The 2010 Proms have been nothing if not eclectic, and its penultimate weekend has been no exception: A concert of contemporary British chamber works based in varying respects on Early Music models, and the second concert of the most anticipated visiting ensemble this season, the Berliner Philharmoniker, took up the Saturday, whilst the Sunday was given over to a celebration of founder-conductor Henry Wood. The latter featured an enjoyable recreation of the 1910 Last Night (which I attended), and a concert from the Ulster Orchestra in which works either premiered by or associated with the venerable Wood were presented (which I did not).
The chamber concert took place in Cadogan Hall, and was the last in this season's run of Proms Saturday Matinee events. As with previous concerts in the series, this particular performance was being presented live on Radio Three, in this case with the warm presentation skills of Catherine Bott imbuing the occasion with a convivial atmosphere and enjoyable dynamic. Like the other Matinees, this concert featured an interestingly conceived and impressively brought off programme organised around a unifying theme, the theme here being a focus on a communication between contemporary and Early Music choral music.
The concert featured six contemporary works, with five of the composers (only Ferneyhough being absent) in attendance; two world premieres (Gabriel Jackson's In nomine Domini and Thea Musgrave's Ithaca); three more Proms premieres (Weir's All the Ends of the Earth, Bayann Northcott's Hymn to Cybele, and Harvey's Dum Transisset sabbatum - this latter being the title of the Taverner motet and the Ferneyhough string quartet also present); and a London premiere (the Ferneyhough Dum Transisset I-IV).
Of these new and newish works, the most impressive were Ferneyhough and Musgrave's, the first for its radical reformulation of musical syntax and gesture (radical particularly in this context), the second for its special sensitivity to texture and tone colour, and its creative way with simple modal materials. The Arditti Quartet performed the former with the boldness and alacrity you would expect (the delirious simultaneity of different modes of articulation in the first movement and the barely there third shook the hall with a Weird force unlike anything else heard in the concert), though they were much less secure in the more streamlined and retrograde senza vibrato writing of Jackson's Taverner-influenced piece.
The BBC Singers sung the Musgrave with the kind of beauty of tone, security of ensemble, and inclination to strong emotional and dynamic sweeps, the latter courtesy of their leader David Hill, that were on display all afternoon (even in the two sixteenth century Taverner pieces). Weir's work exhibited all the succinct creativity its composer is known for, and made for an effective opener (despite a little uncertainty from Endymion's marimba player), whilst the Northcott offered a range of expressive techniques and superior moments of invention, and featured strongly characterised performances from Christopher Bowen and Edward Price. An enjoyable concert, then, even if the riches were a little unevenly spread.
The much anticipated visit of the Berliner Philharmoniker, on the evidence of their second concert at least, can be deemed a success, even if moments of transcendence were not quite as generously spread as might have been hoped.
On Saturday the first half was made up of core Austro-German repertoire in the shape of an evanescent and languid Parsifal Prelude that featured some of the most astonishing wind sonorities I've heard all season, and a deliquescing, deeply moving performance of Strauss' Four Last Songs led by Karita Mattila. Mattila's voice is of an astonishing bloom, and she conveyed the sinewy lines of the score with an easeful command of emotional momentum, being particularly impressive in her alternating immersion and ascension into and out of the teeming instrumental textures.
The ensemble's precision was a little off in parts of the first half, with clipped rests featuring a number of times in the Strauss, and one or two conspicuous misalignments evident in the Wagner, but these mattered little when set against the unprecedented musicality of the performance, with textures luminous and musical motion resolved to a velocity of total compulsion. One of Simon Rattle's greatest strengths is his ability to draw all present, musicians and audience alike, into his highly personal, often wilfully extreme dynamic and poetic conceits. This ability, though important in the first half, came into its own in the second, where the attaca medley of the three Second Viennese School 'Orchestral Piece' masterpieces glistened with total music-spiritual urgency, suffused by a conviction of the music's sublime character that was refreshing to witness, and deeply rewarding to hear.
Rattle's contention that we might conceive the three pieces as an imagined Mahler 11 might seem a little far-fetched, even incongruous (particularly as regards the Webern), but their complementary and mutually enhancing nature, notwithstanding notable differences in technique and expression, is clear. The Schoenberg sounded with the most bite on this occasion, though its central Chord Colours movement appeared as boldly and enigmatically lush as ever, whilst the Webern featured convincing playing off of near total but beautiful figurative abstraction (movement three), and a rip-roaring, precision-engineered cataclysm (four). By the Berg the musicians were in clear command of the expressionistic framework of stark climax and structural dialectics in search of an architectonic, with the closing hammer blows tearing asunder the form, and showing us finally that that search finds its answer in the quality of searching itself. How wonderful to hear these works as the triumphant finale of a major orchestral showcase concert, even if it is the best part of a hundred years too late.
The refined flow of three complementarily proportioned works with which our concert programmes are now so readily identified would have been anathema to Promenaders a century ago going on the evidence of the restaged Last Night 1910. A marathon first half of approximately two hours and eleven separate works was contrasted with a comparatively brief 50 minute conclusion after the long interval. The musicians of the BBC Concert Orchestra and, particularly, their effusive and supple conductor Paul Daniel deserve special praise for maintaining high levels of energy, and for upholding standards of performance, throughout such an eclectic and unwieldy programme.
The concert featured a splendid meshing of the 'High' and the 'Low', with burnished and stately Beethoven (Leonore No. 3) and Wagner (The Flying Dutchman) overtures sitting neatly and bracingly alongside bonbons from Paganini (the absurdist masterpiece of his Moto perpetuo, heard in the Percy Pitt arrangement), German ('Who Were the Yeoman of England?', sung by a stentorian Sergei Leiferkus, who had earlier so amused in what I am about to describe), Mussorgsky (the hilarious Henry Wood arranged satire of the Russian musical scene, The Peep-Show), and Wood himself (the familiar Fantasia on British Sea Songs). We also heard robust and pleasing performances of excerpts from Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suites 1 and 2, Dvořák's Humoresque in G flat major and his Rondo in G minor, Wagner's perfectly serviceable (despite what was said of it in the programme) Kaisermarsch, Thomas' 'Connais-tu le pays?' with a dazzling Jennifer Larmore, who was later so poignant in Forster's 'Mifanwy', and Beethoven's rather gorgeous Rondino for wind octet.
The one exception to the faithfulness to the original 1910 programme, although the selection sought to maintain the spirit of Wood's famous 'novelties', came with Steven Isserlis' pregnant interpretation of the intriguing David Matthews and Vaughan Williams quasi-collaboration (the former working from surviving sketches of the latter) Dark Pastoral, which featured some elegant harmonic movements and an impassioned and rhapsodic solo line. Otherwise the programme was entirely replicated; this fact meant that much of the second half was given over to patriotism and levity, with the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4, the already mentioned Sea Songs, and the British National Anthem all present. The patriotism was unwelcome, particularly being in a country with such a shall we say ambiguous history, but the levity was appealing. The appropriate festive atmosphere was somewhat lacking in the mammoth first half, but Daniel's warm speeches to the crowd in the second, along with the mass participation routines of the Sea Songs, brought a great deal of charm to proceedings. On the whole then, a knowing, light, and entertaining simulation of a last night Promenade before they became The Last Night of the Proms.
Photo: Simon Rattle and Jennifer Larmore