded by some as the embodiment of radical chic. The
non-liturgical part of the text, by Bernstein and the co-writer of
Godspell, Stephen Schwartz, has not worn well. But the
music - which is eclectic, to put it mildly - retains a kind of
The forces required are enormous: soloists, choruses, children's
chorus, orchestra, organ, rock group, who proceed through Copland,
Shostakovich, Bernstein's own West Side Story, and even a
distant echo of the "Fugue for tin horns" in Guys and
Dolls. Most striking, for me, were the moments of repose: a
quiet, slow "Meditation" for the orchestra; a solo flute just
before the end.
Swaying, clapping, jiving: the performance was exhilaratingly
staged by Thomas Kiemle. Kristjan Järvi conducted - brilliantly - a
huge Welsh contingent that included the BBC National Chorus and
Orchestra of Wales, the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, and past
and present students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and
Drama. Catch them all on BBC4 television on 6 September.
The third Creed came in a performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor
on 2 August. The Choir of the English Concert was on excellent
form, well able to keep up with Harry Bicket's fast tempos. The
chorus basses were notably agile at "Et iterum venturus
est", but the bass aria that followed was effortful and
graceless. If the "Crucifixus" could have done with a more
prominent organ continuo, the magical transition at "sepultus
est" was well handled.
The opening Kyrie was marked by exaggerated phrasing -
staccato followed by slur - and impressively solid tone from those
basses. Carolyn Sampson was radiant in "Laudamus te", but
it was a bit of a scramble for the solo violin. The
"Quoniam" was another disappointment: too low for the
singer, the horn behind the beat, the bassoons hard to make out. Of
the other soloists, the countertenor Iestyn Davies stood out for
his heartfelt Agnus Dei. Bicket built up "Dona nobis
pacem" skilfully, the trumpets of the English Concert ensuring
a joyous conclusion.
It would probably be unfair to tar Sir Michael Tippett with the
brush of radical chic; perhaps "New Age" would better fit his
post-war image. A Child of our Time was conceived before
the war, when Tippett had moved from Trotskyism to pacifism. The
child was a Polish teenager whose murder of a German official in
Paris led to Kristallnacht. Tippett approached T. S. Eliot
to write the text; Eliot advised him to write his own, and so is
indirectly responsible for Tippett's writing the librettos of his
The performance on 1 August was magnificent: first-rate soloists
in Sally Matthews, Sarah Connolly, Paul Groves, and Jubilant Sykes,
and lively, confident playing by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under
David Robertson. The stars, though, were the 300 members of the
specially formed BBC Proms Youth Orchestra (chorus-master Simon
Halsey). Their singing of the Negro spirituals that punctuate the
score like the chorales in a Bach Passion was memorably intense
and, in "O, by and by", both soft and springy.
After the opening night, the first choral concert of the Henry
Wood Proms, promoted as ever by the BBC, was a performance of
Handel's Judas Maccabaeus on 19 July. Composed after the
defeat of the Young Pretender at Culloden, and dedicated by the
librettist to "Butcher" Cumberland, its star has waned in recent
years. With the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
under Laurence Cummings, and a clutch of Handelian soloists, why
did it not make much of an impression?
The strongest performance came from Alastair Miles, a late
replacement: he mispronounced three words in his first 30 seconds,
but redeemed himself with a vigorous "Arm, arm ye brave" and
precise runs in "The Lord worketh wonders". Rosemary Joshua and
Christine Rice duetted charmingly in "Oh lovely peace", a pastoral
evocation as English as anything in L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed
il Moderato. The weak link was Judas himself: John Mark
Ainsley sounded out of sorts, with shaky coloratura in "Call forth
thy pow'rs" and weak top notes in "Sound an alarm!" There were good
things elsewhere, but somehow the performance never took wing.
For the first time at the Proms since 1942, all nine symphonies
by Beethoven were given under a single conductor. Edward Said,
author of the now discredited book Orientalism, showed
that he had a visionary side when he and Daniel Barenboim founded
the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra - an ensemble made up of an equal
number of young Israeli and Arab musicians, plus a few Spaniards.
Their performance on 27 July came at the end of what must have been
an exhausting week, but they rose to the occasion. Particularly
fine were the first oboe and bassoon (why were the names not
printed in the programme?).
Barenboim's interpretation was certainly individual - he pulled
the tempo about, the first appearance of the "Joy" theme was so
soft as to be almost inaudible, there was a frenzied rush to the
end - but well thought out. A very black mark for the soloists'
entry halfway through, a heinous practice that I thought consigned
to history; and high praise for another monster choir, the National
Youth Choir of Great Britain (chorus-master Robert Isaacs), for its
brilliant tone and sheer stamina.
And so to an all-English programme on 31 July, the BBC National
Orchestra of Wales conducted by Tadaaki Otaka. The 50th anniversary
of the death of John Ireland was marked by These Things Shall
Be, a Proms favourite in the past. Its optimistic vision of
the future, the words taken from A Vista by John Addington
Symonds, hardly strikes a chord today. It includes a rather
splendid Elgarian tune; but the end was gentle, the sopranos
magically floating the words "Transcending all we gaze upon".
The Ireland was sandwiched by Vaughan Williams's Tallis
Fantasia and Delius's The Walk to the Paradise
Garden. Finally came Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, the
orchestra complemented by two seven-strong groups (London Brass) in
the galleries. Jonathan Lemalu, wobbly at "If I forget thee",
enunciated the description of Babylon with exemplary clarity.
Yet again the choir was marvellous: the combined BBC Symphony
Chorus and National Chorus of Wales, trained by Stephen Jackson and
Adrian Partington, keened movingly at the start and managed the
sharp rhythm and hairpin dynamics of the jubilant passages to
perfection. Otaka presided over his large forces with benign
authority - bravo!