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Creeds and things that shall be

24 August 2012

Richard Lawrence takes his pick at this summer's Proms

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 unison writing.

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 awful fascination.

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 five operas.

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!

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