Prom 20: Schubert, Luke Bedford, Bruckner. Luba Orgonášová (soprano); Jennifer Johnston (mezzo); Robert Dean Smith (tenor); Derek Welton (bass-baritone); Orfeón Pamplonés; BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 1.8.2015 (CC)
Schubert –Symphony No. 4 in C minor, “Tragic”
Luke Bedford –Instability (2014/15) World Première|
Bruckner – Mass No. 3 in F minor
The BBC Philharmonic – or, when I first came across it, the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra – has always had its own special qualities. A certain cleanliness of attack has always been coupled in the past with a remarkably light bass end. Under their current Chief Conductor of some four seasons, Juanjo Mena the sound seems rounder, more balanced – and eminently musical.
I am not entirely sure, though, what went on at the very opening of the concert. Mena entered and just as quickly left with the score, as if it was the wrong one. He re-entered, but so did someone with another score in her hand (or possibly the original one). Strange, and certainly a comedy of errors previously unwitnessed by this reviewer over the many seasons he has been attending the Proms.
All would be forgiven if the Schubert had been a triumph. But a cushion of sound blunted the drama; and while the RAH’s acoustic did not help, it was not the only culprit here. There was no mistaking the characteristic discipline of the performance, but a certain vitality was lacking; the shaping of melodic lines by the strings in the Andante was certainly loving, but also rather Romantic. True, the woodwind were delightful in the Trio of the third movement, and the little melodic “flick” of the violins in the finale was most appealing, but this failed to add up to anything more than a mediocre effort. That was a shame, as the Fourth Symphony needs more (good) airings.
Luke Bedford is one of the UK’s most exciting composers. His opera, Through His Teeth, staged at the Linbury in April 2014, was not only a dramatic triumph but also showed Bedford’s compositional virtuosity (review). Conventional sonorities, hard-edged dissonance, a predilection for quarter-tones and an ear for scoring ran through the opera and they ran through the BBC commission, Instability, here receiving its world première. Lasting around 22-23 minutes, and after another false start courtesy of Mena (he dropped his baton this time), this is another impressive work from the pen of Bedford. Making perfect use of the Albert Hall’s organ (one felt rather than heard the organ bass pedal), and with the orchestra evidently at full concentration (the high, glacial string harmonics were a treat), Bedford’s unpredictable yet never meandering score spoke of yet another major piece. One really hopes this is not a Proms première that will receive maybe a couple more performances and then be forgotten; there is something Birtwistle-like about the monumentalism implied by the score, yet the language is entirely Bedford’s. Initially intended to be a five-movement composition, a moment of clarity meant they became a single, fractured piece of music. As Christopher Austin’s notes so eloquently put it, “tearing up the movements as they were became a positive act of creative destruction”.
Bedford’s dissonance can take on a near-regal majesty; yet he can also evoke the grotesque in his dance-gestures. A sudden consonance about ten minutes in seems just one more part of the armoury. It would appear other passages require the exactitude of a precision instrument – sudden ultra-rapid repeated notes on chords, for example – and the BBC Philharmonic certainly seemed to be that instrument. Yet at other junctures, when a bass drum was out of sync with orchestral chords, one had to wonder whether the effect was intended. Without a score, one can’t know. I do remember being present at a Proms première of a piece by Vic Hoyland and following the score of that from the arena; sometimes what I heard was very different from what I saw.
Finally, we heard Bruckner’s Mass No. 3 with the smallish but impeccably trained choir, Orféon Pamplonés, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Impeccably trained, the choir brought some glorious sounds to Bruckner (the “Qui tollis” springs to mind, as does the long choral cry of the Credo). While not the heftiest of choruses, the Orféon Pamplonés is capable of the utmost beauty. Matching this was the BBC Philharmonic on top form, its high strings and flutes positively radiant in the Sanctus. The soloists included the focused and somewhat light bass-baritone of Derek Welton, the lovely, rounded soprano of Luba Orgonášová and the powerful, magnificently resonant mezzo of Jennifer Johnston. Perhaps Robert Dean Smith, known for his Bayreuth performances amongst others, disappointed somewhat, a little forced in his contributions.
What really was amazing was that Bruckner’s Third Mass has only been heard once before at the Proms, 50 years ago, in 1965. One hopes we do not have to wait so long to hear it again.