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A Viennese take on Gerontius

18 September 2015

Richard Lawrence finds highlights and lowlights in this year’s BBC Proms

© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Exciting approach: Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Vienna Philharmonic

Exciting approach: Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Vienna Philharmonic

THE whole point of “I bought me a cat”, one of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs, is the last verse, “I bought me a wife”. So why was it omitted at the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London last Saturday? Answers on a postcard to the BBC. But on to weightier matters.

In 2014, the Proms’ annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was restored to its traditional slot, the penultimate evening of the festival; but it was displaced again this year by something very unusual.

Elgar’s other – and surely lesser – oratorios, The Apostles and The Kingdom, were given in 2012 and 2014 respectively; now it was the turn of The Dream of Gerontius, performed not by the Hallé or one of the London orchestras, but by the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle.

I dare say it was an illusion that wouldn’t survive a blind tasting, but I thought the Viennese made the piece seem even more Wagnerian than usual, with their refulgent brass — rounded, never harsh — and silky strings. The portamento of the violas and cellos in the Prelude sounded authentically pre-war English, but Mahlerian, too. Rattle conducted excitingly — the vigorous orchestral postlude to “Sanctis fortis” was just one example — and showed an exemplary attention to details such as the poignant oboe phrase at “Manhood crucified”. But something was missing, not simply because of the secular atmosphere: empathy, perhaps.

The best of the soloists was Roderick Williams, rock-steady as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony. The part of the Angel was too low in places for Magdalena Kožená, who irritated with her theatrical gesturing and her hair-flicking. Toby Spence was a mellifluous Gerontius, sometimes hard to hear amid the orchestral glory.

The BBC Proms Youth Choir (chorus-master Simon Halsey) produced some wonderfully soft singing. But, in truth, I was more moved by this year’s performance at the Three Choirs Festival under Geraint Bowen.

Elgar’s music has traditionally been regarded as unexportable, despite its having been taken up by foreign conductors from Hans Richter to Daniel Barenboim. That this is changing is shown not only by the Vienna Philharmonic’s Gerontius, but by the performance three days earlier of the Enigma Variations by the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Yuri Temirkanov overdid the rubato in the opening statement of the “original theme”, and paused too long between the variations; but he characterised each one deftly, and avoided sentimentality in “Nimrod”. It was a treat to be offered Salut d’amour as an encore.

There was more Elgar on 30 July (preceded by Debussy and Vaughan Williams: review, Arts, 14 August). This was the Second Symphony, played by the Hallé. If Sir Mark Elder took the cello tune in the first movement too slow, the rest of the performance was magnificent: the funeral march was grand without being grandiose, the Presto third movement both spectral and violent. Orchestra and conductor are certainly on a roll with Elgar at the moment.


ANOTHER great 20th-century symphonist — whose music Elgar would probably have hated — was Dmitry Shostakovich. I caught the Eighth and the 15th Symphonies on Radio 3. No. 15, broadcast on 19 August, was played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Charles Dutoit.

With its quotations from Rossini and Wagner, and references to Shostakovich’s own music, it is an enigmatic piece. The announcer referred to it as a concerto for orchestra, and there were certainly prominent solos for flute and tuned percussion. But the label could be even more aptly applied to No. 8, given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski on 4 September. The long solo for cor anglais in the first movement lacked expressiveness, but there were notable contributions elsewhere. The whole orchestra sounded splendidly spiky in the second movement.

Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad”, was composed in 1941, during the siege of the city. Its stock has risen in recent years, for no apparent reason. Whether or not the march in the first movement represents the German invaders or depicts a more generalised attack on totalitarianism, it remains a tune, repeated to death, of stupefying banality (deservedly mocked in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra); and the noisy ending is triumphalist rather than triumphant. But on 31 July the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Semyon Bychkov played it so well that I was won over, albeit temporarily. The strings in particular were splendid, right across the dynamic spectrum.

The Tenth Symphony: now, that’s another matter. Shostakovich composed it in 1953, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death: the short, savage second movement is thought to be a portrait of the dictator himself. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who have just recorded it, performed it on the afternoon of 23 August. The concert began with a lithe account of Haydn’s Symphony No. 90, the brass a little too prominent; it was gratifying to see that the composer’s joke tricked the audience (including me) into applauding too soon.

The Shostakovich was beautifully done: the desolate opening was perfectly shaped by Nelsons, who also gave due weight to the appearances of the musical monograms in the third movement.


THE concert that evening was very different. Thierry Escaich’s organ recital was neatly planned: chorale preludes by Bach and Brahms were followed by a “Chorale-Étude” by Escaich himself. His Nun freut euch, ihr Christen was a dancing, flutey toccata. The first half ended with an impressive, improvised “Prelude and Fugue on a chorale theme by Bach”, which turned out to be Jesu, meine Freude.

There was more Bach and Brahms, and more improvisation, but the highlight was, perhaps, Mendelssohn’s grand Sonata in A, with its chromatic fugue superimposed on the melody Aus tiefer Not, which Escaich had just played in the shape of Bach’s chorale prelude, BWV686.

Bach was the featured composer at the late-night concert on 21 August. This was definitely not a highlight. David Hill showed consideration to his soloists in the Magnificat, allowing them to phrase without gulping for breath. In the Mass in G minor, the BBC Singers, after a neat “Kyrie”, were a bit ragged in the runs of “Cum Sancto Spiritu”; and the Academy of Ancient Music gave a rough and ready account of the Brandenburg Concerto No 2.

Truly memorable, though, were the veteran Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on 28 August. Maria João Pires produced a wonderful singing line in the melancholy Adagio of Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto, K488. In Schubert’s “Great” Symphony, Haitink was superb: in the first movement there was a seamless transition from Andante to Allegro, and a steady, unexaggerated peroration. The concert was broadcast later on BBC4: well worth catching, until 4 October, on the BBC Proms website.


SAD to say, there has been no improvement in the behaviour of the audience in the seats. There is still applause between movements. Drinking is positively encouraged in the hall — and not just water, either. At some of the concerts, ice-creams were being sold — again, in the hall itself — right up to the end of the interval. Is the management trying to turn the place into the Roman arena at Verona?


BORN in Bratislava, Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) is one of those great Austro-Hungarian composers who has been ostracised from the concert platform. It takes a foresighted conductor to programme his music: Franz Welser-Möst (EMI); Neeme Jaarvi (Chandos); or Zubin Mehta (on Decca).

The Proms ignored Schmidt all last century. But an apocalyptic millennial Proms sortie into his oratorio The Book of Seven Seals underlined what a grievous loss Schmidt has been. A symphonist, he also wrote some of the most stirring organ works of the 1900s, on a par with Reger.

He was initially a cellist in the Vienna Philharmonic, which, under the ex-Russian Semyon Bychkov, treated Prom 73’s audience on Thursday of last week to a thunderous, Brucknerian reading of Schmidt’s Second Symphony. Schmidt was valued: conducting, Mahler had insisted that Schmidt play all the VPO’s cello solos.

He suffered sadness: he was ineptly claimed as a Nazi; his mentally infirm wife was murdered in Hitler’s euthanasia programme; his daughter’s death inspired the heart-rending cello solo in his melting Fourth Symphony (that grieving elegy was the first of his three momentous works heard at the Proms). He narrowly missed the Second World War.

Schmidt’s Second Symphony won over Prommers: applause was deafening. The central variations start naïvely, but unfold fabulously: Schmidt even matches Reger’s magnificent Mozart Variations.

Lacklustre in Brahms’s Third, the Vienna Phil emerged radiantly, exuding sparkling definition, in Schmidt’s inspired orchestration. Parts sound like an organ (one celestial woodwind chorale). There’s something of Rosenkavalier; the Hungarian-tinged melodies for massed violins luxuriate like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov.

Was Schmidt — so disciplined and refined an Austrian symphonist — a major figure? Mahler and Schoenberg thought so: that’s no bad accolade. 


Roderic Dunnett

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