PROM 23: Fine Choral Singing Redeems Runnicles’s Rather Ordinary Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 23 – John McLeod, Beethoven, and Mozart: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor), Neil Davies (bass), National Youth Choir of Scotland (chorus master: Christopher Bell), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 3.8.2014 (MB)

John McLeodThe Sun Dances (London premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60
Mozart (ed. Robert Levin) – Requiem in D minor, KV 626

Another programme of which it was difficult to make much sense: a twenty-first-century Scottish tone poem, followed by a Beethoven symphony, followed by Mozart’s Requiem. As it turned out, I should readily have skipped the first half and simply heard the Mozart, which, if, in Donald Runnicles’s hands, it certainly did not plumb any metaphysical depths, offered excellent singing from the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

Apparently, John McLeod’s 2001 The Sun Dances takes its inspiration from the story of an old Scottish woman, Barbara MacPhie, climbing Ben More on the Isle of Mull to see sunrise on Easter Sunday. It seemed well played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, but alternates awkwardly between stretches of relatively biting, highly rhythmical music, and more Romantic, even film-music-like material. Attractively orchestrated in a post-Ravel fashion, it was not really clear to me what it added up to. The BBC SSO brass seemed to enjoy the climax though.

Runnicles’s account of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony started promisingly enough, the introduction to the first movement full of potentiality. What followed, however, set the scene all too well for a largely characterless performance: almost ‘designer Beethoven’. The first movement proper was very fast indeed, highly (excessively?) articulated, with undeniably characterful woodwind. Of metaphysics, or indeed more generally of meaning, there was not so much as an aural glimpse. The development passed almost without incident (!), but some degree of fury was whipped up for the return; without context, however, and without any of the necessary flexibility, it could make little real impact. Applause followed – as, annoyingly, it would after every movement. Runnicles offered a strange conception of an Adagio, surely more of an Andante. The slow movement was pleasant rather than dignified, let alone deep. Despite incidental felicities, it felt skated over and, frankly, rushed. The scherzo was clear and correct, but where was the struggle? There was nothing especially objectionable, but nothing revelatory either. At least there was a sense of relaxation for the trio. The close to the movement as a whole was perfunctory in the extreme. Beethoven’s finale was taken attacca, very fast indeed, more akin to a Presto. An horrendous bout of audience coughing accompanied its course. Otherwise it was stylish, sleek, sometimes even urgent, but never exultant, more often brusque and unsmiling. If only we could have heard Daniel Barenboim again…

Mozart’s Requiem was performed in Robert Levin’s edition, which goes beyond the familiar Süssmayr completion in a number of respects. It was interesting to hear, but I cannot say that I should in general wish to do so. In any case, as mentioned above, the principal joy of this performance was the alert, expressive singing of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, ably supported by the BBC SSO. The female soloists, Carolyn Sampson and Christine Rice, fared better than their male counterparts, Jeremy Ovenden and Neal Davies. Runnicles again exhibited a tendency towards unduly fast and driven tempi, but was on better form than in the Beethoven, even though again it was difficult to detect anything much in the way of religious or more generally metaphysical import.

The opening bars were ominous enough, on the swift side but not unreasonably so. Both the chorus and Sampson made a welcome mark in the ‘Introitus’, though excessively articulated violins proved less of a boon. The ‘Kyrie’ was very fast, frankly too fast and too light in texture. (What a strange response to words and music alike!) At least there was, as throughout, fine choral singing to enjoy and Runnicles slowed down to offer a glimpse of real neo-Handelian grandeur at the very close. If the ‘Dies irae’ were very fast, that was fair enough; it was darker of hue too, a welcome development. The ‘Tuba mirum; was taken at a predictably ‘flowing’ tempo, but was permitted to breathe. Davies’s solo was uncomfortably wobbly. A wonderfully forthright ‘Rex tremendae’ followed, choral clarity especially noteworthy. The ‘Recordare’ was light of character, but on its own terms flowed nicely; Ovenden’s tenor was, however, anything but ingratiating of tone. Surely, however, there should have been more at stake than we heard in the merely fast ‘Confutatis’ and a decidedly un-Romantic ‘Lacrimosa’. Levin’s ‘Amen fugue was the surprise: perfectly competent contrapuntal writing, but not, to my ears, remotely Mozartian. I think we can do without it.

Again, the ‘Domine Jesu’ was too fast, the words and their meaning ultimately lacking seriousness, however well sung. It sounded, I am afraid, dangerously close to Mendelssohn fairy music. And should the setting of ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ really sound jaunty, however beautifully blended it was? So it continued, through a driven ‘Hostias’, to the ‘Sanctus’, in which Levin’s hand offered interesting new violin figuration: the one case in which I positively welcomed his intervention. Levin’s ‘Osanna’ sounds more Handelian – with an obvious, perhaps too obvious, nod to Mozart’s Mass in C minor – than what we are accustomed to hear. The ‘Benedictus’ was prettily skated over, but again, what of meaning, what of liturgical context? Radically different orchestral writing was to be heard; I should not mind hearing it again, but I am not convinced that it was definitely preferable to Süssmayr, whatever the accusations of clumsiness sometimes hurled at him. Ovenden was here again the weakest link, often sounding strained indeed. Levin’s transition to the following ‘Osanna’ was more ‘interesting’ than convincing. The ‘Agnus Dei’ showed that (relative) gravity and swift tempi were not necessarily incompatible; alas, it was interrupted by some extraneous (electronic?) noise. There was an intriguingly Bachian character to the close – the B minor Mass came to mind – after which the ‘Lux aeterna’ offered a spirited conclusion, more in keeping with the performance than the work. Might Runnicles have been happier with, say, Fauré than the tragic Catholicism of Mozart’s final work?

Mark Berry

2 thoughts on “PROM 23: Fine Choral Singing Redeems Runnicles’s Rather Ordinary Prom”

  1. I find the comments on Mozart’s Requiem to be pretentious and self aggrandising. The exquisite balance of playing and singing were, for me, outstanding. I did not find this performance in any way lacking in religious or metaphysical import. I wonder what Mr Berry knows of either.

    Once again we read a review which is more about the person of the writer than the quality of an excellent performance.

    • Agreed Anne
      The best performance overall I’ve ever heard, I was particularly pleased with the obvious enthusiasm of the singers and the excellent sound balance of the transmission. Wonderful.
      He must have been somewhere else.


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