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A Proms season of grace and glory

21 September 2012

Richard Lawrence on Berlioz, Schoenberg, Howells, and Sullivan


Presiding over the revels: the conductor Jiri Belohlavek during the finale of the BBC Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London

Presiding over the revels: the conductor Jiri Belohlavek during the finale of the BBC Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London

THE Henry Wood Proms (Arts, 24 August) ended on 8 September with the usual high jinks. The part that I saw on BBC1 was notable for two things: the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja's approximate rendering of "Rule, Britannia", and Britten's arrangement of the National Anthem, with its prayerful first verse.

The previous fortnight brought the customary descent on London of orchestras from abroad. Customary, but we should never take the BBC's enterprising munificence for granted: where else could you hear, in rapid succession, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the St Louis Symphony, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra?

The two Vienna concerts were conducted by Bernard Haitink. On 6 September, he played Beethoven and Bruckner. I must admit that my attention wandered during the latter's Ninth Symphony, in which there seemed little momentum. I was fully focused on Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, though, where Murray Perahia - after a smudged opening - gave a performance of limpidity and grace that confirmed his status as a great pianist.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra's all-Mendelssohn concert under Riccardo Chailly on 1 September was enjoyable without being memorable. The outer movements of the Violin Concerto were too fast, and Nikolaj Znaider's tone was too thin. The Proms première of the "original" version of the "Reformation" Symphony was mildly interesting for its inclusion of a section for solo flute that anticipates the chorale "Ein' feste Burg" of the Finale. Two overtures, Ruy Blas and The fair Melusine, went with a swing, but it was the encores that lingered in the mind: Znaider's Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach's Third Partita, and Chailly's rumbustious Wedding March from Mendelssohn's music to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The second weekend of August brought a remarkable trio of choral concerts. On the tenth, Sir Mark Elder and Hallé forces plus the London Philharmonic Choir gave The Apostles. As with The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar owed a debt to Parsifal, especially here in the writing for strings. It has been talked up in recent years, but The Apostles remains an uneven work. With his exemplary attention to detail, Elder made the best possible case for it.

All the soloists were first-rate: Rebecca Evans, Alice Coote, Paul Groves, Jacques Imbrailo, David Kempster, and Clive Bayley; but it was Bayley's Judas that really gripped the attention. His asides during the Beatitudes were aimed at us, the audience; his dark, clear tones gave Judas's nihilistic soliloquy the force of a dramatic scena. Equally moving in a quite different way was the women's chorus, accompanied only by a solo viola, after Peter's betrayal.

The next evening, it was the turn of the Berlioz Requiem, not heard at the Proms since 2000. It demands four extra brass groups (Belshazzar's Feast, performed on 31 July, requires a mere two). Even if it was not feasible to place them at the four points of the compass as specified, they should have been properly separated. The effect, both visual and aural, was lost. But the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (augmented, as used to be said) made a splendid noise in the "Tuba mirum", as did the basses of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the Huddersfield Choral Society, and the London Symphony Chorus (chorus-masters Adrian Partington, Joseph Cullen, and Matthew Hamilton).

The unaccompanied "Quaerens me" was ruined by bronchial coughing from members of the audience: fortunately, they didn't spoil the beautiful diminuendo on the last chord of the "Lacrimosa". The flute and trombone chords in the "Hostias" caused some unease. Overall, though, this was a fine conclusion to Thierry Fischer's six-year tenure as Principal Conductor of the orchestra.

On 12 August, the choir area was again packed, this time for Gurrelieder, Schoenberg for people who don't like Schoenberg. A ripely Romantic piece, first performed in 1913, for soloists, chorus, and a Wagnerian-sized orchestra, it is well suited to the Royal Albert Hall; sad to say, the tenor Simon O'Neill was often drowned. Jukka-Pekka Saraste, a late replacement, confidently steered the BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus, and Orchestra, among others, to the C-major splendour of the conclusion.

Rather different from any of these was The Yeomen of the Guard on 19 August, which I watched on BBC2 a few days later. Yet there is something in common, as the excellent overture is where Sullivan meets both Wagner and Mendelssohn; it was a pity that the viewer's attention was diverted from the music by images of the cast. The semi-staging was imaginatively directed by Martin Duncan (but why the anachronistic costumes?); Jane Glover's conducting could have been more loving. The wrong phrasing of "I have a song to sing, O!" was a recurring irritation, and Andrew Kennedy made heavy weather of Colonel Fairfax's two songs. But it's good to see a new G & S tradition established: the ever-topical Iolanthe next, I hope.

At the late-night Prom on 22 August, Robert Hollingworth conducted a programme under the title "1612 Italian Vespers". I heard it on Radio 3, visualising the three ensembles - I Fagiolini, the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, and City Music - spread around the hall: wrongly, as the spoken introduction implied that all the performers were on stage.

The first part included four Vesper psalms by Viadana, a contemporary of Monteverdi: Dixit Dominus included a nicely sung tenor duet, the voices sometimes alternating, sometimes combining in thirds. After a short pause came two pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, separated by a Monteverdi Salve Regina. The Magnificat and the well-known motet In eccelesiis had both been reconstructed by the scholar Hugh Keyte. If the former was indeed composed to celebrate the victory over the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto in 1571, it was a remarkable achievement for a teenager.

This version, which incorporated trumpet fanfares, drums, bells and cannon, sounded splendid. Pity it can't make its way as "The 1612". As for In ecclesiis, Keyte's theory was that what survives is a cut-down "short score". So 14 parts become 22, all the solo and choral sections expanded except, as far as I could tell, the tenor duet at "In Deo salutari meo". As with the Magnificat, the sound was opulent.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of the Proms was the scheduling of Herbert Howells's Hymnus Paradisi on 29 August. Composed in the aftermath of the death of his nine-year-old son in 1935, it was not performed until 1950. It begins and ends with "Requiem aeternam": in between come Psalms 23 and 121, the latter combined with the Sanctus; extracts from the Burial Service and the Salisbury Diurnal follow. The opening of the "Preludio" is a grandson of the Prelude to Parsifal, via the Prelude to Gerontius; and, although it was Stanford who regarded Howells as "his son in music", it was Parry who came to mind in the overly thick scoring of "Holy is the true light". It is the quiet passages that are the most affecting: in this performance, nothing was more moving than the rapt ending - unaccompanied soloists and chorus - to "I heard a voice from heaven".

The BBC Symphony Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir (chorus-masters Stephen Jackson and Neville Creed) gave their all, as did Miah Persson and Andrew Kennedy. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra returned after the interval with Elgar's First Symphony.

It was an excellent season; but here's a plea to the organisers for next year: discourage the audience from applauding between movements, and do not admit latecomers.

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