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Joy, eternal rest, . . . and slurping

19 September 2014

Richard Lawrence is impressed by the Proms, but not by all who go to hear them


BEETHOVEN's Ninth Symphony is performed every year at the Henry Wood Proms in the Royal Albert Hall; this year, it returned to its traditional slot on the penultimate evening (12 September).

It was fascinating to hear it so soon after the contemporary Missa Solemnis, performed at the late-night concert on 26 August, the symphony progressing from tragedy to a joyous proclamation of the brotherhood of man, the Mass an affirmation of faith on a grand scale, written, in the composer's words, "to awaken and permanently instil religious feelings".

The outstanding contribution in the Ninth came from the choirs: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir and Children's Choir, the Leipzig Opera Chorus, and the London Symphony Chorus. All praise to chorus-masters Gregor Meyer, Frank-Steffen Elster, Alessandro Zuppardo, and Simon Halsey: the collective shout of joy was overwhelming, and the choirs were unfazed by Alan Gilbert's swift tempi. The Gewandhaus Orchestra was similarly visceral, though the near-inaudible first statement of the "Joy" theme verged on the mannered.

The Missa Solemnis was equally memorable. No performance conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner is without its eccentricities or irritations: here it was the former, a very deliberate phrasing of "Et vitam venturi". But what a joy to hear the 44-strong Monteverdi Choir in full cry, including the tenors' fearless, unstrangulated top A at "Quoniam tu solus sanctus", plus the lean, tangy sound of the period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The same performers can be heard on a CD, recorded at a concert from the Barbican.

The Proms' First World War theme continued in mid-August. On the 17th, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Manze included music by three of the war's casualties. Music for Orchestra by Rudi Stephan featured solos for bass clarinet, cor anglais, and violin, and a fugal Finale. Elegy by Frederick Kelly - Australian, but educated at Eton and Balliol - was composed in memory of Rupert Brooke: pleasantly modal, with homophonic string-writing an agreeable contrast with the counterpoint of the Stephan piece. Best of all was George Butterworth's Six Songs from "A Shropshire Lad", orchestrated by Philip Brookes, and sung with impeccable diction by Roderick Williams. I caught the BBC4 transmission on 22 August: it was marked by a stilted and evidently scripted exchange between the two presenters.

The poems incorporated into Benjamin Britten's War Requiem are by another war casualty, Wilfred Owen. The performance on 21 August was deeply moving. After the final "Amen" had died away, there was the longest pause imaginable before Andris Nelsons lowered his arms and the cheering broke out. The BBC Youth Choir (chorus-master Simon Halsey) sang with splendid forcewhere required, but were hushed, light and urgent at "Quam olim Abrahae" in the Offertorium. The offstage CBSO Children's Choir (Halsey again) brought an unusually female timbre to their music. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra played like heroes, and the Albert Hall organ blasted terrifyingly at the reprise of "Dies irae" in the Libera Me.

The soloists were Susan Gritton, Toby Spence, and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, all excellent; but it's impossible to forget Peter Pears in the tenor part, and Spence couldn't match Pears's perfectly floated phrasing at "Dona nobis pacem".

All four of Brahms's symphonies were scheduled. I listened on Radio 3 to the Budapest Festival Orchestra's performance of Nos. 3 and 4 on 26 August. Some of Iván Fischer's tempi were on the slow side. This paid off with the stately opening to the last movement of No. 4. The encore was charming: the orchestra put down their instruments and sang Brahms's Abendständchen (Evening Serenade). The Cleveland Orchestra played the First and Second Symphonies on 7 and 8 September respectively. In the former, the beautiful solo for violin and horn towards the end of the slow movement lacked poetry, but Franz Welser-Möst redeemed himself by not slowing down for the reprise of the brass chorale in the Finale. The genial Second Symphony fared better overall, without being in any way remarkable.

Each concert began with a Brahms overture - the Academic Festival, and the Tragic - and continued with a work by Jörg Widmann (b. 1973). The Flûte en suite, superbly played by its dedicatee, Joshua Smith, was entertaining: especially the Allemande, where the soloist was partnered by the variously sized flutes in the orchestra; and the final Badinerie, which cheekily quoted from and parodied Bach's Second Orches- tral Suite. Teufel Amor, a "symphonic hymn", on the other hand, was episodic and outstayed its welcome.

Of the seven Mahler symphonies given during the season, I heard two. The Resurrection, No. 2, was performed on 29 August by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Daniel Harding ignored Mahler's instruction that a long pause should follow the first movement, but he did obey the injunction to play the last three movements without a break. Indeed, there was no pause after the second movement either; so the work proceeded in one mighty span.

There was plenty of power in the opening Allegro Maestoso, and a fetching lilt to the Ländler; the final pages didn't quite make their full impact, despite the sterling work of the Swedish Radio Choir and the Philharmonia Chorus (chorus-masters Peter Dijkstra and Stefan Bevier). But the last movement of Mahler's Third Symphony, played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on 11 September, was a complete success, Alan Gilbert taking it as slowly as possible without letting the ensemble fall apart. Ravishing phrasing, especially from the cellos; Part One was distinguished by noble playing from the horns and trombones, and the contributions later by the mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger and the Leipzig choirs were first-rate.

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was announced for Bach's St Matthew Passion on 6 September, holding out the possibility of a grand, old-fashioned performance with massed strings. But the instrumental group was tiny: it had to be, as this was a staging by the American director Peter Sellars. Christus - the excellent Christian Gerhaher - was up by the organ in Part One, invisible in the gallery thereafter. The other soloists moved around, interacting with the obbligato players. Mark Padmore's Evangelist - beautifully sung - was no detached narrator but an active participant, with a lot of hugging.

The Berlin Radio Choir sang extremely well in the circumstances (chorus-master Simon Halsey - how the man gets around!). Some of the solo singing was dull or effortful, and some of Sir Simon Rattle's tempi were eccentrically fast. Sellars had a well-deserved triumph years ago with Handel's Theodora at Glyndebourne (available on DVD); but this was an act of supererogation if ever there was one.

The end of August brought two opera performances to mark the Richard Strauss sesquicentennial. On the 30th, the Deutsche Oper Berlin was imported for Salome, conducted by Donald Runnicles. Burkhard Ulrich and Doris Soffel were richly characterful as the appalling Herod and Herodias, and Samuel Youn made a powerful Baptist until a slight mishap caused him to resort to a copy of the score. But the eveningbelonged to Nina Stemme's princess: wheedling, petulant, or triumphant, she effortlessly rode the orchestra with generous, full, and unforced tone.

And, as if one dysfunctional family wasn't enough, the next evening brought Elektra. This was a one-off, but, most impressively, all the soloists sang without scores. Christine Goerke was simply stunning as Elektra, as fresh when exulting at the end as she was in her brooding opening monologue. Gun-Brit Barkmin made an admirable foil as her wimpish sister Chrysothemis, despite her bobbed hair, which gave her a disconcerting resemblance to Louise Brooks in the film Pandora's Box. Their mother Klytemnestra was played by Dame Felicity Palmer: both sympathetic and spine-chilling, it was a spell-binding performance, magnificently sung. The BBC Symphony Orchestra can hardly have this music in their bones, but the precision of the playing was breathtakingly good. Semyon Bychkov looked relaxed, but the sounds he conjured up were anything but: he was stupendous.

So, thanks to the BBC, the Proms go from strength to strength. The Prommers' behaviour is impeccable. But what is to be done about the rest of the audience, who slurp drinks during the music and applaud between movements? Almost as bad, there are middle-aged men in shorts. Horrible!

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