United Kingdom Prom 31: Berlioz, Elgar, Grime, and Beethoven:Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Hallé, Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 9.8.2014 (MB)
Berlioz – Overture: Le Corsaire, op.21
Elgar – Sea Pictures
Helen Grime – Near Midnight (London première)
Beethoven – Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, ‘Eroica’, op.55
One of the most saddening aspects of this year’s Proms has been the insulting disservice done to new music. Whoever is responsible for the decision to cut contemporary works from television broadcasts should lose his or her job forthwith; it is difficult to imagine a case in which the BBC has acted more clearly against anything remotely approaching Reithian principles. (For the most informative and thoughtful piece on this issue, I have seen, please visit Classical Iconoclast here.) And so it was, apparently, that despite giving the London première of Helen Grime’s Near Midnight, the BBC saw fit not to broadcast it on television, whilst offering the rest of the concert. Not only was the decision wrong, it was foolish, for this probably proved the highlight of the Hallé’s concert under Sir Mark Elder. (Incidentally, does not this ‘Hallé’ rebranding sound silly; whatever was wrong with the Hallé Orchestra?)
Near Midnight was the first piece Grime wrote for the Hallé as Associate Composer, as we learned in the composer’s informative programme note. Initially inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s poem, Week-night Service, it shows a composer seemingly born to write for a large symphony orchestra. Indeed, though there is not necessarily much in common in terms of language and musical content, that ease of handling initially put me in mind of Henze, though French composers and perhaps Carter may offer a more revealing comparison. Considerable, but not excessive, use is made of percussion, likewise brass fanfares which act ‘almost like the tolling of bells … important markers in the structure of the piece’. A keen sense of drama and fantasy – and fantasy accomplished – was very well conveyed by orchestra and conductor; so was Grime’s careful pacing, impetus building before subsiding beautifully. Composer, orchestra, conductor, and not least television audience: all are owed an apology by the BBC.
The first half had been devoted to Berlioz and Elgar, in what might, barring Near Midnight, have been a classic Barbirolli programme. In the Corsaire Overture, Elder seemed unable to settle upon convincing tempi. The opening was absurdly fast; what followed seemed excessively drawn out, there seeming to be little that connected various sections. However, the orchestra itself was on fine form, no detail being lost, whatever the tempo. That said, when very fast, accented notes tended to be snatched at rather than given their full import: hardly surprising. Not for the first time in the evening, I longed for the late Sir Colin Davis.
Alice Coote joined the orchestra for Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Hers was a carefully variegated performance, in many ways admirable, though sometimes she struggled either to make herself heard or at least to make the words heard in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. Elder ensured that the orchestra did not overwhelm her, offering a magical tapestry of orchestral colour. Whether one can take Alice Elgar’s poetry is a matter of taste, or lack thereof, but ‘Capri’ at least proved a charming musical interlude between ‘Sea Slumber-Song’ and a dignified, if somewhat slow-moving ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’. ‘Where Corals Lie’ was splendidly free, whilst maintaining a good sense of form. The Hallé was again beyond reproach, as full of colour as if this had been Les Nuits d’été. Again, though, it was difficult to make out a good number of the words. The final song, ‘The Swimmer’ was urgent yet noble, perhaps more operatic than oratorio-like. Again, though, the music is so much better than the poem (this time by Adam Lindsey Gordon).
After Midnight followed the interval, Grime’s piece then being followed by the Eroica Symphony. On this showing – and, indeed, on that of his Royal Opera Fidelio – Elder is, alas, not a great Beethovenian. Quoted in the programme, he made wearily predictable ‘authenticke’ remarks, claiming that his work with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment had ‘changed everything: the excitement, the edge, the daring … Comfortable opulence has no place here.’ Yes, of course Furtwängler, Klemperer, et al. were known for that very lack of excitement, edge, and danger, and of course for ‘comfortable opulence’. Likewise more recent Beethovenians as different as the aforementioned Sir Colin, Daniel Barenboim, and Michael Gielen. People say silly things, however, and it does not necessarily invalidate their performances. What was striking, however, was how lacking in excitement, edge, or danger Elder’s performance was.
The first movement was fashionably fast, presumably conforming to some metronome fatwa somewhere, but what was more apparent than mere speed was the strange lightness of tone. The Hallé’s performance was well articulated, sometimes excessively so. However, if Elder’s performance were punctilious with respect to the score – as if that were ever more than the starting-point for a performance! – what seemed entirely lacking was any sense of meaning, of why this work and Beethoven’s vision might matter. What ought to be a truly climactic moment, that of recapitulation, passed by almost unheralded – and weirdly un-phrased. Heroism: whither now? Beethoven seemed bizarrely domesticated, certainly far from Wagner’s 1851 vision of this symphony: ‘the term “heroic” must be taken in the widest sense, and not simply as relating to a military hero. If we understand “hero” to mean, above all, the whole, complete man, in possession of all purely human feelings — love, pain, and strength — at their richest and most intense, we shall comprehend the correct object, as conveyed to us by the artist in the speaking, moving tones of his work. The artistic space of this work is occupied by … feelings of a strong, fully formed individuality, to which nothing human is strange, and which contains within itself everything that is truly human.’ But no, of course, Wagner is wrong, and ‘authenticity’ is right.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Funeral March fared better, though only comparatively. It flowed well – which, at whatever tempo, it must – and, despite a swift tempo, it did not sound rushed. However, it was often little more than pleasant, which is hardly enough; there was certainly little sign of the composer to whom Wagner referred to as ‘the master who was called upon to write the world history of music in his works’. Withdrawal of string vibrato irritated too. Mendelssohn came to mind in the scherzo, albeit with loud(-ish) interjections; again, Beethoven’s spirit seemed distant. (It is perhaps worth mentioning here Elder’s strange, quite inauthentic decision to use four horns.) The finale went along its way quite merrily, if rather quickly, but with all the metaphysical import of a Toblerone. I was left feeling distinctly nonplussed, and recalling Barenboim’s performance two years previously at the Proms: it might as well have been a different work, and not only on account of the heroism of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.