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Celebrations, choirs, and bells

by
26 August 2016

Richard Lawrence finds plenty to savour at the BBC Proms

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AS ALWAYS, this year’s season of Henry Wood Proms, promoted by the BBC, is marking anniversaries. It is easy to criticise what can seem a lazy and obvious way to construct a programme, but there’s often much to be gained from discoveries and juxtapositions.

Shakespeare’s death is being duly commemorated, 400 years on: no opera — why no Béatrice et Bénédict from Glyndebourne? — but much else, including Berlioz’s and (in part) Prokofiev’s versions of Romeo and Juliet. Then there are com­posers’ birthdays, including, among the living, Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Anthony Payne, and Huw Watkins.

But the most memorable celebration, among the concerts I have heard so far, was the 50th anniversary of the Proms début of Bernard Haitink. In 1966, he appeared with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. This year on 29 July, at the age of 87, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s longest symphony, the Third.

It was, in a word, magisterial. The LSO played like the angels evoked in the fifth movement — how good it was to hear the orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic, for a change! — culminating in a slow movement that Haitink kept on the move with no loss of intensity.

And, as so often, several more works by Mahler have been pro­grammed. I missed the Fifth Symphony, but the First was given a fine performance on 8 August by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen. There was a spine-tingling moment when, as instructed by the composer, the horn section rose to its feet in the Finale. In the third movement, though (”from where I was sitting” should always be understood in this review) the oboes were overwhelmed by the trumpets.

On 16 August, it was the turn of the quasi-symphonic Das Lied von der Erde, brought by the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder. There was some wondrous delicacy from the orchestra and, in the second move­ment, lovely portamento (sliding) from the violins which turned Mahler into Richard Strauss.

Despite Colin Matthews’s thin­ning out of the scoring in the open­ing movement, the tenor Gregory Kunde was drowned in places.
None the less, he was more successful in robust music than in the portrayal of the friends in “the pavilion of green and white porcelain”, which was woefully lacking in lightness of touch. Alice Coote, the mezzo-soprano, was sometimes nearly inaudible; but do try the repeat broadcast (Radio 3, 30 August) for what will surely be a better balance.

Another welcome feature of the Proms is the opportunity to hear a succession of choral classics. The greatest of these to be heard in the first half of the season was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (19 July). Gianandrea Noseda con­ducted the BBC Philharmonic in a performance that was impassioned but blessedly unexaggerated. The Hallé Choir and Manchester Chamber Choir (chorus-masters Matthew Hamilton and Jonathan Lo) were tireless: full marks to the tenors for the quality of their ex­­posed entries. The solo passages were less successful, the tenor Stuart Skelton over-prominent in the ”Qui tollis” section of the Gloria.

Two days earlier, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlighten­ment under Stephen Cleobury gave Fauré’s Requiem. It is probably unfair to criticise the tenors for sounding weedy, as there were only four of them, but they really could have done with an injection from Manchester.

The trebles, too, failed to rise to the occasion at the soaring phrase before the entry of the brass in the Sanctus. Thomas Hopkins sang a beautiful, assured Pie Jesu, and Roderick Williams ravished the ear with a delicate ”Hostias” and admirable breath control in the Libera Me.

In the first half, which began with a radiant account of Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate from Lucy Crowe, Cleobury conducted a vivid, brisk performance of Haydn’s Paukenmesse.

Another French work, given on 20 July, was Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, conducted by Marc Minkowski. Scored for soprano, chorus, and orchestra, it was completed in 1951. Much of the writing recalls, or rather anticipates, the solemn, hieratic music in Dialogues des Carmélites, the opera on which Poulenc embarked a couple of years later. There are several passages for the chorus alone, which gave the BBC Singers (chorus-master Matthew Morley) a chance to show how good they are: their pianissimo in ”O quam tristis” and “Quando corpus morietur” was quite wonder­ful.

One of the influences on Poulenc was Stravinsky: it was a treat to hear Minkowski conduct the BBC Sym­phony Orchestra in a precise, brittle account of the suite from Pulcinella.

English music of the past doesn’t get much of a look-in this year: among the anniversary concerts one finds token recognition of George Butterworth (d. 1916) and Gerald Finzi (d. 1956). But there was a terrific performance of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time on 23 July, which I watched on BBC4. The BBC National Chorus of Wales (chorus-master James Henshaw) sang their hearts out for Mark Wigglesworth, and all four soloists were outstand­ing: one passage that lingers in the memory was where the mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley was accom­panied by two flutes and a solo violin.

On 9 August, perhaps stung by criticism that in the year of his death there was no music by Peter Maxwell Davies — rather harsh, considering that programming is done years ahead — the BBC inserted a piece by Davies into the BBC Philharmonic’s concert under Juanjo Mena. This was Sir Charles his Pavan, a charming tribute to Sir Charles Groves.

It was followed by Elgar’s First Symphony. If the peroration lacked weight, the work as a whole was grandly conceived: notably the longing of the slow movement, which ended with a perfectly floated phrase from the clarinet.

I will draw a veil over Jérémie Rhorer and Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, who scrambled through symphonies by Mozart and Mendels­sohn on 22 July. Of pieces by living composers, Mark Simpson’s Israfel, after a poem by Poe (9 August) pitted unison strings against the brass and was ear-ticklingly appealing.

Based on the sound of the bells of the city’s Frauenkirche, Colin Matthews’s Berceuse for Dresden (16 August) perhaps inevitably recalled Boris Godunov and Peter Grimes. It was sometimes hard to hear Leonard Elschenbroich’s cello, but the Hallé and Elder led up to a splendid climax, bells pealing throughout the auditorium.

After the Hallé came a well-attended concert by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers. Arvo Pärt’s Latin Nunc Dimittis opened with bare fifths, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, followed glori­ously by rich major chords. Triodion, a setting in English of three Odes from the Orthodox Prayer Book, is mainly homophonic, alternating with repetitive chanting. The latter is in harmony, but the piece opens and closes unforgettably with the sopranos alone.

These were the filling in a J. S. Bach club sandwich. Three motets were given, the greatest coming last. Christophers was alive to the words of Jesu, meine Freude: marcato at ”Es ist nun nichts Verdammliches”, staccato at ”Weg mit allen Schätzen”, flowing at “Gute Nacht, o Wesen”, tripping along at ”Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich”.

The only disappointment in the lunchtime concert given by Stile Antico and Fretwork at the Cadogan Hall on 15 August was that the role of the viols was simply to double the voice parts. The exception — other than the purely instrumental pieces — was Byrd’s “Why doe I use my Paper, inck and pen”, where Benedict Hymas’s tenor interwove beauti­fully with the viols’ contrapuntal lines.

The Shakespeare anniversary was acknowledged in idiomatic arrange­ments by Andrew Griffiths of two lute-songs, Morley’s “It was a lover and his lass” and Robert Johnson’s “Full fathom five”. They were sung unaccompanied, as was Robert Ramsay’s harmonically adventurous “Sleep, fleshly birth”.

”Gentle sleep” by Nico Muhly, with its rocking opening, draws on Henry IV: Part 2. Voices and viols combined in Wilbye’s most famous madrigal, “Draw on, sweet night”, after which came an encore: Gibbons’s “The silver swan”, exquisitely played by Fretwork alone before Stile Antico joined in.

Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle puts one in mind of Voltaire’s de­­scription of the Holy Roman Empire: it’s a Mass, certainly, but neither little nor especially solemn. Performed at the Chapel of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, on 6 August, it was a mixed success, acoustically: in those surroundings, the BBC Singers were too numerous for a piece conceived for 12 voices, and it was often hard to hear the harmonium. But David Hill con­ducted a first-rate performance, with an excellent team of soloists led by the soprano Elizabeth Watts. A special word of praise to Iain Farrington, the hard-working pianist. Bravo!

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