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Music review: BBC Proms (after 15 August)

15 September 2023

Samson and Aeneas featured in the Proms, says Richard Lawrence

BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Malakai Bayoh sings in the Mozart Prom concert on 7 September

Malakai Bayoh sings in the Mozart Prom concert on 7 September

THERE were a few choral highlights to be heard in the latter part of the Proms season, albeit nothing quite on the scale of the opening fortnight. On 7 September, Raphaël Pichon brought his French ensemble Pygmalion to perform Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, in the familiar completion by the composer’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr.

The movements were interspersed with short vocal pieces by Mozart, some of them familiar in other guises. “Meistermusik”, for example, was a choral version of the “Mauerische Trauermusik” (“Masonic Funeral Music”), to a text from Lamentations; and the motet “Quis te comprehendat” was a posthumous arrangement of the Adagio from the Serenade for 13 wind instruments.

Malakai Bayoh, a treble with a voice of great sweetness, topped and tailed the evening with the plainsong In Paradisum, and bravely sang a solfeggio — a wordless vocal exercise — which turned out to be the Christe Eleison from Mozart’s Mass in C minor. Pichon’s conducting of the Requiem itself struck a perfect balance between terror and supplication, the choir excelling itself with the rapid precision of “Cum sanctis tuis”.

Handel’s Samson, which I heard on Radio 3, was given on 23 August, Laurence Cummings conducting the Academy of Ancient Music from the harpsichord. As with Solomon last year, there were cuts: including, amusingly, “To man God’s universal law Gave power to keep the wife in awe”, and — more regrettably — Samson’s “Torments, alas, are not confin’d”.

As the already blinded hero, Allan Clayton touched the heart with “Total eclipse”. Fluent in the coloratura of “Why does the God of Israel sleep?”, he made the reprise all the more telling by starting it softly. Micah, “friend to Samson”, was sung by the rich-toned contralto Jess Dandy. Dalila doesn’t appear till Act 2: Jacquelyn Stucker was splendidly fiery in the duet “Traitor to love!”. The smaller parts were well taken; it was a pleasant surprise to hear a choir as large as the Philharmonia Chorus (chorus-master Gavin Carr).

At the late-night concert on 25 August, The English Concert gave an all-Bach programme. Like Cummings, Kristian Bezuidenhout directed from the harpsichord. If the second movement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto was rather a scramble, the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, slightly hooty in the second aria of Cantata No. 170, was on fine form in Cantata No. 35, “Geist und Seele wird verwirret”; he shared the honours with Tom Foster, who played the substantial solos on a chamber organ (and who surely deserved a biography in the programme).

The next afternoon, 26 August, brought a recital by the Canadian organist Isabelle Demers. It was good to hear the mighty Albert Hall organ in full cry, but more than half of the programme consisted of transcriptions. It’s hard to see the point of these, when the originals are so widely available, live or reproduced.

Demers’s own version of the Prelude to Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremburg was disjointed, through the player’s having to make frequent changes of manual and registration. Marcel Dupré’s transcription of the Sinfonia to Cantata No. 146 was neatly and fluently done; half an hour of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet was just odd.

The original pieces included a charming Prelude and Fugue (“Big Ben”) by Rachel Laurin, who died earlier in the month, a bombastic Chorale Fantasia by Max Reger, and Three Impromptus by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

As usual, Gustav Mahler was well represented. I missed Symphonies No. 1 and 7, the latter replacing at short notice Deryck Cooke’s “performing version of the draft” of No. 10. The Third Symphony was given on 19 August by the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) under Sakari Oramo, with the BBC Symphony Chorus (upper voices) and Trinity Boys Choir (chorus-masters Neil Ferris and David Swinson). The long first movement is dominated by a solo trombone: Helen Vollam played immaculately. The choral contributions were fine, but the high spot was the slow last movement, the strings rich without being sickly.

On 27 August, it was the turn of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, marking the farewell of Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. The symphony is a farewell, too, though, of course, Mahler soon started work on No. 10. Rattle, conducting without a score, conjured a kaleidoscope of sound from the players: as I have remarked before, it is a treat to hear this orchestra away from the dry acoustic of its home in the Barbican Hall. The dying fall of the horns at the end of the first movement, and the dissolution of the final phrase on the violas, were magical.

And there was an unexpected first half, consisting of a 20-minute unaccompanied piece by Poulenc: “Figure humaine”, a setting of texts by the Resistance poet Paul Éluard, composed in occupied Paris in 1943. Towards the end of the second poem, I thought I caught an anticipation of Dialogues des Carmélites, the opera performed earlier in the season (Arts, 1 September). The BBC Singers (chorus-master Sofi Jeannin) dispatched the score with brilliance, culminating in a great shout of “Liberté”.

The BBCSO, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, tackled another symphonic peak, Bruckner’s No. 8, on 4 September. A friend criticised “unearned splendour”; for me, the silky violins in the first movement, and the sweet Schubertian cast of the Scherzo’s Trio, were a delight.

Two great English works of the 20th century crossed my path on consecutive days. On 24 August, the hard-working BBCSO, conducted again by Oramo (who had also stepped in for Mahler 7), played Elgar’s Violin Concerto: fine, romantic playing from the orchestra, but rather wispy tone from the soloist, Christian Tetzlaff. The next day, I watched on BBC4 the 6 August concert by the Sinfonia of London under John Wilson in Walton’s First Symphony. It was a powerful performance, but, as ever, the quasi-film music Finale failed to convince.

The former concert included a forceful account of Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, and “Begin Afresh” by Judith Weir, the Master of the King’s Music. The three movements were called April, October, and February: an enjoyable musical diary, with — perhaps — birdsong, and overlapping brass chords that recalled Boris Godunov and Peter Grimes.

The John Wilson concert featured a knock-out performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, played by the young Kazakh pianist Alim Beisembayev, who replaced Benjamin Grosvenor at two days’ notice. His encore was an equally dazzling Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird, in an arrangement by Guido Agosti.

There was more Stravinsky, scheduled this time, on 26 August and 2 September: a vivid Petrushka, poster-bright from the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons, preceded by Jean-Yves Thibaudet brilliantly evoking the Jazz Age in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto.

The second concert was, as they say, something else. The Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon played The Rite of Spring from memory. This was astonishing, and astonishingly well done. But the tour de force came in the first half. Two actors and the conductor, again from memory, narrated and acted a “dramatic exploitation”, with snippets from the orchestra and even a sung contribution from the audience. The amount of rehearsal must have been prodigious. In a better world, this show would be seen by every schoolchild in the country.

The only disappointment came on 20 August. After Ligeti’s Concert Românesc (“Romanian Concerto”) and Violin Concerto, the latter played by Isabelle Faust — the one an engaging piece, the other less so — Les Siècles under François-Xavier Roth played Mozart on period instruments.

The “Jupiter” Symphony went well, after the exaggerated rhetoric of the opening; but in the Piano Concerto No. 23, K488, Alexander Melnikov — a fine musician — was embedded in the orchestra, playing a fortepiano: he never stood a chance in the enormous Albert Hall (where all these concerts took place).

The performance of Berlioz’s The Trojans on 3 September had drawn unwelcome publicity when Sir John Eliot Gardiner withdrew after — how to put it? — a disagreement with one of the singers. Dinis Sousa replaced him as conductor, seemingly unfazed, and he secured a magnificent performance in what must have been a tense situation. It was semi-staged, the chorus sometimes seated with scores, sometimes moving around without; the soloists sang without scores throughout.

The snarl of the trombones in the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique was spine-tingling; the full-throated Monteverdi Choir was thrilling. Berlioz’s epic tale, over five hours of it, including two intervals, was mesmerising. The superb cast included Alice Coote as the desperate Cassandra. Perhaps the most evocative scene was the one set in Dido’s garden, where the ensemble sings of the beauty of the night, the woodwind pulsing away like cicadas, before Dido and Aeneas (Paula Murrihy and Michael Spyres) embark on their rapturous duet.

A successful season, only partially covered here, of which one hopes the BBC management will take due note. Update on audience behaviour: people are still drinking during the music. Why are they allowed to bring food and drink into the hall? Why are they admitted once the concert has started? And I swear that at every performance someone dropped something heavy. I can live with applause between movements; but the vulgar whooping is insupportable.

All the Proms can be heard on BBC Sounds until early October, and some can be watched on BBC iPlayer for the next year.

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