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Resurrections and rare revivals

23 August 2013

Richard Lawrence has mixed feelings about Rubbra at the Proms


Conductor of the Gubaidulina première: Valery Gergiev

Conductor of the Gubaidulina première: Valery Gergiev

FOR obvious reasons, the Henry Wood Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, promoted by the BBC, mainly consist of large-scale choral or orchestral works; chamber music can be heard at a series of lunchtime concerts at the Cadogan Hall. But now and then there are late-night concerts at the Albert Hall featuring small ensembles - easy to skate over in a portmanteau review - that provide an experience quite as intense as anything the best of the conventional concerts have to offer.

One such was the appearance of the Tallis Scholars on 14 August. Truth to tell, they were not at their best: there was some unsteadiness, some imprecision; but their performance of Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas was mesmerising. Merely listening to the stratospheric soprano lines almost gave me a sore throat, but how beautifully shaped they were under the direction of Peter Phillips. Three Marian motets by Gesualdo sounded almost bland by comparison.

The Albert Hall is hardly the chapel of Cardinal College, Oxford (Christ Church Cathedral), where Taverner was Informator Choristarum, and Taverner's choir was all-male; but, somehow, sitting in semi-darkness, watching and listening to 14 dark-clad singers, was to be transported back in time.

Another late-night concert, on 9 August, was not so memorable, but it was not at all routine. Bach's Easter Oratorio and Ascension Oratorio were paired in lively performances by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner. In the former, the alto aria "Saget, saget mir geschwinde" was taken too fast; redemption came in the heartfelt central section. There were outstanding contributions from the flute and the recorders and, in the penultimate number of the Ascension Oratorio, flute, oboe, and violas. From the choir, nothing was more striking than the hushed beginning of the chorale "Nun lieget alles unter dir".

The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo found an equally vivid pianissimo at the end of "On the Beach at Night Alone" in Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony, the concluding work of the opening concert on 12 July. Three days later, Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which I likewise caught on BBC4 television, was notable for the way Jonathan Nott kept the strings of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra moving on in the Adagietto, almost banishing memories of Visconti's glutinous film treatment of Death in Venice.

And, talking of television, where was the deferred relay, promised in the prospectus, of Mahler's Second Symphony ("Resurrection"), the concert that preceded Gardiner's Bach? That was not the only let-down. For some, enjoyment of the piece is contingent on the sheer volume of the mighty chords on the organ at the end; but the mighty Albert Hall organ was silent, replaced by a feeble portable instrument, presumably on account of a difference of pitch.

Mariss Jansons got some stylish portamento - sliding between the notes - from his Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and conducted energetically. The Bavarian Radio Chorus and the WDR Radio Choir, Cologne, were superb at all dynamic levels; and placing the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists between the harps and the woodwind enabled them to blend with and magically emerge from the choral background.

At least the Albert Hall organ had its moment in the peroration of William Walton's March Orb and Sceptre on 6 August. Another work written for the coronation celebrations in 1953 was Edmund Rubbra's Ode to the Queen, a song-cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. Rubbra was my tutor at Oxford, and I am predisposed in his favour: but, with the best will in the world, I found this setting of 17th-century verse gritty and pedestrian. The exception was the second poem, William D'Avenant's "Fair as unshaded light", with its slow, repeated harmonic clashes. Susan Bickley and the BBC Philharmonic under John Storgårds performed bravely, but it was a relief when Vilde Frang entered to play Bruch's First Violin Concerto. But a Rubbra symphony - that would be something.

More non-vintage novelties lay ahead, alas. On 13 August, the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev gave the UK première of The Rider on the White Horse by Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), extracted from her oratorio St John Easter. The rider is the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who "went forth conquering, and to conquer": the ear was assaulted by a loud cadenza for timpani, bass drum, and side drum, and noisy organ clusters.

The concert had opened with a welcome performance of Borodin's Second Symphony, not heard at the Proms since 1971. Daniil Trifonov (b. 1991) followed with Glazunov's Second Piano Concerto, but what really fired up the audience was his encore: a dazzling arrangement, dazzlingly played, of the "Danse infernale" from Stravinsky's Firebird.

There was an Indian theme to the first part of the Prom on 12 August. Indra was a short symphonic poem by Holst, edited by Colin Matthews. Composed in 1903, it featured Wagnerian horns and included a plangent cor anglais solo. Then came The Gate of the Moon, a sitar concerto composed and played by Nishat Khan. This was commissioned by the BBC, and you couldn't help but wonder why. Khan is a virtuoso, and an evening of ragas would have been appealing. But an amplified sitar and a conventional symphony orchestra are about as well suited as the ingredients in a dish of fusion food, and no more satisfying.

David Atherton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales returned after the interval with Vaughan Williams's A London Symphony. The stillness of the second movement was beautifully conveyed: another fine cor anglais solo, and magical horn calls. The dying fall of the ending was spoilt by the ringing of a mobile telephone and general coughing.

More Vaughan Williams was to be heard the previous evening: Towards the Unknown Region, a setting, like the Sea Symphony, of words by Walt Whitman. The concert marked the bicentenary of the founding of the Royal Philharmonic Society, and the tickets - and programmes - were free. It was the then Philharmonic Society that commissioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; and, together with the BBC and the New York Philharmonic, the RPS commissioned a new work from Mark-Anthony Turnage.

Frieze - a reference to Klimt's Beethoven Frieze - is a kind of analogue to the Ninth: no singing, no recall of previous movements in the Finale, but various structural and harmonic, similarities. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and various youth choirs under Vasily Petrenko then performed the Beethoven: a lively but ill-balanced account that will perhaps sound better when broadcast on BBC4 on 6 September.

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