Review Written by Tony Watts
Given that the BBC Proms has always been considered a platform for promoting British artists and music, it is something of a surprise that it has taken Richard Farnes so long to make his debut in the series. After twelve highly successful years of Opera North, it might have been expected that he would have been long since have appeared.
In the event [Proms 33], the occasion gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his affinity with vocal music in one of the big choral works which suit the Royal Albert Hall’s notoriously capricious acoustic as well as anything.
The programme opened with a celebration of Thea Musgrave‘s ninetieth birthday in the shape of her 1997 single movement orchestral work ‘Phoenix Rising’, a title the composer insists was suggested to her by a sign picturing the legendary bird which she saw outside a coffee shop in Virginia! Dedicated to Sir Andrew Davis and commissioned by the BBC, it was first heard in February 1998 at the Royal Festival Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the dedicatee.
The opening section, vividly depicts a dystopian, violent world full of despair and emptiness, the sense of desolation intensified by a mournful cor anglais solo. This leads into a wild depiction of chaos, before a central section ‘marked mysterious’ changes the mood with a series of low chords, progressing to a luminous climax played as the Phoenix rises by pitched percussion with marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel counterbalanced by harps placed on either side of the platform. The remainder of the work is romantic in tone before reaching a coda of serenity and great beauty. It is a most striking piece of music depicting hope and ultimate rebirth. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Farnes relished the constantly shifting sonorities and moods of Musgrave’s score in what was a fitting tribute to one of British music’s most individual voices.
The musical invention was unflagging, the use of the orchestra strikingly imaginative. There was even a touch of broad physical humour when the tympanist, struggling to make an effect against overwhelmingly heavy brass forces, simply gets up and storms off the platform in a fit of pique. Musgrave’s body of work, particularly her operas, is surely ripe for reappraisal. Happily the nonagenarian composer was present in the hall to receive the warm plaudits of an appreciative audience.
The single work in the second half of the concert was the Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem. Not performed at the Proms until 1965 it is never the easiest piece to bring off in performance, it’s multifaceted nature sometimes proves elusive, not always making it clear why the composer suggested ‘A Human Requiem’ as an alternative title and signally lacking the sort of big dramatic moments that make Verdi’s Dies Irae such a powerful experience. Indeed Brahms was taken to task for the fact that nowhere in the text, based on the Lutheran Bible, do the words ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ appear. It is a Requiem of an individual caste, inspired by the death of the composer’s mother and full of tenderness and feelings of consolation. In the words of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch the piece has ‘a precious depth that avoids apotheoses’, while the critic Hanslick observed that ‘the shadow of death and the seriousness of loss have scarcely been presented in music with such power.’
This particular Prom performance would not, in all probability, have quite converted George Bernard Shaw from his notorious Wagnerian derision of the work, even though it was not without its merits. At times the orchestra displayed a genuinely Brahmsian resonance, though at others the sound seemed lightweight and rather lacking in the sort of impact needed to fully bring out the music’s drama, a notable exception being the organ’s quite thrilling entrance in the sixth movement which had considerable impact. Similarly the serried ranks of the various BBC choruses alternated passages of well-blended tone with others lacking the requisite rhythmic precision. It was as if the performance rather lacked the ebb and flow needed to make the most of the Requiem’s disparate elements. Consistency was lacking in both conception and execution. Thankfully some incidental minor faults in ensemble proved short-lived.
The soloists were excellently chosen. Johan Reuter’s warm bass-baritone was matched by pellucid diction together with a skilful use of tone colour which differentiated the contrasting texts of his two solos. Golda Schultz was glorious in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ bringing out the full pathos of ‘wieder sehen’ while emphasising the wisdom of using a genuine jugendliche soprano in this music rather than a soubrette as one so often hears.
Sadly, however a slightly disappointing reading of a work which ideally needs a more rather dynamic performance if it is to make its full impact.
Brahms’s A German Requiem was shown on the BBC Proms on Tuesday 7 August. If you want to listen to a recording of the performance broadcasted live at BBC Radio 3, please click here. For more information on the BBC Proms 2018 season, go here.
Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.)
Tony Watts is a keen opera, concert, theatre and ballet-goer. He has spent most of his working life in the music industry, including a 16-year spell at Decca Records. He has compiled and produced over 1,000 re-issues on CD, LP and digital formats, and written notes for several hundred more. In addition to writing for a wide variety of musical books and publications, Tony has worked as a music consultant on films and on exhibitions for the V&A. Follow Tony now on Twitter: