United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 30 – Beethoven, Strauss, Prokofiev and Walton: David Butt Philip (tenor), James Rutherford (bass-baritone), National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.8.2017. (AS)
Beethoven – Symphony No. 1 in C
R. Strauss – Die Frau ohne Schatten – Symphonic Fantasy
Prokofiev – They Are Seven
Walton – Belshazzar’s Feast
Here was a nicely balanced programme, progressing from the dawn of Romanticism through late Romantic expression and early anti-Romantic “modernism” to a revolutionary mid-twentieth-century classic.
At the time of its first hearing Beethoven’s First Symphony was also revolutionary, of course. In his performance, Karabits perhaps stressed the work’s eighteenth-century elements rather than its forward-looking nature. He played the first movement at quite a brisk basic tempo, with accents stressed fairly lightly, as he did the second: here the music moved more quickly, surely, than the indicated Andante cantabile con moto. But there was no sense of hurry, and for the moment it all seemed very acceptable. Lightness and elegance again were to the fore in the Menuetto: a little more early Beethovenian forcefulness would not have come amiss. Though Karabits had played the first movement repeat, in the finale repeats were not on the agenda in his swiftly moving but still graceful account. It was a pleasing performance on its own terms, but not one for every day.
Late in his life Strauss decided to rescue music from his then neglected opera Die Frau ohne Schatten and weave it into what he called a “symphonic fantasy”. It was understandable that he should do so, since his arrangement contains some gorgeous episodes, with his gift for creating long-limbed, exquisitely beautiful melodic lines very much to the fore, and luscious scoring for a large orchestra. Karabits and his players rightly and very effectively gorged on this musical feast, but one could see why the piece is rarely performed, since it does rather sprawl, is too episodic and doesn’t meld into a satisfactory entity. Perhaps a suite of separate movements would have proved to be a more effective act of rescue.
Then we heard the first-ever Prom performance of Prokofiev eight-minute cantata They Are Seven. This is a setting of a Third-Century BC Mesopotamian incantation, translated by Konstantin Balmont, in which seven malign spirits are imagined to have been unleashed upon the world. As one might imagine, the music is dark and violent, and it is extraordinarily potent in expression. But its scoring for a tenor soloist in panic mode (an extraordinarily difficult role for the singer, it would seem), chorus and a massive orchestra, together with its brevity, have together ensured that performances are rare indeed. Karabits and his forces immersed themselves with gusto in the piece’s dark-hued, menacing opulence, and David Butt Philip strove manfully to ensure audibility (in the hall, that is to say, for the BBC Radio 3 engineers no doubt ensured a good balance). At once the youthful chorus of some 140 members impressed with its energy, accuracy and tonal depth.
These qualities augured well for the performance of Belshazzar’s Feast, and the choral singing was certainly a highlight of that performance. So much so, in fact, that the singers’ skill and agility may have persuaded Karabits to take rather more excitably fast tempi than we normally hear, at certain points. It was certainly impressive to hear such wonderfully agile and accurate singing, but there is a swaggering, jaunty quality in much of Walton’s writing for both chorus and orchestra, particularly in syncopated passages, and if tempi are too fast this effect is rather lost, as it was on this occasion. Several renowned baritone soloists of the past have experienced intonation problems in this work, and James Rutherford, unfortunately, with his quite heavy vibrato, was no exception. His depiction of the writing on the wall episode was however very effective and vividly dramatic.
Throughout the concert the BSO played exceptionally well, and its qualities on this occasion compared pretty well with the main London orchestras: there were no weak links anywhere.
A black mark is awarded to whoever compiled the programme note on the orchestra’s history. In a reference to chief conductors the name of Sir Dan Godfrey, who founded the orchestra in 1893, and directed it for over 40 years until 1934, was omitted. Nor was there a mention of the great Constantin Silvestri, who in the early 1960s swiftly transformed the existing decent provincial ensemble into a virtuoso body of international standard.
For more about the 2017 BBC Proms click here.