Prom 8 2009 - the Cambridge Prom

BBCSO/Sir Andrew Davis
Various Cambridge College Choirs

National Anthem: Willcocks version is stirring and the choirs were able to show off their power, as was the orchestra. Made a change!

Vaughan Williams: The Wasps - Overture has a jaunty start as one would expect from Davis, some fine playing but lacked the electricity of others you may have heard. Playing was not at all tight enough. The swagger of the piece seemed lost a little but picked up. Some parts sounded under-rehearsed, clipped and disjointed.

Wigglesworth: The Genesis of Secrecy: Ryan Wigglesworth’s new piece he says “wanted it to glow with detail” and is a “mini Concerto for orchestra”. Well these are big claims. It’s a patchwork of appropriations and whilst I could appreciate the endeavour, it seldom left me feeling anything but a distant recognition. It doesn’t cohere or tell a story: maybe it’s not supposed to or doesn’t have to, but it was hard to find a hook on which to engage. I was left with a slightly unfulfilled feeling of “where’s the beef?” which even if you’ve ordered a stew might be a bit disappointing.

Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical Songs

1. Easter
2. I got me flowers
3. Love bade me welcome
4.The Call
5. Antiphon

BBCSO/Combined Cambridge Choirs/Simon Keenlyside

These settings come from 1911, a fertile period of Vaughan-Williams early output but untarnished by the World War to come. They are ardent and earnest but betray an Elgarian influence which had pervaded the Sea Symphony composed in the years before this set. The songs therefore lack many of the tensions which make RVW’s later music so dramatic – but they are beautiful. Keelyside is ardent but a bit slow out the blocks in the first song. It is hard to pace I think, so the singer struggles pointing his lines to match RVW’s orchestral utterance. It’s all much better in this performance when the chorus cuts in. The baritone was much more effective in the second song which has a more declamatory style: that said this song slips into the sentimental at the end, but it was soundly done.

The third song is a powerful idyll which prefigures some of RVW’s post WWI angst to the change of national identity. Its essentially pastoral and all equip it with a fantastic stillness. The Fourth song continues in this vein with a stronger lyrical quality reminiscent of the folk tunes derived material in later works. Both found Keelyside in his stride and the BBCSO in idiomatic vein - venturing forth.

The final song, Antiphon, without soloist is much more of the jubilant quality of the Sea Symphony’s celebration. The chorus (from 16 Cambridge colleges) acquit themselves well in antiphonal style, and the hall resounded in the kind of music it was built for. It drooped a little in the middle section but regained its gusto largely with the help of fine orchestral playing.

Stanford: Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis - this is a stalwart of the English choral tradition and Stanford was a Cambridge man so its presence on the programme is doubly justified. The combined choirs of three colleges (91 strong) again provide the oomph with Davis conducting what should be home territory to an organ scholar. The choirs perform adequately with a certain sweetness though as we often hear the mezzos get drowned out. The orchestration is typically Stanford i.e. mostly Brahmsian and not very inspiring Brahms at that.

Harvey: Come, Holy Ghosts – was perhaps the most captivating piece of the evening. It's traditional start reaches back into ancient choral forms and as it develops the acceleration of formic development drives the piece quicker that its steady pulse. The choirs sang well enough though this brief essay in choral musical development over several centuries and it ends appropriately on a high note.

Weir: Ascending into Heaven - is equally challenging but much more direct and driven by rhythm. It keeps our feet firmly on the ground looking Heavenward whereas the Harvey has us levitated by the end of its course. Both were written in the 1980s and showed in starkish terms how far young composers have to come away from the bright lights of orchestral sound and move towards story telling of one sort or another to lift their music.

Finally, and its by no means clear why, we had Saint-Saëns: Symphony No 3 for orchestra and organ, Thomas Trotter was at the manuals. Its was 366 days since the piece was last heard at the Proms and I was at that performance given by Olivier Latry/Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Myung-Whun Chung. All my adult life has been about comparing and contrasting the merits of different versions of the same piece - but it never ceases to amaze me that even within the relatively tight confines of a score written in the complex language of musical expression there can be two utterly different but totally compelling readings of the same piece. Chung and Davis are dramatically different conductors and Davis showed a drive and earthy vigour. His old orchestra, the BBC Symphony relishes this kind of fair and showed a determination to make this piece sound like modern music. The slow movement was just wonderful heard from the Gallery - the music seemed to drift around like a heady even scent in a blooming garden. The composer's tendency to hustle and bustle was applied to forced the pace in the scherzo we had some flashes of really dazzling bravura. Trotter joined in the party with some bold brassy richness in his choice of registrations for his part. It was a deal less elegant than Chung and less subtle too.

Thank goodness Cambridge University isn't 800 years old every year and we don't have to endure this kind of blunt edged ritual again. The music making of note was worthy of a big occasion, but can we get back to regular programming now please.


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