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The trumpets and pipers

14 August 2015

Richard Lawrence on a varied Proms season with some oddities


IT HAS been a holding operation this year for the BBC’s Henry Wood Proms. Following the departure to Aldeburgh of Roger Wright, and before the arrival from Glyndebourne of David Pickard, the director this year is Edward Blakeman.

No doubt part of the season was in place before Wright left; but, whoever was responsible, some of the programming is distinctly rum. Some will wonder what “a musical homage to Ibiza and its infectious, energetic brand of club music” (29 July) or “a celebration of the thriving urban music scene” (12 August) has to do with the world’s leading festival of classical music.

They are late-night concerts, and could be said to constitute a “Fringe”. But the content of some of the traditional concerts is pretty odd, too. Who thought it a good idea to programme choral and orchestral music by Poulenc, Stravinsky, Haydn, and Mozart (21 July) — and in that order?

Even the opening concert on 17 July was a strange mixture. It began with the Overture to Maskarade — partof the Proms’ half-hearted nod to Nielsen’s sesquicentenary — after which came Dadaville, the première of a BBC commission from Gary Carpenter (b. 1951) that was inspired by Max Ernst’s “painted relief”. This was a five-minute cracker — literally, with an explosion at the end — cleverly based on the notes D and A and including some beautiful writing in octaves. Then came an over-pedalled account of Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K.466, from Lars Vogt.

The second half began with Belshazzar’s Feast, a bland suite by Sibelius drawn from his incidental music for a play. Then, at last, an electrifying performance of the Walton masterpiece. The baritone was Christopher Maltman, authoritative but with a wide vibrato. The BBC National Chorus of Wales and the BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-masters Adrian Partington and Stephen Jackson) were thrilling, with scrupulous dynamics at “in Babylon/Belshazzar the King”. Sakari Oramo got the lower strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to dig deep at “If I forget thee”; indeed, the whole orchestra played magnificently, not forgetting the extra brass in the gallery.

Belshazzar’s Feast was first performed in 1931. It was a curious experience, on 30 July, to hear some of the same words — “Babylon the great is fallen” and, differently translated, “The trumpeters and pipers are silent” — in Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas, completed in 1925. A 35-minute oratorio, so called, it was being given its first Proms performance. But it isn’t about Belshazzar: more a journey of the soul, culminating in St John the Divine’s vision of the Holy City.

Coming immediately after Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, the woodwind chords that open and close the work sounded peculiarly French, a reminder that Vaughan Williams had studied with Ravel. The Hallé and London Philharmonic Choirs (chorus-masters Madeleine Venner and Neville Creed) sang with ringing confidence, admirably complemented by the Hallé Youth and Trinity Boys Choirs (chorus-masters Richard Wilberforce and David Swinson) as the “Distant Chorus”. The baritone soloist, Iain Paterson, Sir Mark Elder, and the Hallé gave their all; and there was a beautiful violin solo from Lyn Fletcher in two passages that anticipated RVW’s Job.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was performed on 19 July; I caught the relay on BBC4, the first in a series of Sunday broadcasts in which Elder introduces one of the Proms symphonies. Elder is a serious and expert presenter, but this is a terrible idea: not only does he speak between the movements, but his talk is punctuated by snatches of what we are about to hear.

The farewell appearance by Andris Nelsons with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was strangely underwhelming. The climax of the first movement was unprepared, and the closing section was too slow. The Finale was exhilarating, though, the splendid CBSO Chorus singing without copies.

There was balm in plenty at the lunchtime concert at the Cadogan Hall next day, when Andrew Carwood directed The Cardinall’s Musick in a programme of music by Thomas Tallis.

The number of singers varied: four, one to a part, in “O Lord, give thy Holy Spirit”, which suffered from shaky intonation, and 40 — of course — in “Spem in alium”, which provided a mighty ending. With only 14, “Suscipe quaeso Domine” was almost as powerful. It was particularly good to hear “Why fum’th in fight” (Archbishop Parker’s metrical version of “Why do the nations”), the tune that Vaughan Williams used for his Fantasia.

“From the Beginning of the World” by Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b. 1980) was a nine-minute homage to Tallis which effectively contrasted passages in harmony and in unison.

And so, back in the Royal Albert Hall, to the curious and curiously ordered concert on 21 July. James O’Donnell began Poulenc’s Organ Concerto with an unbelievably loud crash, then traced the work’s journey from Bach to carousel and back again most dextrously. The BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales gave an excellent account of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms under Thomas Søndergård.

The motor rhythms of the first movement gave way to the slow fugue of “Expectans expectavi”, beautifully led off by the oboes and flutes. The gentle setting of Psalm 150 always surprises; the chorus enunciated the final “laudet Dominum” perfectly. Haydn’s trumpety Te Deum was followed by Mozart’s trumpety “Jupiter” Symphony: neither performance was anything to write home about.

Nor was the BBC Philharmonic’s concert on 1 August. The orchestra ambled its way through Schubert’s Fourth Symphony. No doubt most of the rehearsal time was spent on the other two works. The only merit of Instability, a BBC commission from Luke Bedford (b. 1978) was — possibly — that it shook the Saturday-night audience up a bit. You can compose a piece without melody, but there’s no point in a piece without rhythm. Loud single chords separated by silence would try the patience of a saint, and I was not in a saintly mood.

The choir in Bruckner’s Mass No. 3 in F minor was Orfeón Pamplonés (chorus-master Igor Ijurra Fernández). They sang bravely, but their intonation was suspect; the best singing came from the tenors. Even if the Allegro moderato marking is not to be taken literally, the Benedictus should flow: in Juanjo Mena’s hands one wondered if it was going to come to a halt.

The Verdi Requiem on 2 August was a mixed bag. Donald Runnicles got a wonderfully hushed opening from the cellos of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and there was delightful filigree from the violins in the Sanctus. “Liber scriptus” was delivered portentously, the mezzo-soprano breathing in the middle of “quidquid”, and Runnicles seemed in a hurry in places, probably because the tenor was having an off-day. Raymond Aceto, the bass, was in fine voice; Angela Meade floated a lovely “Sed signifer sanctus Michael”.

The Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where Runnicles is the Music Director, were excellent: their whispered terror in the Libera Me was memorable.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo on 4 August was not billed as a semi-staging; but staged it was, with movement, gesture, and dancing, and the Messenger making her way through the Prommers, accompanied by a chittarone, to relate the death of Euridice. Having toured the opera in the United States, the soloists and the Monteverdi Choir sang without copies. Performed straight through with no interval, it was a moving experience.

The English Baroque Soloists played nobly, especially the cornetts and sackbuts. If Gianluca Buratto disappointed as Charon, the Polish tenor Krystian Adam was outstanding, catching all Orfeo’s jubilation and all his despair. The Royal Albert Hall could hardly be a less appropriate venue, but this was a triumph.

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