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Proms pick of the birthday boys

13 September 2013

Richard Lawrence concludes his review of the 2013 season


I WAS one of a party of hacks visiting Linz, the third city of Austria, for the opening of a new opera house last April. One morning, we were taken to the monastery of St Florian near by, where Anton Bruckner was a choirboy and where he lies buried. He was organist there, too; and we were shown round by the present organist, Klaus Sonnleitner, who ended the tour with a short recital. So it was a particular pleasure to hear Fr Sonnleitner play Bach on the Royal Albert Hall organ on 6 September, the penultimate night of the Henry Wood Proms, promoted by the BBC.

The organ is a Victorian beast, on which Bruckner himself gave a series of recitals in 1871; so we were not going to get an "authentic" account. Instead, Sonnleitner explored the richness of the instrument, starting with a magnificent performance of Alexandre Guilmant's fairground arrangement of the Sinfonia to the cantata Wir danken dir, Gott. Three chorale preludes followed, the melody of one of them - Vor deinem Thron, BWV668 - not really enhanced by the tremulant. The A-minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV543, was predictably and satisfyingly grand; and there was an encore, In dir ist Freude, BWV651, with the delightful bonus of a carillon stop.

After the interval came a symphony by Bruckner, the third such in eight days. On 29 August, the Philharmonia Orchestra had given No. 7 under their Principal Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen. This started well, with a nicely flowing first theme on the lower strings, and the climax in the slow movement was well managed, complete with the (mildly) controversial cymbal-clash; but the ending of the work, taken too fast, lacked grandeur. Five days later, it was the turn of No. 4, the "Romantic". The exposed horn solo at the beginning was blessedly trouble-free, and the Tristanesque hunt of the Scherzo came across well; elsewhere the brass sounded harsh, overpowering the strings. The violas in the slow movement were eloquent, but overall this was a mediocre performance by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra under their new Chief Conductor, Vasily Petrenko.

Back, then - or, rather, forward - to 6 September, and Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra can sound as if they are on auto-pilot, but here they were on splendid form. The brass were everything that the Oslo players were not: gleaming, rich, incisive, and yet smooth-toned, the Wagner tubas particularly glorious. The veteran Lorin Maazel, conducting without a score, turned the Scherzo into rather a stomp, but otherwise showed an exemplary grasp of the work's tragic and triumphant moods.

One of what the BBC's publicity called "key musical strands" marked the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. Janine Jansen and another visiting band, the Orchestre de Paris under Paavo Järvi, gave an outstanding performance of his haunting, neglected Violin Concerto on 1 September. It was preceded by Arvo Pärt's tedious Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and followed by Berlioz's Overture "Le Corsaire". The main attraction was Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony, No. 3 in C minor. It must be impossible to downplay the religiose slow movement; but, anyway, it's the Finale that everyone is waiting for. Järvi and the organist Thierry Escaich gave it their all: a preposterous piece, but enormous fun.

I heard the late-night Prom at home on Radio 3. This began with another neglected work by Britten, A Boy was Born. This astonishingly accomplished set of variations, composed when Britten was 19, comprises a group of mainly medieval verses, Christina Rossetti and Francis Quarles thrown in for good measure. Conducted by David Hill, the BBC Singers and the Choristers of the Temple Church gave a virtuoso performance, with a fear- less treble solo from Luke McWatters.

George Lloyd, born in the same year as Britten, composed his Requiem just before his death in 1998. His second opera, The Serf, was performed at Covent Garden before the war. To misquote Churchill on Curzon, Lloyd's morning was golden; the noon-time was lead; and the evening bronze. Completely out of sympathy with contemporary musical developments, he was ignored for decades before re-emerging in the 1980s. But I fear that the Requiem will not enhance his reputation. There is effective use of plainchant and organum; less happy are the jaunty "Tuba mirum" and a banal unison tune at "Rex tremendae". No complaints, though, about the performance. The BBC Singers were complemented by the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and the organist Greg Morris.

Britten would have hated the concert on 17 August, when Schumann - the Fourth Symphony - was sandwiched by Brahms, his bête noire. The main work was A German Requiem, performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Marin Alsop. The opening was graced by the nutty sound of the OAE's period instruments, violas, and cellos, followed by a plangent oboe. "Denn alles Fleisch" was just right: a perfectly judged tempo, a powerful choir, thunderous timpani. The gentle "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen" was too swift for my taste, but the fugal "Herr, du bist würdig" was splendidly vigorous. Henk Neven produced heart-stoppingly beautiful tone in the baritone's "Herr, lehre doch mich".

Two more birthday boys this year are Verdi and Wagner, both born in 1813. The former didn't get much of a look-in, but the BBC did Wagner proud: Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, a complete Ring cycle, and Parsifal. This last was performed on 25 August in a semi-staging by Justin Way, with the Hallé Orchestra and Royal Opera Chorus, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Good use was made of the hall's spatial opportunities, a brass ensemble, and the Trinity Boys Choir and Hallé Youth Choir (chorus-masters Michael Holiday and Richard Wilberforce) ringing out from the gallery in the outer acts. Sir John Tomlinson, replacing the advertised Robert Holl as Gurnemanz, got through the part by means of sheer histrionic skill, but he is now past his best. Lars Cleveman was a dull Parsifal, Katarina Dalayman a stupendous Kundry. Elder unfolded the long, long score with sensitivity. A black mark for the grotesque, amplified bells.

"Stupendous" is the word, too, for Britten's Billy Budd from Glyndebourne two days later. Staged by Ian Rutherford, not semi-staged: full costume, props including a rope, a hammock, a table. Like Parsifal, Billy is a redeemer: Jacques Imbrailo was both touching and fiery, disappointing only in "Billy in the darbies". Led by Mark Padmore and Brindley Sherratt as Vere and Claggart, the cast was faultless; so was Sir Andrew Davis's conducting of the Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus-master Jeremy Bines) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This was a deeply moving account of what is surely Britten's greatest opera.

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