IT IS tempting to mock the BBC for its obsession with anniversaries and birthdays when programming the Henry Wood Proms. This year, for example, we have the Russian Revolution (1917), the Reformation (1517), the Partition of India (1947), even the Stax/Volt Revue’s first tour of the UK (1967). Then there are the composers John Adams (70), Philip Glass (80), and John Williams (85). But I will forbear, because, over the festival’s two-month span, the sheer breadth and variety are so impressive.
I was sorry to miss a clutch of choral concerts between 31 July and 7 August. They sounded good on Radio 3, but all involved antiphonal effects that must have come across splendidly in the Royal Albert Hall. Raphaël Pichon brought his French Baroque ensemble Pygmalion to perform Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. It started with a surprise: a plainchant Pater Noster, intoned very deliberately by the men singing in octaves. The psalms were preceded by the appropriate antiphons for the Assumption. Pichon’s account of the whole was brisk, bouncy, and vigorous. His adoption of the current orthodoxy concerning pitch was pleasingly pragmatic: parts of the Magnificat were transposed down, but the solo tenors’ Gloria rang out like muezzins calling from neighbouring minarets.
Pragmatism became inconsistency the following evening (1 August), when William Christie and Age of Enlightenment forces presented Handel’s Israel in Egypt. It was billed as the “original 1739 version”. This was so, in that it began with the Lamentation for the death of Joseph that Handel adapted from his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline; but what followed was odd. Christie included the soprano air “Through the land so lovely blooming” (but only the first, “A”, section) that Handel added for the second performance, and omitted favourites such as the charmingly pastoral chorus “But as for his people” and the airs “Thou didst blow with the wind” and “Thou shalt bring them in”. What remained, though, was exhilarating: the choir’s semiquaver runs in “I will sing unto the Lord” were spot-on, and the stabbing trombones in “He smote all the first-born of Egypt” were terrific. The soloists weren’t left with much to do; particularly fine were the basses Dingle Yandell and Callum Thorpe in “The Lord is a man of war”.
For their contribution towards the Reformation theme, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists brought Schütz and Bach to a late-night concert on 2 August. In three motets composed around 1617, Schütz was at his most Venetian: the double choir in a setting of Psalm 115 punched out staccato phrases, and there was plenty of joy in Psalm 136, Danket dem Herren. Bach’s Cantata No. 79, Gott der Herr, was notable for its combination of horns and timpani; the bass trombone that Gardiner added to No. 140, Ein feste Burg, as an organ-pedal substitute was too raucous, but the trumpets added by Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann sounded thrilling.
That is also the mot juste for the performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast which concluded the concert on 7 August conducted by Kirill Karabits. The National Youth Choir of Great Britain (artistic director Ben Parry) phrased the melancholy “By the waters of Babylon” beautifully, and had plenty of stamina for the triumphant ending. James Rutherford was not melancholy at all for “If I forget thee”, but powerfully assertive. And the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra provided vivid illustrations in support of the choir’s praise of the various gods.
THE BBC couldn’t run to a ticket for the Church Times for the afternoon concert in Southwark Cathedral on 12 August; so I had to listen to that on Radio 3 as well. David Hill’s last appearance as chief conductor of the BBC Singers began with a smooth performance of Palestrina’s motet and Mass Confitebor tibi Domine.
Then came the first performance of a BBC commission from Judith Weir. In the Land of Uz condensed the 42 chapters of the Book of Job into a mesmerising 37 minutes. The diction of the narrator, Charles Gibbs, and, as Job, the tenor Adrian Thompson, was crystal clear; that of the chorus was less so, but what I could hear seemed to be drawn from the Authorised Version, with a few changes. The scoring was for five instruments and organ (the Nash Ensemble and Stephen Farr). There were unusual and intriguing combinations and, most striking of all, a viola (William Coleman) that complemented Job’s words, swooping and keening like some great bird. It was all quite beautifully performed.
BBCRemembered this year: Sir Malcolm SargentOn 15 and 16 July, at the beginning of the season, the Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim arrived with the Elgar symphonies. Barenboim has done sterling work on behalf of Elgar, ever since he conducted his wife Jacqueline du Pré in the Cello Concerto, and it was a pleasure to hear him with his German orchestra. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Brahms came to mind, the bassoons in the Adagio of No. 1 recalling the First Piano Concerto.
If the peroration in the Finale was not, so to speak, quite earned, the brass was magnificent, and the strings’ pianissimo was a wisp of sound. In No. 2, the first movement lost momentum, but there were grand climaxes in the elegiac Larghetto. The respective pairings were the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Lisa Batiashvili, where again the first movement didn’t quite hang together, and the UK première of Deep Time by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, typically growly with its tubas and double bassoons. This second concert ended with a perfectly judged, unsentimental “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, a speech from the conductor about education and European culture, and a rousing Pomp and Circumstance No. 1.
The next night brought the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under their Principal Conductor, Thomas Søndergård. After a seamless account of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, and a good, muscular performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 by the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, came Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. This, something of a Proms regular, was magnificent: a brutal Allegro, said to be a portrait of Stalin, and a wonderful dying away in the third movement.
Fidelio on 21 July was a disappointment. Juanjo Mena’s conducting of the BBC Philharmonic was lightweight: fine for the domestic scenes at the start, not so good when the mood darkened. Detlef Roth was an unthreatening prison governor. Curiously, there was no announcement that James Creswell was a late replacement for Brindley Sherratt as Rocco the gaoler. Ricarda Merbeth sang her big aria stirringly, but her long dress hardly helped her characterisation. Louise Alder and Benjamin Hulett made a delightful, squabbling secondary couple, and Stuart Skelton was moving as the imprisoned Florestan. The spoken dialogue was much abbreviated: understandable, but how could they cut the brief, heartfelt exchange before ”O namenlose Freude!”?
There was more Beethoven next day, when Tom Service and the conductor Nicholas Collon introduced the “Eroica” Symphony. This, with “live” excerpts and some audience participation, was better than the televised effort a few years ago when each movement of a symphony was interrupted by talk; but it was inevitably superficial. The Aurora Orchestra played the whole symphony from memory, standing up. This feat should not detract from the performance’s very real merits: a profound funeral march, confident horns in the Trio of the Scherzo, and “natural” trumpets (in a non-period orchestra) cutting through the texture.
THE death of Sir Malcolm Sargent 50 years ago was commemorated rather oddly in a recreation on 24 July of his 500th Prom, which took place in 1966. In its range and length it gave one a flavour of the concerts of the 19th century. Berlioz and Schumann in the first half, and a second half of English music: Elgar, Walton. Holst, Delius, and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to end with. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played well, but — prolonged by a speech in honour of Sargent by Sir Andrew Davis — the evening seemed to last for ever.
More enjoyable was Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony — first performed by Sargent — and Holst’s The Planets, played the following day by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under John Wilson. The latter was superb, from the aggression of Mars and cool horn and woodwind phrases in Venus to the final chords of Neptune from the CBSO Youth Chorus (chorus-master Simon Halsey).
There was another Ninth on 30 July: Beethoven’s, displaced again from its traditional slot on the penultimate night. Every year I arrive full of hope, and every year I am underwhelmed. There was nothing to criticise in the contribution from the CBSO Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales (chorus-masters Simon Halsey and Adrian Partington), singing without scores; but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Xian Zhang was neat rather than barnstorming. (And I do criticise the soloists’ entry, to applause, halfway through the symphony.)
The European première of Sir James MacMillan’s A European Requiem was another matter. A concert work in one movement, omitting the Dies Irae, it is influenced by plainchant, and, in the parallel fifths of the Benedictus, there is a nod to Britten’s War Requiem. Trumpet fanfares and baroque twiddles for three solo violins feature in the Agnus Dei; delicate tuned percussion in the Lux Aeterna; quiet drumbeats at the end. The choral writing is vigorous and gentle by turns. The soloists were the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and the baritone Jacques Imbrailo. A triumph for all.