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Hushed moments of mystery in South Ken

15 August 2014

Richard Lawrence at the BBC Proms


THIS year's season of Henry Wood Proms, promoted as ever by the BBC, is the last to be directed by Roger Wright, and it is more wide-ranging than ever.

Under the heading of "Global Classical Music", there are first appearances by orchestras from - inter alia - China, Turkey, Singapore, and Qatar. The First World War is commemorated, of course; Richard Strauss (d. 1864) is duly celebrated, though the anniversaries of C. P. E. Bach, Gluck (both b. 1714), and Rameau (d. 1764) are virtually ignored. And there are workshops for families, and many premières of new music.

Among all the symphonies, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler are generously represented; and it was a treat to find both of Elgar's, programmed less than a week apart. On 6 August, Mark Wigglesworth conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a performance of No. 1 which was almost completely satisfying: "almost", because the brass sounded harsh rather than noble; but the Adagio was deeply moving in its aching tenderness. A virtuoso account by Matthew Trusler of William Mathias's Violin Concerto was preceded by another rarity, the Overture to Wagner's early opera Das Liebesverbot.

Elgar's Second Symphony was given a magnificent performance on 31 July by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko. A twinge of disappointment at the absence of the optional organ part - Thomas Trotter had earlier starred in Strauss's bombastic Festival Prelude - was soon forgotten. Hushed moments of mystery in the first movement also enabled one to forget, temporarily, the endless straining at the leash of the vigorous opening theme. In the funereal second movement, Petrenko reduced a passage for the strings alone to the merest whisper, and he achieved a similar delicacy towards the very end of the work.

Strauss's Deutsche Motette was hardly worth the effort that the wonderful BBC Singers put into it (chorus-master Paul Brough); Inger Dam-Jensen's singing of the Four Last Songs was pleasingly bright rather than lush, and Petrenko ensured that the overall effect was not too glutinous.

Elgar was also featured on 18 July, the first night of the season, with a performance of The Kingdom, which is being talked up nowadays as the equal of The Apostles, or even The Dream of Gerontius. There are some fine passages: a noble peroration to the "Pentecost" section, a delicate introduction to "The Sign of Healing" that anticipates the Dream Interlude in Falstaff, and Mary's "The sun goeth down". But nothing much happens, for an awfully long time. The brass of the BBC Symphony Orchestra had a field day, especially the horns, and the BBC Symphony Chorus and National Chorus of Wales (chorus-masters Stephen Jackson and Adrian Partington) sang their hearts out for Sir Andrew Davis.

More English music was to be heard on 1 August, in a concert that began with a work by poor, tormented Ivor Gurney. Gurney, who spent the last 15 years of his life in a lunatic asylum, is best-known for his poetry and his songs. This, however, was War Elegy, an orchestral piece lasting some 13 minutes. Completed in 1920, around the time of the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, it was haunting, but a little too long, owing something to the Elgar of the previous evening.

After the last-minute substitution of an accordion concerto by Sally Beamish, Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a vivid account of Walton's First Symphony. Perhaps the "Presto, con

malizia" was lacking in bite, but the long string phrases of the slow movement were beautifully handled. As ever, the Finale called Walton's later film music to mind.

An unusual pairing on 24 July gave us Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. The orchestral opening to the concerto was short on tension, but Barry Douglas went on to give a performance that found all the power and the poetry. In the Janáček, the LSO, and the London Symphony Chorus seemed unfazed by Valery Gergiev's finger-conducting. The strings and celesta were magically delicate in the Sanctus, and the a cappella parts of the Agnus Dei were spot on (chorus-master Simon Halsey).

There have been two Requiems so far, on 27 July and 3 August respectively. The setting by Duruflé, so similar in mood to Fauré's but composed as late as 1947, saw the second appearance of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, joined this time by their associated orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Wales (chorus-master David Lawrence). The opening Requiem Aeternam was warm and gentle, and the brass intoning of the plainsong in the Kyrie was perfectly balanced with the choir by the conductor, Thierry Fischer. Ruby Hughes found a near-operatic passion in the Pie Jesu, and Gerald Finley matched the beauty of the cor anglais that preceded his Hostias.

Mozart's Requiem was done in the version by the American pianist Robert Levin. This is respectful of the completion by Mozart's pupil Süssmayr, while making sensible changes such as restricting the solo trombone to the first stanza of "Tuba mirum" and expanding the short-winded "Osanna" fugues. Donald Runnicles drove through the work like a man possessed, perhaps to pre-empt the applause that had interrupted his performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. The 135-strong National Youth Choir of Scotland (chorus-master Christopher Bell) were as spine-tingling at the beginning of the Dies Irae as they were precise in their articulation of the Kyrie and "Cum sanctis tuis".

The late-night Prom by Les Arts Florissants of Rameau's grands motets on 29 July was a slight disappointment. Five of the six soloists were graduates - mostly recent, some raw - of Le Jardin des Voix, William Christie's academy for young singers. In Deus noster refugium, the male quartet at "Conturbate sunt gentes" was ill-balanced, and the ensemble was poor at the end of Quam dilecta tabernacula. The choir and orchestra were on good form apart from a few uncomfortable moments from the oboes in In convertendo Dominus. Come the encores, all was forgiven: lovely choral performances of part of Mondonville's graphic In exitu Israel and a Kyrie adapted from Rameau's opera Castor et Pollux.

Of all these concerts, none was more moving than Bach's St John Passion. The Zürcher Sing-Akademie and the Zürich Chamber Orchestra responded as one to the superlative direction of Sir Roger Norrington. It was a real drama, the obbligato instrumentalists standing with the various soloists as fellow participants. The first chorus was no dirge, but a dance-like affirmation. When the soldiers cast lots for Christ's "coat without seam", they were confidential, almost nervy, as if they were anxious at being overheard. The choir (chorus-master Tim Brown) was particularly impressive when they sang softly in the chorales.

James Gilchrist was a superb Evangelist, varying the pace as though he was improvising, and emphasising key words such as "Dornen" (thorns). As Christ, Neal Davies sang firmly and with dignity. How strange, though, that in a performance from German-speaking Switzerland both men (and Jonathan Sells as Pilate) should consistently mispronounce "Juden" (Jews). The other soloists, two of whom were late replacements, were fine; but it was Gilchrist, Davies, and the choir who excelled.

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