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Music review: The Proms

31 August 2018

Richard Lawrence on a Proms season that marks centenaries

BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The bust of the Proms’ founder-conductor Sir Henry Wood looks out across the Royal Albert Hall

The bust of the Proms’ founder-conductor Sir Henry Wood looks out across the Royal Albert Hall

AS EVER, the BBC has used this year’s season of Henry Wood Proms to mark a number of anniversaries: unusually, they are all centenaries. The most prominent is the end of the First World War, while it was the granting of the vote to (some) women that lay behind the BBC’s commissioning pieces by eight women composers. The year 1918 also brought the death of Debussy, Parry, and Lili Boulanger, and the birth of Leonard Bernstein.

Two of the themes were combined at the opening concert on 13 July, which I watched on BBC2. Holst’s The Planets (first performed in 1918) was followed by Five Telegrams, a collaboration between Anna Meredith and 59 Productions, subsequently performed at the Edinburgh International Festival (Arts, 24 August). This was a 25-minute choral and orchestral piece based on telegrams from the front, complemented by multi-coloured visual projections.

As it was unhelpfully filmed — there were no subtitles, and it was impossible to read the chapter headings briefly displayed in the hall, other than the fifth and last — one could get only the most general impression of repeated chords and flashing lights. That last section, “Armistice”, ended loudly, but began with a surprisingly gentle passage for cello solo, joined by strings and tuned percussion. Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master Neil Ferris), the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (chorus master Ben Parry).

The concert on 21 July began with a nine-minute choral piece by a Latvian composer, Eriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977): a setting of “A Shadow” by Longfellow, in which a father wonders what will become of his children once he is dead. The BBC Proms Youth Choir under their chorus master, Simon Halsey, gave a beautiful performance of this largely homophonic piece, notable for its moving repetitions of the last line, “They will find hope and strength as we have done.”

Donald Runnicles conducted the World Orchestra for Peace — an army of generals — in Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, before choir and orchestra combined in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: here, Runnicles was impressive in his control of dynamics, and in the powerful, steady coda to the first movement. Yet again, though, I must protest against a round of applause on the entry of the soloists after the second movement. It is disrespectful to the other artists, the audience, and, most important, the composer.

Five of Mahler’s completed nine symphonies are being given this year. First, on 22 July, was the mighty No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand”. Thomas Søndergård conducted the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales (chorus master Adrian Partington) in a barnstorming performance that yet impressed most in the quiet passages: the mysterious orchestral introduction to Part 2 and the hushed Chorus Mysticus, the basses’ bottom notes astonishingly audible.

The Welsh choir was complemented, magnificently, by the BBC Symphony Chorus, the London Symphony Chorus (chorus master Simon Halsey) and the Southend Boys’ Choir and Girls’ Choir (chorus master Roger Humphrey). Fine soloists, with a bell-like Mater Gloriosa from the soprano Joélle Harvey, high up in the gallery.

On 9 August came the Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, imaginatively programmed with — and following without a break — Webern’s contemporary Five Pieces for Orchestra. The Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen dispatched the latter miniatures with delicacy and precision, but were found wanting in the Adagio: it sounded under-rehearsed, with scrawny tone in the exposed passages for the violins.

More successful was Mahler’s First Symphony the following evening, when Sir Antonio Pappano brought his Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia from Rome. There was some lovely tone from the cellos in the first movement, and each strand in the funeral march — based on “Frère Jacques” but in the minor key — was etched with expressive clarity.

It was preceded by Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah”. Bernstein is still best known — well, as a conductor, really; but his reputation as a composer rests on his musicals. West Side Story was given two performances on 11 August, and On the Town could be seen on BBC4 on 25 August. The last movement of the “Jeremiah” is a setting in Hebrew of verses from Lamentations beginning with “How doth the city sit solitary”.

The mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong sang it with great intensity, but it was the orchestral postlude, reminiscent of Richard Strauss, that I found more appealing. Perhaps the most effective movement is the scherzo (not so called), with its rhythmic teasing. Alert readers will able to see Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” (also performed by the LSO under Sir Simon Rattle in Edinburgh), on BBC4 tonight.

Lili Boulanger, the younger sister of the renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, died at the age of 24. Pour les funérailles d’un soldat, a setting of a poem by Alfred de Musset which she completed in 1913 as a composition exercise, opened the concert on 12 August. It starts with the drums alone beating a march rhythm; later the orchestra sounds the Dies Irae in bare octaves. The repeat of “Il est mort” recalled medieval organum. The BBC Symphony Chorus and the baritone Alexandre Duhamel were movingly passionate.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra continued with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Jean-Guihen Queyras rhythmically imprecise in the second movement, but full of nostalgia in the Adagio. The same chorus and orchestra had opened the first concert with Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region; now came more Walt Whitman, in the first Proms performance since 1964 of the composer’s 1936 cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem. “Qu’on voile les tambours”, begins the Boulanger; “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is the violent start of Vaughan Williams’s second movement. It is a remarkable piece, with its march-like “Dirge for Two Veterans” and triumphant Gloria before the hushed “Dona nobis pacem”. Sophie Bevan, up by the organ, Neal Davies, and the BBC forces under Edward Gardner did it proud. Catch it on BBC4 on 2 September.

There was more Boulangerie in an all-French programme three days later, with Lili’s 25-minute setting of Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme, a piece that Nadia recorded 50 years ago (and was also given at the Three Choirs in Hereford, Arts, 17 August). There’s a reminiscence of the Dies Irae right at the start; and a two-note phrase, the descending semitone that traditionally signifies lamentation, is woven into the fabric. Ludovic Morlot conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the CBSO Chorus (chorus master Julian Wilkins) in a fervent performance. The work is thickly scored, and sister Nadia should have taken a posthumous blue pencil to the over-written organ part. All praise, though, to Ed Harrison (uncredited in the programme) who had to duet with Justina Gringyte’s rich mezzo from his place — why? — in the chorus.

I caught three July concerts after the event. On the 27th, Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales presented a programme of English music. The irony! But you could argue that Parry and Williams are Welsh surnames. Holst’s Ode to Death — yet more Walt Whitman — led to Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony, the “Pastoral”. It shows a debt to Ravel (and, perhaps, The Planets), making it hard to see how it was ever thought to depict the English countryside. There were haunting moments, especially from the off-stage trumpet recalling the bugle-calls of the trenches.

The two works by Parry (also heard at Hereford) were a real treat. The Fifth Symphony, from 1912, has a name for each movement. I couldn’t follow “Now”, the last, but “Play”, a scherzo, was clear enough, as was the preceding “Love”. The first movement, “Stress”, has a quiet, Brahmsian opening.

“Hear my words, ye people” (from 1894) begins with an extended organ introduction, magisterially played by Adrian Partington. Brass and timpani enter at “The Lord’s seat is in heaven”, and there are solos for soprano and barirone (Francesca Chiejina and Ashley Riches), and “O praise ye the Lord” to end. Wonderful!

On 31 July came the “London” symphonies of Vaughan Williams and Haydn: the one about London, the other written for London; so not a particularly illuminating juxtaposition. The latter went well enough, though Andrew Manze was too much given to exaggerated pauses. The first movement of the Vaughan Williams, with its perky woodwind tune and brass-band effects, surprisingly put me in mind of Mahler, whom Vaughan Williams called “a very tolerable imitation of a composer”. Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a fine, atmospheric account of the whole work, the Scherzo being particularly dashing.

Three days earlier, Teodor Currentzis conducted MusicAeterna, his period-instrument orchestra from Perm, in Beethoven. The punchy accents and breathtaking violin-playing in Symphony No. 2 were riveting; the Fifth Symphony was disappointingly mannered, and there was some sour intonation in the slow movement.

I have saved the best till last. On 7 August, Richard Farnes conducted the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra in a near-ideal performance of Brahms’s A German Requiem. From the hushed opening of “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” to the musical and verbal echo in “Selig sind die Toten”, Farnes shaped a perfect arch, bringing out the work’s emphasis on consolation rather than terror. Nothing was exaggerated, nothing underplayed. Johan Reuter was calm, not fearful, in “Herr, lehre dich mich”; Golda Schultz floated an exquisitely phrased “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”. Choir and orchestra were on excellent form: bouquets all round!

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