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Music review: The Proms 

14 September 2018

Richard Lawrence concludes his reviews of this year’s Proms


The Last Night of the Proms

The Last Night of the Proms

AND so this year’s Henry Wood Proms, promoted by the BBC, came to an end on Saturday with the usual jollifications in Part Two, and a first half that set Parry and Stanford alongside a première by Roxanna Panufnik.

The penultimate evening was rather different. Theodora is the only English oratorio by Handel (apart from you-know-what) on a Christian subject. Although not an opera, it was staged magnificently by Peter Sellars at Glyndebourne, in 1996 (you can see the production on DVD and YouTube).

This performance had many good things, but it probably came across better on Radio 3. The singers sang from copies, and there was little attempt at drama: no urgency, for instance, when a messenger entered to the words “Fly, fly, my brethren.” Jonathan Cohen directed his group Arcangelo from the harpsichord with a fine sense of style. The high spots were the duets for Theodora and the Roman officer Didymus: the first one had a marvellous intensity (matched by the orchestra), while time stood still as they prepared for execution, Louise Alder and Iestyn Davies blending perfectly in harmonious thirds.

After Nos. 8, 10, and 1 (Arts, 31 August), there were more symphonies by Mahler, two of which I caught over the airwaves. On the afternoon of 2 September, on Radio 3, Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in No. 3. The brass had a bit of an off-day, but it was a pleasure to hear the fat-toned oboe in the rustic second movement. The cellos and basses were impressively unanimous in the exposed passages in the first movement, and the CBSO Chorus and Youth Chorus (trained by Simon Halsey and Julia Wilkins) were exemplary.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra presented Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on 19 August (BBC4). Here, too, the brass were fallible — except the solo horn, standing by the woodwind in the third movement — but hearty thanks to Thomas Dausgaard for not lingering in the famous Adagio.

In between these two concerts, on 22 August, came Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, from the Budapest Festival Orchestra under its co-founder, Iván Fischer. The focus was again on the first horn, positioned by the conductor in the second movement; and here, too, I was struck by the tone — pleasantly reedy, this time — of the principal oboe. In a delightful encore, the soprano soloist in the Mahler, Anna Lucia Richter, was joined by the orchestra in the latter part of “Laudate Dominum” from Mozart’s Solemn Vespers: playing and singing, that is.

Two more concerts off the air. It was fascinating to hear Shostakovich’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies in reverse order. The latter (31 August, BBC4), “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”, was performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. There was a beautifully quiet ending to the Largo; the noisy conclusion to the whole work was as enigmatic as ever.

The Fourth Symphony was withdrawn while in rehearsal at the end of 1936, and not performed for 25 years. (I recall its first London performance in 1962, and how superior it seemed to the then-new Twelfth.) Nelsons and the Boston Symphony gave a riveting performance on 3 September: brilliant playing by the strings in the quasi-fugal section of the first movement, and an eloquent, mournful bassoon in the Mahlerian march of the third.

Brahms’s First and Bruckner’s Fifth Symphonies were completed at the same time, around 1875, though the former had undergone a long period of gestation. The Budapest Festival Orchestra began its programme on 23 August with Hungarian pieces by Brahms and Liszt, jovially introduced by Fischer. It was good to hear the band letting its hair down, and there was terrific violin playing from father and son József Csócsi Lendvai and József Lendvay, and a virtuoso cimbalom player, Jenö Lisztes. The Brahms symphony went well, spoilt only slightly by Fischer’s over-detailed approach in places.

Bruckner’s Fifth, the next day, was a triumph for the hard-worked BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo. It was beautifully paced, with particularly sonorous playing in the Adagio. All that was lacking — hardly the players’ fault — was a cathedral-like acoustic to enable the silences in the first movement to resonate.

Two more orchestral concerts stood out. I heard the second of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s two concerts on 2 September. Under its Chief Conductor Designate, Kirill Petrenko (not to be confused with Vasily Petrenko, of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), the orchestra kicked off with two tone-poems by Richard Strauss, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”).

What a Rolls-Royce instrument Petrenko is inheriting from Sir Simon Rattle! The refulgent brass, the double basses digging into the music in the second piece: every department singing sweetly without sounding bland. And, with reduced numbers, the players surpassed themselves in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony: so exhilarating in the fast movements, so delicate in the Allegretto, the orchestra responsive to Petrenko’s minutest gesture. This concert was, for me, the highlight of the season.

Not far behind, though, was the all-Berlioz programme on 5 September. Joyce DiDonato, a real stage-artist, was mesmerising in the cantata La mort de Cléopâtre, and in Dido’s death scene from Les Troyens. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique gave a breezy account of the Overture Le corsair; and Dido’s scene was preceded by the “Royal hunt and storm”.

After the interval came Harold in Italy, a symphony with a part for solo viola. Antoine Tamestit was, in his own way, as dramatic as DiDonato. As the embodiment of the Byronic hero, he took up a position by the harp for his opening phrases, and then, as the work progressed, weaved his way through the orchestra, playing (from memory, of course) and reacting. It was a bravura performance.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, no stranger to Berlioz, conducted wonderfully well: the brass-players’ rubato in the triplets of the Finale was worthy of Sinatra himself.

The Royal Albert Hall is not the only setting for the Proms. At lunchtime on 20 August, the BBC Singers — conducted for the first time by Sakari Oramo — performed a cappella at the Cadogan Hall. It is hard to imagine Parry’s moving Songs of Farewell being done better: perfect intonation throughout, rich tone in the antiphonal “Lord, let me know mine end”. It followed short pieces by Bridge, Vaughan Williams, and Holst, and a BBC commission by Laura Mvula (b. 1986). This was Love Like a Lion, a setting of three poems by Ben Okri; with its flavour of gospel music, the last was particularly delightful.

Then, on 1 September, armed with map, compass, and rations, I trekked to Alexandra Palace, where the theatre is being restored, for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. First came a rather limp sequence of English light music, vocal and orchestral, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I wonder who made the selection? Excerpts from, say, The Arcadians and Chu Chin Chow would have been more fun. The G & S was staged in front of the orchestra by Jack Furness. There was much mugging, especially from Mary Bevan as the Plaintiff, but the cast, led by Neal Davies’s Learned Judge, communicated their enjoyment, supported by Jane Glover conducting the BBC Singers and Concert Orchestra. It was hard to catch the words, though they were clear enough in the broadcast.

Back in the Albert Hall, the last few days of the season produced an excellent crop of choral concerts in addition to Theodora. On 30 August, Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus (chorus-master Neville Creed) in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. The opening phrase on the cellos was too soft: if your pianissimo is near-inaudible, where do you go when Verdi demands pppp? The off-stage trumpets at “Tuba mirum” sounded too close. Such questions of balance apart, both chorus and orchestra were on excellent form.

I had mixed feelings about the soloists. The tenor Dmytro Popov took the opening “Kyrie eleison” in one splendid breath, but his consonants in the “Ingemisco” were poorly articulated. There was a curiously occluded quality to the tone of the bass, Tomasz Konieczny. On the other hand, Lise Davidsen and Dame Sarah Connolly (a late replacement) were well matched in the “Recordare” — and I have never heard the woodwind’s repeated echo of the previous section’s “Salva me” played with such clarity — while Davidsen soared gloriously over everybody else at the end.

There were one or two problems of balance in Britten’s War Requiem on 6 September, notably when the chamber group accompanying “Be slowly lifted up” was drowned by the timpani. But the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the combined RSNO Chorus and Huddersfield Choral Society (Gregory Batsleer the chorus-master for both) delivered a knock-out performance of this masterpiece. One of the many instances of careful preparation was the whispered, tightly controlled “Quam olim Abrahae”. The RSNO Junior Chorus (chorus-master Anne Murphy), perched up in the gallery, were impeccable. They were almost all girls rather than the composer’s specified boys, but you couldn’t tell. The soprano Erin Wall, correctly positioned by the choir, blazed forth at “Liber scriptus”, and in the Sanctus, but was sometimes lost in the thick texture. Allan Clayton floated a perfect “Dona nobis pacem”; he and Russell Braun were memorably expressive in “Strange meeting”.

Later the same evening came “Before the ending of the day”, a recreation of compline by the Tallis Scholars. They processed through the Arena, the Prommers parting like the waters of the Red Sea, singing the last section of Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo virtutum. The all-female “Chant choir”, directed by Patrick Craig, took up position by the organ, while the mixed choir, under Peter Phillips, were on the platform.

Thereafter, the two groups alternated seamlessly, the platform choir singing short pieces by Padilla, Gallus, Tallis, Pärt, and — with an extra group offstage — the Allegri Miserere. Psalms 4 and 91, every verse sung to the same simple chant, outstayed their welcome. But O Maria salvatoris mater, by John Browne, one of the Eton Choirbook composers, made a stirring, epic conclusion in the hands of Phillips and his virtuoso singers.

It was not exactly a palate-cleanser, but the certainties of late medieval man came as balm after the exposed wounds of the War Requiem.

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