A Somewhat Patchwork Beethoven Ninth at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 9 – War and Peace: Ešenvalds, Britten, Beethoven: Erin Wall (soprano), Judit Kutasi (mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (tenor), Franz-Josef Selig (baritone), BBC Proms Youth Choir, World Orchestra for Peace / Donald Runnicles and Thomas Halsey (Ešenvalds). Royal Albert Hall, London, 21.7.2018. (CC)

Erin Wall (soprano), Judit Kutasi (mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (tenor), Franz-Josef Selig (baritone) © BBC Proms/Chris Christodoulou
Erin Wall (soprano), Judit Kutasi (mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (tenor), Franz-Josef Selig (baritone)
© BBC Proms/Chris Christodoulou

Ēriks Ešenvalds – A Shadow (BBC Commission; world premiere)
Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem
Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125, ‘Choral’           

The BBC Proms Youth Choir doubled as sometime percussionists in the world premiere of the BBC Commission, A Shadow. Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds sets a poem which talks of a father unlikely to see what happens in the lives of his children (‘I said unto myself, if I were dead, / What would befall these children?’). The choir, founded in 2012, was in fabulous voice, phrases and diminuendos exquisitely shaped. The choir was placed on the left-hand side of the stage, extending all the way up. Metallophones double the vocal lines, adding a shimmering haze. The sound of the BBC Proms Youth Choir perhaps lacks some depth but there was no doubting the discipline on display here, and the final inspirational lines (‘This world belongs to those who came the last / They will feel hope and strength as we have done’) glowed. A lovely piece, and a superb example of the Baltic choral tradition

The concert was entitled ‘War and Peace’. The Britten Sinfonia da Requiem was first performed by Sir John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic in 1941. Runnicles’ performance was powerful, the depth of the ‘Lacrymosa’ at the opening palpable; the music had a pulse like a heartbeat and superbly balanced textures. There was a Mahlerian tread to the drama (invoking that composer’s Sixth Symphony at times); the bright, colourful ‘Dies irae’ found much instrumental virtuosity on display, while Runnicles found moments of calm in the final ‘Requiem aeternam’. This was a creditable performance, with an especial mention for the trumpets in the ‘Dies irae’. The World Orchestra for Peace is indeed a global ensemble, boasting members from a huge range of ensembles (35 in total) and there was no doubting the expertise and instrumental command on display here. Perhaps a touch more depth to the reading would have transported us further into Britten’s realm.

The habit of applauding after every movement, so disruptive in the First Night’s Planets performance, was back for the Beethoven 9 (although when it came to the gap between the third and fourth movements, I counted but one lonely clap.) The soloists’ entrance between the second and third movements unfortunately invited applause, however wrongly. Here was no excuse for the applause between the first two movements, though. Runnicles opted for antiphonal violins (laudable – the piece gains hugely); and six horns. To have a ‘bumper’ for the first horn part is standard practice, but this is the first time I think I have seen a bumper for the principal and a bumper for the fourth horn. At least we should be happy that it was the fourth horn who played the solo in the slow movement (often it is the principal).

There was a certain unstable feel to the first movement, as if under-rehearsed. It felt just under-tempo and, at times, the tension sagged hugely. Beethoven’s repetitions are meant to increase tension, not decrease it. The Scherzo was the finest movement, light and fast, aided by hard-sticked timpani. The Adagio molto e cantabile flowed, and the pastoral-tinged section was beautiful (as were the clarinet contributions throughout). A pity some string pizzicato tended towards the inaudible. The strength of the finale lay in its soloists, a wonderfully blended group with the rounded but strong tenor of Russell Thomas (no straining or shouting here), a clarion-voiced soprano in Erin Wall, a nicely toned mezzo in Judit Kutasi and possibly the finest baritone I have yet heard in a live performance of the Ninth, Franz-Josef Selig. The choir sounded spectacular, singing from memory. If only Runnicles’ conception had been whole and deep; instead this was a somewhat patchwork Ninth; certainly not an apocalyptic one.

Colin Clarke

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