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Music: BBC Proms round-up (to 15 August)

01 September 2023

Richard Lawrence takes stock of this BBC Proms season

BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Roderick Williams sings the title part in Mendelssohn’s Elijah at this year’s Proms

Roderick Williams sings the title part in Mendelssohn’s Elijah at this year’s Proms

LAST spring, the BBC decided to axe its professional chamber choir, the BBC Singers (formerly known as the BBC Chorus). The resulting uproar, thoroughly justifiable, led to the “suspension” of the cut, and the addition of a concert to the Proms (7 September, 10.15 p.m.), too late for inclusion in the published Guide.

But I am going to sing the praises of the amateur BBC Symphony Chorus (formerly the BBC Choral Society) and its chorus-master, Neil Ferris. It participated in the opening concert of the Proms on 14 July; then, over less than a fortnight, it made a stupendous contribution to three large-scale masterpieces.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, displaced for some years now from its traditional slot on the penultimate night, was given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on 23 July. Ryan Wigglesworth took the first movement rather fast, but the orchestra’s articulation was precise, and the antiphonal exchanges were all the more effective through the first and second violins’ positioning to the left and right (which should be standard practice but isn’t). The soft minatory trumpet fanfares in the development section came across loud and clear.

Wigglesworth paused fractionally too long at the close of the slow movement; so the shock of the dissonant start to the Finale was spoilt by intrusive applause. But the vigour of the chorus was miraculous: a special bouquet to the sopranos for their sustained top A at “der ganzen Welt”. Interestingly, the impact was much reduced when the performance was relayed on television.

On 26 July, the chorus was joined by the Hallé Choir (chorus-master Matthew Hamilton) and the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder in The Bells, the choral symphony composed by Rachmaninov in 1913.

This tribute to Tchaikovsky, based on Edgar Allan Poe, drafted in Rome, which had its première in St Petersburg, featured soloists from Armenia and Ukraine: excellent, all three, and the orchestra was on top form, with eloquent cor anglais solos from Thomas Duncan. The combined choirs raised the roof in the second movement, “Mellow Wedding Bells”.

There is a surprising reference to the Dies Irae plainchant, a favourite of Rachmaninov’s, in that movement; it cropped up again in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on 4 August. The piece was dispatched with scintillating virtuosity by Yuja Wang, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Klaus Mäkelä; even better was the esprit and delicacy of her second encore, Art Tatum’s arrangement of “Tea for Two”.

But this was the third of the BBC Symphony Chorus’s triumphs, in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast: the rhythmic precision of both choir and orchestra was wondrous, and again the sopranos impressed with the brightness and energy of their top notes. The hushed tones of the lament “By the waters of Babylon” and, also unaccompanied, “The trumpeters and pipers are silent” were memorable moments of stillness.

The American baritone Thomas Hampson, in remarkably good vocal shape at the age of 68, itemised Babylon’s merchandise — gold, ivory, cinnamon, and so on — with relish. (Thank goodness he didn’t replace “slaves” with the modishly periphrastic “enslaved people”.)

The organ (Richard Pearce) was suitably prominent, which is more than could be said for the broadcast of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, though I am told that the instrument was deployed. Maxim Emelyanychev conducted the Scottish Chamber Choir and Orchestra in an account that never lapsed into sentimentality.

The chorus was particularly urgent at “And a mighty wind” and the earlier “Will then the Lord be no more God in Zion?”, as was Carolyn Sampson as the Widow. Helen Charlston, a lovely mezzo, was eloquent in “Woe unto them who forsake him!”.

Andrew Staples phrased “If with all your hearts” beautifully, but — no doubt on account of the conductor’s tempo — was not quite tranquil enough in “Then shall the righteous shine forth”. As Elijah, Roderick Williams was fearsome in “Is not His word like a fire” and movingly resigned at “It is enough”. Radio 3 announcers have a tendency to mispronounce any word they can, whether English or foreign, but this broadcast was a real doozy: “Baal” as in the Swiss city, “lavish” for “laveth”, “sabbath” for “Sabaoth”.

Two works in Latin made unusual bedfellows on 27 July: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Orff’s Carmina Burana. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra appeared under its new chief conductor, Kazuki Yamada; the choral forces were enormous, with four choirs from Birmingham (chorus-masters Simon Halsey and Julian Wilkins).

Stravinsky drew on Psalms 39 and 40, and the whole of 150. The choirs skilfully negotiated the progress from supplication to celebration, and were particularly impressive in the soft, gentle sections. I confess I lost patience with the Stravinsky-and-water of the Orff (once unfairly condemned as “a postcard from Nazi Germany”), though it was brilliantly performed.

The morning concert given by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort (choir and orchestra) on 6 August was a delight. It opened with J. S. Bach’s Sinfonia in D, BWV1045. Possibly belonging to a lost cantata, it is in effect a violin-concerto movement. The solo part consists of breakneck, non-stop arpeggios: Huw David deserved his ovation, but I feared for his right arm and shoulder.

The double-choir motet “Singet dem Herrn” followed, the voices parts unexpectedly doubled by the strings. If the tenors were over-prominent, the performance was radiant, and it was good to hear verses from Psalm 150 again, albeit in German.

Then there was a real rarity, “Heilig ist Gott” by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Composed in 1776, it was regarded by Emanuel Bach as his swansong. It consists of a short arietta (the contralto Jess Dandy), the words representing the prophet Isaiah, followed by a setting of the Sanctus: double choir of Angels and People, double orchestra including oboes, trombones, and six trumpets.

A slow start leads to a mighty fugue (double, of course) at “Alle Lande” (“Heaven and earth are full of thy glory”). There are strange harmonic juxtapositions.

After the interval came Mozart’s unfinished Mass in C minor in a new (2018) edition by Clemens Kemme, who has left the torso untouched, with its incomplete Credo and absence of Agnus Dei. Choir and orchestra were particularly fine at “Qui tollis” in the Gloria, with its fierce dotted figures. The team of soloists was led by Lucy Crowe: hard to catch in the low notes of the Kyrie, but radiance itself at “Et incarnatus est”, when time seemed to stand still.

The next day brought Glyndebourne’s Dialogues des Carmélites, in a semi-staged production by Donna Stirrup. Sixty years after the death of its composer, Francis Poulenc, the opera has recently taken on a new lease of life. The harrowing story treats the final days of the Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the Terror in 1794; you can see their mass grave in the Picpus Cemetery in Paris, near the tomb of Lafayette.

The action was very well handled, though the width of the stage meant that some exits and entrances were almost comically speedy. Sally Matthews as Blanche, the troubled lead, was mesmerising; of the others, all splendid, I would single out Golda Schultz, a strong New Prioress, and Karen Cargill’s Mother Marie, formidable in confrontation. The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Robin Ticciati provided sturdily rhythmic support: Stravinsky again, but definitely not “and water”.

Though not advertised as such, the performance on 11 August turned out to be a tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the centenary of his birth, György Ligeti is being commemorated in a number of concerts.

The first half of this one consisted of the 30-minute Requiem, which comprises just the Introit, Kyrie, and Dies Irae. At the opening, the basses of the London Philharmonic Choir and the Royal Northern College of Music Chamber Choir (chorus-masters Neville Creed and Stuart Overington) gave a convincing impression of a Russian choir singing the Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil: rising, to quote the programme note, “as if from the very bowels of the earth”.

The Kyrie sounded like the cries of the damned, only a few syllables of Ligeti’s so-called micropolyphony discernible. The Lacrimosa, a separate number, provided a peaceful contrast to the violent Dies Irae, the soloists Jennifer France and Clare Presland whispering their way into silence.

For Lux Aeterna, after the interval, the Edvard Grieg Kor from Norway (chorus-master Håkon Matti Skrede) was placed high in the gallery, while a spotlit Edward Gardner conducted from the rostrum: a pianissimo tour de force, both in conception and in execution.

The LPO concluded with Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra: I particularly enjoyed the richness of the solo strings, and Strauss’s earliest use of the Viennese waltz, a rhythm that was to reappear in his operas.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is no stranger to the Proms, but the last scheduled performances, in 2019 and 2022, were cancelled. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brought it to the Royal Albert Hall (the venue for all the London Proms this year) on 15 August. The conductor, Vasily Petrenko, has already recorded the Shostakovich symphonies with his previous orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

It was fascinating to hear the Tenth so soon after the Fifth, which was paired with the Hallé’s Rachmaninov mentioned above. No. 5, composed in 1937 during Stalin’s purges, when Shostakovich lived in real fear of being arrested, ends in Soviet triumph. The Tenth dates from 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, and is deeply personal, even tragic. Petrenko’s grip of the long first movement was faultless, and the RPO — especially the woodwind and brass — responded magnificently.

Earlier, the strings were strikingly powerful in the opening bars of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The soloist was the young Alexandre Kantorow, the first French pianist to win the Tchaikovsky Competition; his performance was full of fire and poetry.

The concert opened with more Ligeti. Lontano, the title of the piece, means “distant”, suggesting kinship with the instruction “as if from afar” in the Lux Aeterna; while the growly opening on a muted tuba seemed to hark back to the sepulchral chorus basses of the Requiem. It was a splendid evening.

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