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
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
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
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