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Music: BBC Proms 2021 season

17 September 2021

This Proms season was a triumph, declares Richard Lawrence

BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, with Arcangelo Chorus and Arcangelo, in the St Matthew Passion on 9 September

Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, with Arcangelo Chorus and Arcangelo, in the St Matthew Passion on 9 September

THE performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on 9 September was one of the few large-scale events at this year’s season of Henry Wood Proms, promoted as ever by the BBC. There was Tristan and Isolde from Glyndebourne, and a Mahler symphony as one of the “Mystery Concerts”; but no big choral works, no Beethoven’s Ninth, and no orchestras from abroad other than the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

But, for the season to take place at all, with no cancelled concerts, was a triumph for the BBC and all concerned. It coincided with the sesquicentenary of the Royal Albert Hall, which was signalled by a huge sign in neon lighting above the organ.

The opening concert on 16 July must have been the first in 16 months for most of those in the audience, and there was a palpable sense of joy and relief in the air. It was a brilliant idea to start with Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, sung by the 15-strong BBC Singers (chorus-master Martin Fitzpatrick). When Soft Voices Die, commissioned from Sir James MacMillan by the BBC and Help Musicians, was a setting of Shelley for three soloists: each had a stanza in turn, before ending unaccompanied with “Love itself shall slumber on”. There was a touch of Sibelius to the horns in the postlude: apt, even if unintended, as the conductor was Dalia Stasevska, the Finnish principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the concluding piece was Sibelius’s Second Symphony.

The first half had ended with a dashing account by Daniel Hyde of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. The Albert Hall organ is also 150 years old: the inaugural concerts in the summer of 1871 included recitals by Bruckner and Saint-Saëns. A tribute to these composer-performers took the form of two morning concerts. It was bad luck that the organists who had been booked then withdrew, for differing reasons, but the audience was not short-changed by the replacements.

On 1 August, Martin Baker, Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, stood in for Olivier Latry, three pieces by J. S. Bach, each followed by an improvisation. It was a nice touch, in his Improvisation on English Melodies, for Baker to tip his hat to “O God, our help in ages past”, recalling the “St Anne” Fugue heard at the outset. Peter Holder, the Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey, replaced Thomas Trotter on 4 September. The Fantaisie in E flat by Saint-Saëns was charming; all Holder’s artistry could not save Liszt’s Ad nos, ad salutarem undam from tedium, but the pieces by Bach and Widor went splendidly.

A clutch of orchestral concerts later in the week illustrated, in its blend of old, new, and unfamiliar, the sheer range of the Proms programmes. On 4 August Vasily Petrenko, Music Director Designate of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, began with a rich, flowing performance of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, a piece that could have been written with social distancing in mind. The newcomer was Respighi’s Concerto gregoriano, featuring the violinist Sayaka Shoji, based in part on the “Victimae paschali” chant. The ending surprisingly recalled Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy; and, indeed, Respighi had attended lectures by Bruch in Berlin. A rousing performance of Mendelssohn’s Reformation symphony only emphasised the tastelessness of the composer’s treatment of the chorale “Ein feste Burg”.

Brahms’s Third Symphony next day cleansed the palate. But the main interest in this concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla lay in a symphony by Ruth Gipps: a woman composer in the year of her centenary, thus ticking two of the boxes to which the BBC is so addicted. Gipps, whom I knew slightly, was a doughty conductor and composer whose works are now being rediscovered. The second of her five symphonies, composed in 1945, is a personal reflection on love and separation in wartime. The musical language is traditional, the symphonic argument not hard to follow; the piece was beautifully played.

BBC/JUDE EDGINTONAnna Lapwood at the Royal Albert Hall organ

On 6 August the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins played the Pulcinella ballet. I don’t know if the anti-modernist Gipps accepted Stravinsky in neo-classical mode; but she would surely have responded to the eloquent performance by Carolyn Sampson and Tim Mead of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

Also given the birthday treatment was Josquin des Prez (d. 1521). A lunchtime concert at the Cadogan Hall on 9 August paired three of his motets with settings of the same texts by, in turn, three later 16th-century composers. Rory McCleery directed the Marian Consort in various configurations with a fine sense of ebb and flow. All 12 sang in Josquin’s Praeter rerum seriem, with a splendidly growly opening from the lower voices.

Back at the Albert Hall, on 19 August, there was more Josquin, the 24-part Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi. Here, the Renaissance pieces were paired with “creative reactions” by living composers. Nico Muhly’s response to Sweelinck was a setting of Traherne’s “News”. Perhaps inevitably, a solo tenor emerging from the choral texture of the BBC Singers called Finzi’s Dies natalis to mind. Most memorable of all was Roderick Williams’s Ave verum corpus Re-imagined, which played with the false relation of Byrd’s “miserere mei”. Sterling performances under Sofi Jeannin.

What a treat it was to hear the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle away from the Barbican Hall. In an all-Stravinsky concert on 22 August (yes, 50 years since his death), one could relish the warm violas and the sonorous bassoons and trombones in the Symphony in C. Even finer was the Symphony in Three Movements, with the hard brilliance of piano and upper strings succeeded in the slow movement by the cool wash of flute and harp.

Two days later, it was the turn of the Chineke! Orchestra, appearing at the Proms for the fourth time. Fela Sowande’s African Suite (1944), for strings and harp, had much charm, though the tune of the last movement outstayed its welcome. The 19-year-old Jeneba Kanneh-Mason was first-class in Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934), the last section of which came across as more of an orchestral piece with piano obbligato. Finest of all and the best played, under Kalena Bovell, was the Symphony in A minor (final version 1901) by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Pupil of Stanford, fellow student of Vaughan Williams and Holst, championed by Elgar: Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912 at the age of 37, a real loss. The symphony included a Brahmsian slow movement, the horns prominent both there and in the Finale.

BBC/JUDE EDGINTONJeneba Kanneh-Mason with her brother, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, in the Royal Albert HallThere was more unfamiliar music from the past in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert on 27 August under Sakari Oramo. Le Cabaret (Overture to a French Comedy) by John Foulds (1921) made a joyous start, while Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony (1961) surprisingly called up the shade of Gounod in the slow movement. (This seems to be “spot the influence” month.) Where Icebergs Dance Away by Charlotte Bray was first performed last May in Cologne: six minutes of shifting textures, much use of the piccolo, and strangely haunting. In the first half, Timothy Ridout was the rich-toned virtuoso in Walton’s Viola Concerto.

The Hallé under Sir Mark Elder brought an attractive programme on 7 September: subito con forza, a short tribute to Beethoven by the Korean Unsuk Chin, and Saint- Saëns’s Third Symphony, Anna Lapwood letting rip on the organ. In between came Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto: a limpid, coruscating performance by Benjamin Grosvenor. The Mahler symphony mentioned above was the Fifth, on the following day. Mark Wigglesworth conducted the Proms Festival Orchestra, assembled for the occasion. It was heart-warming to see and hear these freelance musicians making music together.

Three choral concerts to end with. On 20 August, the National Youth Chamber Choir (chorus-master Ben Parry) coped brilliantly with some breakneck speeds from David Bates. There was fine playing from the Britten Sinfonia: agile trombones and stabbing trumpets in particular.

On 1 September, Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden was marked by the mannered over-emphasis and dynamic extremes to which Sir John Eliot Gardiner is sometimes prone. All was forgiven in Handel’s Dixit Dominus, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists rattling out the quavers with an exhilarating, machine-like but musical precision. The fine soloists were drawn from the choir: the sopranos Julia Doyle and Emily Owen mesmerising in “De torrente”, the bass Dingle Yandell fearsome in “Dominus a dextris tuis”.

Now for the St Matthew Passion. I am still fuming. As ever, the behaviour of the Prommers was impeccable: they were attentive and, mostly, rooted to the spot. But in the Stalls! First of all, why are late arrivals admitted during the music? (At Bach Choir performances, Sir David Willcocks used to pause after the opening chorus.) Why, if members of the audience leave, are they allowed to re-enter? Then — I don’t blame the management for this — two women clip-clopped their way up the steps during, of all places, the hushed chorale that follows the death of Christ.

BBC/Chris ChristodoulouMatthew Rose (Christ) and the Evangelist, Stuart Jackson (right) with Jonathan Cohen directing from the harpsichord

In a building as vast as the Albert Hall, you really need a large chorus and orchestra and the mighty organ, which can provide an enjoyably anachronistic performance. A choir of 36 and an orchestra of period instruments is apt to sound weedy. But the ear soon adjusts, as it did for the Gardiner concert, and the singers and players of Arcangelo, joined by the Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral, were magnificent.

Jonathan Cohen conducted from a sadly inaudible harpsichord (the continuo harmony being more reliably — and, I believe, correctly — provided by a chamber organ), pacing the work as a real drama. The story was unfolded by the superb Evangelist of Stuart Jackson, who boldly and successfully risked delivering some lines in a whisper. Matthew Rose, replacing Gerald Finley — absence unexplained — was a sonorous Christ. In “Erbarme dich”, Iestyn Davies and the violinist Sophie Gent were perfectly matched, as were Louise Alder and the flautist Georgia Browne in “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben”.

All the Proms can be heard on BBC Sounds, and some can be watched on BBC iPlayer, until 11 October. The latter selection includes this St Matthew, which should not be missed.

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