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‘German bands’, Belgian voices  

by
16 September 2016

Richard Lawrence on his final selection from this year’s BBC Proms

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THE 122nd season of the Henry Wood Proms, promoted since 1927 by the BBC, came to an end last Saturday. Future researchers will note with interest that, in the year that the UK voted to leave the European Union, the last fortnight of the festival included ten concerts by seven orchestras from Germany, Austria, France, and Hungary.

Four of the seven were from Germany. Quite unbidden, lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida came into my head: “When German bands From music stands Played Wagner imperfectly”. Actually, the Dresden Staatskapelle’s encore of the Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin under Christian Thielemann (8 September) was exhilarating. The first part of the programme, however, comprised a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto which suffered from a loss of momentum in the first movement, and tone from the soloist, Nikolaj Znaider, which was in places too pale and thin. After Reger’s charming “Mozart” Variations came Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel: skittish at one point, as though Till was off to Maxim’s in the (as yet unwritten) Merry Widow.

At least Znaider played the familiar cadenzas by Fritz Kreisler. The evening before, Daniil Trifonov — well-known for his Rachmaninov and Prokofiev — showed little affinity with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, K467. He went badly astray in the bars preceding the first-movement cadenza: one could have overlooked that, had not the cadenza itself (his own) been an insensitive, anachronistic mish-mash, outdone only by his cadenza in the third movement, which was even more vulgar.

The other work in the programme was the last in a series of Bruckner symphonies. This was the Third, in the version of 1876-77. Like many of its fellows, it owes much to Beethoven’s Ninth: more than the others, indeed, with the bare fifths and descending arpeggios of the opening. Thielemann conducted a noble performance, the brass especially fine in the Adagio.

The Fourth and Sixth Symphonies were given by the Berlin Staatskapelle, conducted by Daniel Barenboim on 5 and 6 September respectively. In the former, the horns were outstanding, especially in the Tristanesque Scherzo. In No. 6, it was the richness of the strings in the slow movement which was particularly impressive. Each symphony was preceded by Barenboim playing and directing a Mozart piano concerto. No. 24, K491, was suitably impassioned in the first movement, with some lovely playing from the woodwind in the Larghetto. No. 26, K537, was the unannounced substitute for the advertised No. 22, K482, a much better piece: disappointing.

The remaining Bruckner symphony was the unfinished No. 9, performed on 30 August by the Vienna-based Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. This orchestra, more than 100 strong, is made up of players aged between 17 and 27, most of them postgraduates. I heard them on Radio 3 (as I did all the concerts between 29 August and 5 September): they sounded magnificent under the baton of Philippe Jordan, especially the pounding Scherzo and the spectral Trio. In Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug, Christian Gerhaher, prince among Lieder-singers, sounded as though he found the music too low; and, at eight minutes, the tender aria “Schlummert ein” was really too fast.

The Proms of yesteryear were recalled in the all-Beethoven concert on 29 August, when the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was conducted by the 89-year-old Herbert Blomstedt. In the Fifth Piano Concerto, the vigour of the opening tutti, due emphasis given to the sforzando markings, was matched by the deliberate, almost aggressive, triplets from Sir András Schiff, when the piano made its proper entrance after the initial flourish. There was a grand sweep to the Seventh Symphony, too, offset by beautifully moulded phrasing by the woodwind in the major-key sections of the slow movement.

After Nos. 1, 3, and 5 earlier in the season, on 2 September it was the turn of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, brought by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. It’s a sprawling piece, part funeral march, part country walk, with a demented waltz thrown in: the most memorable section of Rattle’s superb performance was the delicate, bucolic “Night Music” preceding the Finale. Brahms’s Second Symphony, on the following evening, was relaxed and sunny, with a few anxious, restless moments in the Adagio. It was a shame that Rattle omitted the repeat in the first movement.

On, then, to the choral concerts. There was more Mahler on 20 August — Tanja Ariane Baumgartner in the Rückert-Lieder, but the main work was Mozart’s incomplete Mass in C minor. The BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-master Hilary Campbell) was splendidly robust at the end of the Gloria; the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra played well for their former chief, Ilan Volkov, with lovely obbligato playing from flute, oboe, and bassoon at “Et incarnatus est”. The soprano Louise Alder blended beautifully with the players; while earlier on, her colleague Carolyn Sampson despatched the coloratura of “Laudamus te” with ease.

Mozart’s other unfinished choral masterpiece, the Requiem, was heard on 26 August. The theme of the concert was the composer’s last year (1791). It began with a surely tongue-in-cheek aria, “Per questa bella mano”, for bass with double bass obbligato, followed by the Clarinet Concerto. For the Requiem, the choir was interspersed with the orchestra so that, for example, the basset-horns sat to the left of the conductor, the sopranos positioned behind them. The Collegium Vocale Gent (chorus-master Benjamin Bayl) was light and springy at “Domine Jesu Christe”, while the strings of the Budapest Festival Orchestra were powerfully rhythmic at “Quam olim Abrahae”. The quartet of soloists led by Lucy Crowe blended nicely in the Benedictus.

The French group Les Arts Florissants are renowned for their proselytisation of French Baroque music. They have enlarged their repertoire over the years, and on 1 September they tackled Bach’s Mass in B Minor. It was an invigorating experience. William Christie, directing from the harpsichord, began with a flowing, forthright “Kyrie eleison”, quite loud; he continued with a bouncy “Christe eleison”, and a brisk second “Kyrie”. I loved the way the solo violin dug into the phrases of “Laudamus te” in the Gloria; in the Credo, choir and orchestra were positively violent at “Crucifixus”, with a sudden diminuendo and a French-style cadence at “sepultus est”.

You really need two different soloists for the bass arias: André Morsch, a baritone, struggled with the “Quoniam” (terrific horn-playing, though), but had no trouble with the “Et in spiritum sanctum”. I thought I detected a Germanic “kvi” for “qui” from the (non-German) counter-tenor and tenor: otherwise, nothing but praise.

The Academy of Ancient Music’s late-night concert of the Handel Coronation Anthems on 8 September was a low-key affair, not as memorable as The Sixteen’s account in 2009. For some reason, Richard Egarr suppressed the famous arpeggios that introduce Zadok the Priest in favour of the unimportant chords on the oboes. The middle section of Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened was suitably prayerful; Handel’s thrilling writing for the trumpets at the end of My Heart Is Inditing went for little. Stokowski arrangements of Bach and Purcell are best forgotten, but Georg Muffat’s fifth Armonico tributo sonata (actually a concerto grosso) was well done, notably the final “Passagaglia” (sic).

The penultimate Prom, on 9 September, was a Verdi Requiem with a difference: the BBC Proms Youth Choir (chorus-master Simon Halsey) appeared with a period band, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). The choir, nearly 300 strong, was heroic: singing the Introit from memory and responding to Marin Alsop’s conducting perfectly, quite unfazed by the fastest Sanctus that I can recall. The greatly enlarged OAE — eight off-stage trumpets in the “Tuba mirum”! — blazed away where required, but produced filigree textures as well. Of the soloists, Alisa Kolosova is yet another mezzo-soprano who thinks that “quidquid” is two words. The men were outclassed by the American soprano Tamara Wilson, who floated an exquisite “Requiem aeternam” at the end.

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