United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 21 – MacMillan and Beethoven: Erin Wall (soprano), Sonia Prina (alto), Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), Alexander Vinogradov (bass), CBSO Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Xian Zhang (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 30.7.2017. (AS)
Sir James MacMillan – A European Requiem (European premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125
James MacMillan’s A European Requiem, completed in 2015, has nothing to do with the European Union or Brexit. The title refers to the common European language of Latin that existed before nationalistic barriers were erected, and the work is a setting of the traditional Latin text. The composer has described it as “…not a memorial for a loved one but rather a general response to this vivid text, coloured by a realism and wistfulness at the passing of deep cultural resonances”.
The work begins with a sudden percussion outburst which seems loud enough to waken the dead, rather than being a suitable introduction to the opening words “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord). Soon a pattern emerges of fairly plain choral writing of a kind that Holst might have written, set against more arresting, often fairly jagged orchestral contributions, sometimes reinforced by more percussion batteries. These don’t have any particular consistency of style: there are echoes of John Williams here, Tippett elsewhere, Stravinsky and other composers, all melded into an acceptably comfortable listening experience for those who don’t like anything too ‘modern’. Though the choral and orchestral scoring is very skilled, nothing strikes the ear as having any marked sense of individuality. The writing for the two soloists, counter-tenor and baritone (Iestyn Davies and Jacques Imbrailo, respectively), is more adventurous that that written for the chorus, but it lacks any strong dramatic identification with the subject matter of the text. Both soloists did as well as they could in the circumstances, and the combined choruses made a strong, rich-toned contribution. Xian Zhang conducted with her customary precision and vigour. This was the work’s European premiere.
If precision and vigour are very welcome attributes in any conductor who tackles Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, this colossal work demands a great deal more than that of an interpreter. Xian Zhang set an acceptably brisk basic tempo at the opening of the work, but any sense of anticipation of great things to come was missing. As the movement developed her conducting was certainly lively, but it turned into a superficial skim through the music. The struggles and turmoil that Beethoven expresses in this titanic construction, as brought out by the great interpreters of the past and present, were simply missing. The Scherzo accommodated Zhang’s direct approach more readily, but here again there was a sense of the music being polished off in straightforward fashion, with impatiently clipped phrasing; the dryness of conception was particularly reinforced here by the hard stick thwacks of the timpanist. The trio section was nicely contrasted but it too sounded bland.
Traditionally lingering performances of this symphony’s Adagio are thankfully dying out, and Zhang’s nicely flowing tempo was very welcome. But soon the routine nature of her direction became exposed: there was a certain warmth of expression, some sense of roundness in the phrasing, but no real plumbing of the depths of Beethoven’s inspired writing. The basic pulse was also too unvaried.
And so, to the finale. The explosive beginning came across well, and Zhang managed the opening recollections of the three earlier movements adroitly. She took the big tune fairly swiftly at first, but then it settled down a little to a good pace. Her conducting at this point and from there on was very efficient and well-managed, but no more than that. The four soloists – Erin Wall (soprano), Sonia Prina (alto), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Alexander Vinogradov (bass) – were hampered by having to sit at the side of the platform, then rush to the middle for their contributions, and then return to their seats afterwards, presumably so that they did not get in the way of the television cameras when they were not singing. In these circumstances, a certain lack of security in their individual and ensemble contributions was understandable. The combined forces of the CBSO Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales made a magnificent sound, and it was their passionate singing that brought real life to the music-making and provided a conclusion to the performance that inspired a standing ovation.
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