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Another ‘Dance of Death’

13 September 2013

THOMAS ADÈS, now 42, is at the top of the British musical ladder, writes Roderic Dunnett. His opera The Tempest is, to my mind, one of the most significant English operatic happenings since Peter Grimes. It was exciting, then, to find him in a BBC Proms commission turning to almost exactly the same subject as that treated by Gregory Rose at St John's, Waterloo, earlier this year.

The subject of Totentanz is the terrifying visits made by Death to figures (here) of all social backgrounds, from king to humble child, in a series of shuddery paintings by the early 16th-century master Bernt Notke.

While Rose (Arts, 7 June) sets the still part-extant sequence that Notke painted for Tallinn, in Estonia (now viewable in the St Nicholas Church or Niguliste), Adès has addressed a cycle that no longer exists: in the Marienkirche, Hamburg, it succumbed to Allied bombing in the Second World War; but images of it survive.

Rose uses half a dozen soloists to evoke Death's courtly victims. Adès uses two solos, a mezzo (Janet Baker's Dutch pupil Christianne Stotijn) and the baritone Simon Keenlyside (Adès's superb original Prospero in The Tempest). Much else was done by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, amazingly on form, under the composer. Much of the implied, as opposed to actual, word-painting is yielded by fascinating oscillations and ostinati, shivering dark woodwind, shimmering as well as often simmering strings.

Perhaps most horrifyingly, in the score as in the former painting, is the way Adès moves last to the gathering in of the haplessly mouthing, almost quietly gibbering child, as hope and potential are eclipsed and its life is grubbily snuffed out by the inexorable - so vividly evoked at St John's by a skeletal baritone.

Adès does not surpass Rose's score, which benefits from a crucial, at times thunderous, choral element. But his, too, is a major work, and both composers, by drawing our attention to a significant genre, have made a huge cultural contribution.

In another Prom, Szymanowski's Third Symphony, setting rapturous Divine-inspired texts by Jalal-ud-Din al-Rumi (variously spelt), suffered, I thought, from some so-so, even muddy enunciation of the Polish-from-Persian translation by the BBC Symphony Chorus with that of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (surprisingly, as the latter are trained by Adrian Partington and the former by Stephen Jackson). Yet we got the gist; and what Delian rapture Szymanowski serves up!

Crisper was the Swede Wilhelm Stenhammar's almost never heard tone poem Excelsior!, yielding wonders of Wagner-inspired orchestration (and Goethean visions) under their Danish music director Thomas Søndergård, making his electrifying BBC Proms début; and the best performance of Richard Strauss's equally ecstatic Alpine Symphony - without its usual longueurs - by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Equally uplifting was Schumann's Piano Concerto, with a wonderful new talent, the 18-year-old Canadian Jan Lisiecki, as soloist in the first of Sir Antony Pappano's glistening Proms: a special performance of a work that seems to grow in stature with each hearing.

The late-night concert not only shivered with ecstasy or blocked its ears for Mittwoch aus "Licht", part of Stockhausen's large operatic late masterpiece performed by Jeffrey Skidmore's scintillating, bristlingly intelligent choir Ex Cathedra; but felt the nerves tingle at the taped sounds of the same composer's Gesang der Jünglinge: what a contrast to the grim scything down of Totentanz's unhappy child.

Star billing, however, must surely go to the first ever "Gospel Prom". Pastor David Daniel suggested that the (puzzlingly, mainly white) audience become a congregation, turning the building into a cathedral of worship - not too difficult, as, in the 1880s, the Albert Hall dome must have seemed to rival St Peter's.

And we did. How we revelled in the massed choir medleys: "This Little Light of Mine", "I've Got My Mind Made Up", "Jesus, Name So Sweet", the soloist Maria Martin and the beautifully voiced Stephanie Oyerinde triumphing among the solo voices. Some of the solos emerging from the choir were just as good. Some "modern" Gospel attempts, post-1945 and even post-1970, struck me as musically (not spiritually) inferior stuff.

But nothing could match the conducting of the wonderful Ruth Waldron. Her fizz and energy were expressed in elegant, slightly flamboyant, and yet economical gestures that communicated brilliantly and instantly. I would queue up to see her conduct Bernstein's West Side Story, or Stravinsky's Firebird. Waldron was in her element here; and so, thanks to her, were all of us.

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