Proms 2014 - Week 3

Prom 23: John McLeod's spritely The Sun Dances born from a legend of a lady having visions on a Scottish mountain top is not - thankfully an attempt to outdo the mesmeric slow transformational effect of a sunrise as mastered by Haydn, Strauss, Sibelius and Maxwell Davies.  But rather a look at the colour - both those fabled in the story of the woman's visions but also the opportunities for orchestral colour beyond the swelling strings.  Its playful, illuminating and in someways powerfully subversive of what's become a quite repetitive musical idea.  It is a vividly wide-ranging piece with an ecstatic tinge which didn't really grab me first time but may on repetition.

Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony went on to tackle one of the trickiest symphonies there is, Beethoven's Fourth.  Hard because it marries Beethoven's tough attack with a classical approach - for years it defeated many who tried it - becoming one thing or the other but never both.  Its especially tough for those minded to use Beethoven's metronome markings: woodwinds in particular have to be alert and nimble. I'm pleased to say the BBC Scottish were up to every technical challenge and Runnicles was not sparing in any sense.  It did feel a tad too classical in the first movement with none of the explosive surprise Toscanini brought to this work.  Nor in the second movement did it really plumbed the depths of the minor key episode which can be a descent to Hades in the right hands.  This is the symphony after Eroica after all. Runnicles skated the depths I think to maintain his approach but I like my Fourths more dramatic.

Mozart's Requiem followed - it's worth noting the resources involved here:

Carolyn Sampson soprano
Christine Rice mezzo-soprano
Jeremy Ovenden tenor
Neal Davies bass
National Youth Choir of Scotland
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

In his radio intro Donald Runnicles talked about the link between Don Giovanni and this work and linked this to his enthusiasm for Robert Levin's completion on the grounds of it's dark shadow (Levin has added more trombones to his already established edition).  It worked very well: this torso of a classical masterpiece was given exemplary treatment by Runnicles and some powerful shadows loomed over it.  I came away wondering how I'd missed so much in this work - it was a huge privilege to hear it albeit not in person - catch it whilst you can on the BBC Radio Player,  The decision to use a youth chorus might have been controversial for some but one moment with this glorious body of singers would have dispelled that - fantastic choral singing.

The youth choir shone as much in their enthusiasm and athleticism (which you'd expect) to their quiet reflection and dark-stained melancholy.  Words were beautifully articulated and nuanced - it was as if every syllable had been analysed for maximum impact.  The soloists carried the musically beautiful - strong, clear and moving.  The conducting was a model of clarity and nuance.  If only all proms performances benefitted from this kind of preparation - the choir have been working on the piece for two years.

It deserves a place in some Proms Hall of Fame (which is perhaps the subject of another blog post).

Proms 24 and 26 will be reviewed separately.  Here's Prom 24

Prom 25: The Tallis Scholar's gave two pieces by Tavener, one a posthumous premiere and in tribute to the 100th Anniversary of Great Britain joining the Great War undertook a moving visual tribute with Sam West.  Whilst I have high regard for this mystical composer, I'm not really capable of reviewing the concert Tavener's music is not comfortable to me.  It is worth putting this remembrance in the review to show his music serving a higher purpose which I think he would have found gratifying.

Prom 27

Mark Wigglesworth, the new music director of English National Opera has been wandering the world plying his trade and in this concert returned to conduct the BBC National Orchetsra of Wales after 14 years.  They are a different beast from the one he left - this was a marvellous opportunity to do a big symphony - unfortunately he chose Elgar's First which I'm immune to so this is a review of half a concert.  It started with a Wagner Overture of a different type - closer to Mayerbeer or Offenbach the overture to Wagner's early opera Das Liebesverbot (which could be a subtitle for the Ring Cycle) is a jolly romp and the orchestra clearly relished it.

The first half also featured a work I've raved about already in this blog - here.  It is a magical piece and had a more luminous performance I think in the Albert Hall than it had had earlier in the year in Wales.  Matthew Trusler again was a superbly committed soloists with a fine palette of colours and timbres which give the piece it's fullest voice.  The concerto was conceived after a performance of one of the Prokofiev concerti and sometimes echoes the Russians sound world - but then leaps off into a a variety of luminous and intriguing sound worlds.  I wouldn't like to split Owain Arwel Hughes and Wigglesworth - the orchestra were sterling in their response in both accounts.  I'm so glad this concerto has had it's third outing and i'm now hoping for a recording to introduce the listening world to this lovely, fascinating music.

Prom 28
As I've commented before, the BBC Symphony carries a heavy load at the Proms and it showed in the first piece in this programme, Beethoven's Egmont Overture.  Sakari Oramo was leading them and once again I found his Beethoven a bit hard to fathom.  And the response from the orchestra was uneven too until the coda - when everything blazed away.  Brett Dean's Electric Preludes for six string electric violin was given it's UK premiere with Francesco D'Orazio as soloist.  The electric violin is I suspect an acquired taste and I'm comfortable in it's world as long as it keeps an eye towards its acoustic brethren - in this case violin, viola and cello. I'm still not sure how much I like the sound engineering with this piece - sometimes I found it intrusive on top of the violin acrobatics.  I will give it another go though.

The final piece in this concert was Oedipus Rex which was a triumph and I finally found the gold in it's pages (after trying numerous recordings).  The tenor Allan Clayton was brilliant, his characterisation by turns dashing and suspicious and defeated and then destroyed and so much more.  The supporting soloists maintained the dramatic intensity as did the men's voices of both the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus.  This is the kind of music where Oramo excels and he drew so much variety and vivacity from the BBCSO - the dance rhythms fairly kept from the page.


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