Unfinished works and rarities

by
15 September 2017

Richard Lawrence on the latter concerts of this year’s BBC Proms

PA

WHETHER deliberately or not, one of the themes embedded in this year’s season of the Henry Wood Proms was that of works left incomplete by their composers.

First up was Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina on 6 August; six days later came both Schubert’s Eighth and Mahler’s Tenth Symphonies, followed by Elgar’s Third on 22 August and Bruckner’s Ninth on 1 September. Although all have been completed by other hands, the Schubert and Bruckner were given in their unfinished state; but BBC forces gave Khovanshchina in the version orchestrated by Shostakovich, while the Mahler was heard in the performing version by Deryck Cooke.

Cooke was modest in the description of his work; similarly, the Elgar that Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed was “the sketches for Symphony No. 3 elaborated by Anthony Payne”. It had a flurry of performances after Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC orchestra introduced it in 1998, but there seems to have been a tailing-off since then. It would be good if Daniel Barenboim were to take it up (he gave Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 with his Staatskapelle Berlin at the beginning of the season), as it’s a truly remarkable achievement, a real — and really successful — labour of love. The harsh opening, fully scored by Elgar, is disconcerting, but then comes a heart-easing second theme, and you feel that all will be well. Oramo found all the grandeur and magic in the piece.

It was preceded by Javier Perianes in a fluent account of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto. His encore, a transcription of the Ritual Fire Dance from Falla’s El amor brujo, had a fortuitous link with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert under Charles Dutoit on 17 August, which began with a performance of the complete ballet. This was rather let down by Stéphanie d’Oustrac — an excellent singer, but virtually inaudible in places. The violinist Joshua Bell was seductive in Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs.

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After the interval, Dutoit was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society; he then conducted Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony, as always a wonderful opportunity for a soloist (Cameron Carpenter on this occasion) to let rip on the Albert Hall organ.

And the organ roared again the next day, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra (by far the hardest-worked orchestra of the Proms) tackled the “Resurrection” Symphony, the second of five Mahler symphonies played this season. Oramo got beautifully hushed playing and echt Viennese glissandos from the strings in the first movement; but it’s the choir (and the organ, of course) that makes a performance: the Bach Choir and the BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-masters David Hill and Neil Ferris) did not disappoint.

There was more stupendous singing at the late-night concert on 13 August, when the 24-strong Latvian Radio Choir directed by Sigvards Klava performed Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, popularly known as the Vespers. The attack was ragged at first, but the choir soon settled down. The Alleluias in “Blazhen muzh” were beautifully tapered, and the famous descent to the basses’ bottom B flat in the Nunc dimittis followed a perfectly balanced, rocking accompaniment to the soprano and tenor melodies. It was an uplifting occasion.

So, in a different way, was 20 August, billed as “Reformation Day”, which began at lunchtime with an organ recital by William Whitehead and Robert Quinney. It was bookended by Quinney playing Bach’s “St Anne” Prelude and Fugue, the echo effect in the former surprisingly distant, the texture in the Fugue rather thick in its combination of eight- and 16-foot tone. Chorale preludes by Bach were interspersed with modern equivalents, none memorable. Quinney gave a thrilling performance of Mendelssohn’s A-major Sonata, before duetting with Whitehead in Samuel Wesley’s charming “Introduction to the Grand Fugue in E flat by Sebastian Bach”.

The afternoon brought “A Patchwork Passion”, devised by John Butt, which traced the story in excerpts from the 16th century to the present day. This worked well, though Sofia Gubaidulina after Charles Wood was a bit of a jolt. If Barry Rose’s orchestration of the Processional to Calvary from Stainer’s The Crucifixion (1887) called The Mikado to mind (1885), the beautiful postlude to the last of James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross conjured up the seascape of Peter Grimes. The BBC Singers under their new conductor Sofi Jeannin, with and without the City of London Sinfonia, moved effortlessly across the centuries.

The concert ended with the final chorale of Bach’s St John Passion. And that evening Butt conducted the Dunedin Consort in a performance of the entire work, but with a difference. Under the heading “Leipzig Liturgy for Good Friday Vespers”, Butt added chant, pieces for the organ, and three chorales in which the audience was invited to join. It required some imagination to think of the hall as a Lutheran church, but the communal singing certainly instilled a sense of participation; it would have been even stronger if the whole performance had been in English.

Butt cleverly chose a Prelude in F sharp minor by Buxtehude to start with, so there was no clash with the Baroque-pitch G minor of the opening chorus. There’s no denying, however, the disparity between the mighty organ and the relatively modest forces (though not one-to-a-part, thank goodness) of the Dunedin Consort. The Baroque pitch was of no help to the Evangelist of Nicholas Mulroy, who struggled with the low notes; none the less, his was a grippingly fervent interpretation. Matthew Brook was a grave, noble Jesus; his fellow bass, Konstantin Wolff, coped manfully with Butt’s hell-for-leather “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” after a movingly intense “Betrachte, mein Seel”. Tim Mead, on the other hand, was equally unfazed by a very slow tempo for “Es ist vollbracht!” The muted violins in “Erwäge”, too weedy for the hall — not that the more usual violas d’amore would have sounded any better — enabled one to concentrate on Andrew Tortise’s expressive singing; Sophie Bevan, backed by no less than four flutes, was exemplary in her two arias. The performance overall was splendidly dramatic, chorus and recitative tumbling over each other.

The world of the Bohemian Reformer Jan Hus and the wars fought in his name in the 15th century, was celebrated on 26 August by the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra under Jakub Hruša. The programme included works by Smetana, Dvorák, and Josef Suk which all quoted the battle hymn “You who are warriors of God”. The concert began with the hymn itself, sung unaccompanied, fortissimo, by the men of the greatly enlarged choir. The last two numbers of Má Vlast outstayed their welcome, but it was a pleasure to hear two rarities, Dvorák’s Hussite Overture and Suk’s symphonic poem Prague, the latter with its poignant cor anglais solos and stately ending.

Just as rare was Martinu’s Field Mass. It was composed in 1939 for outdoor performance, scored for woodwind, brass, percussion, and, surprisingly, piano and harmonium. It’s not a Mass at all, but a cantata including texts from the Psalms and poems by the composer’s friend Jirí Mucha. There were trumpet fanfares, intense declamation by the baritone Svatopluk Sem, and a haunting chordal section reminiscent of Russian Orthodox chant.

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The usual end-of-season clutch of symphony orchestras from abroad began with the Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, on 25 August, followed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on the 27th. I heard the Oslo Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko on 29 August: a glittering account of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, the excellent Leif Ove Andsnes rather wasted in Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto, and — marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution — Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony, “The Year 1917”, dedicated to the memory of Lenin. It was brilliantly played, but its bombast is hard to take.

Far more enjoyable was the concert on 21 August, when the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra appeared with their Music Director, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla. She and Leila Josefowicz were cool and precise in the motor rhythms of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto; and she and the tenor Allan Clayton had a ball with Canada, a fun piece by Gerald Barry which defies concise description. But it’s Beethoven who lingers in the mind: a stirring Leonore No. 3 Overture and a performance of the Fifth Symphony that, notwithstanding rushed opening phrases, near-inaudible violins in the transition to the Finale, and the omission of the Finale’s repeat, was so fresh that it was as though you were hearing the piece for the first time.

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