Thursday 21 July 2011

BBC Proms opening weekend: From Glagolitic to Gothic

Prom 1: Brahms and Liszt (and Janacek)

If there's a problem with a chief conductor who specialises in one particular area, it's that an orchestra's programmes get filled rather disproportionately with one kind of music.  Jiří Bělohlávek is fond of laying on the Czech, and so in the first week of the Proms we're getting three quarters of the BBC Symphony's programmes dedicated to Czech music.  It was Dvorak and Smetana in Prom 8 and Janacek at the first night.  But Bělohlávek's way with this music is often stunning, and the first night of the 2011 season was a chance to hear him conduct Janacek's Glagolitic Mass.  It's interesting (especially for a non-believer like me) partly because Janacek is one of the few composers of great sacred music to have held no such beliefs himself.  I was struck by the concentration around the words 'I believe', which promptly vanished when the text took to the particulars of what was believed.

The BBC SO sounded a little harried in the darting music that makes up so much of the Mass; the performance was also saddled with three well matched singers (including the remarkable Hibla Gerzmava) and one sore thumb in the form of shouty tenor Stefan Vinke.  Elsewhere, (just) 19 year old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor was effortless in Liszt's rather silly Second Piano Concerto and staggering in Cziffra's virtuosic take on Brahms's Fifth Hungarian Rhapsody.  I wasn't much taken with the opener, though, Stars, Night, Music and Light by Judith Weir, which took a little too much from Walton.

Prom 4: Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony

Brian’s Gothic owes most of its allure to its inaccessibility which, as usual, leads some to make great claims of its quality.  The cost involved in putting it on, combined with the sheer technical difficulties of score, ensure that performances have been few and far between.  It’s been thirty years since the last performance in the UK (though one was mounted last year in Australia) but novelty value alone ensured that seats for Martyn Brabbins’s Proms performance sold out almost immediately.  That may have in part been due to the fact that several hundred seats were not on sale to accommodate the huge choir and off-stage brass used for the performance, but it still must have been heartening for Roger Wright and co, who must have wondered if anyone would show up.

I first heard the work about ten years ago, finding the CD in my local public library (remember them?) and being thrilled by the orchestral music of part 1.  I didn’t get very far into part 2 though, which marries the huge chorus and orchestra with 4 soloists and, a decade on, I can’t say I feel much different.  Part 1 is divided into three movements and lasts around 45 minutes.  It’s taut and dark and I was surprised all over again by how knotty the musical language is.  This section utilises only the double orchestra (basically everyone seated on the built-out stage in Sunday’s performance), plus a few mind blowing interjections from the organ and it’s this music that most purely evokes the spaces of the gothic cathedrals that partly inspired the work.  The huge number of string players are often used too contrapuntally to really make their collective weight felt, but it’s the massed wind and brass instruments that justify the scale of the orchestration:  the great dark corners of those cathedrals are brilliantly depicted by the sheer depth of tone produced by wind and brass sections of this scale.

Part 2 sets the text of the Te Deum and there are arresting moments:  Soprano Susan Gritton’s voice wafting from on high; the huge numbers of voices (almost 800) belting it out together (my ears went a bit funny at one point with the tremendous volume, even from my vantage point in the gallery); and, most of all, the sudden stillness of the coda – a rare moment of expressive intensity in this second part.  But, honestly, vast swathes of unaccompanied choral writing that stand no chance of coherence could be cut and Brian is sometimes cruel in his expectation of this many voices meeting the orchestra’s pitch after so long spent a capella.  And much of the musical material of this hour long choral section in undistinguished and rather aimless.  If only more of the material could be expressed as dramatically and concisely as the work’s opening and conclusion.

But does this matter?  Not everything can be a masterpiece and it would be better if we could stop expecting everything unusual to be so.  It’s one of the lofty and rarely climbed peaks of English music; you bet I’m glad to have visited the top.  Will I be returning?  Not in a hurry.      

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