United Kingdom BBC Proms 2021  – Rameau, Bologne, and Mozart: Samantha Clarke (soprano), Claudia Huckle (contralto), Nick Pritchard (tenor), William Thomas (bass), The National Youth Chamber Choir, Britten Sinfonia / David Bates (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 20.8.2021. (MB)
Rameau – Hippolyte et Aricie, ‘Bruit de tonnerre’, ‘Ritournelle’; Dardanus, Tambourins I & II; Castor et Pollux, ‘Tristes apprêts’
Joseph Bologne – Symphony No.2 in D major
Rameau – Dardanus, ‘Lieux funestes’; Platée, ‘Orage’; Les Indes galantes, Chaconne
Mozart – Requiem in D minor KV 626
A peculiar concert, this: much to enjoy and indeed savour in a first half of eighteenth-century French music, followed by, not to put too fine a point on it, the most bizarrely, downright perversely conducted performance of any sacred work by Mozart I have had the misfortune to hear. Let us begin, however, at the beginning, with selected extracts from operas by Rameau. That his stage works are not staples of our opera houses says everything about the latter — including their public — and nothing about the works’ intrinsic virtues.
Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau’s first opera, was represented by two orchestral movements. Thunder-clap and wind machine both evoked the eighteenth-century theatre and, in the very different setting of the Royal Albert Hall, underlined our distance from it. A vividly pictorial and dramatic string ‘Bruit de tonnerre’ was followed by a ritournelle written for the opera’s 1742 revival, Britten Sinfonia woodwind adding colour and counterpoint, and a proper sense of leading us somewhere, of connecting. What a joy it was already to hear Rameau from a decent-sized orchestra, in such enlightened performances. Likewise, with added percussion, in the first of the tambourins from Dardanus. If the second were a bit breathless, it would be churlish to complain too much. ‘Tristes apprêts’, Télaire’s celebrated air from Castor et Pollux once more brought bassoons to the forefront, in a particularly Baroque use of orchestral colour that readily crossed national and stylistic boundaries. (Think of Handel, Zelenka, even Bach…) A plaintive performance, splendidly slow, from soprano Samantha Clarke and conductor David Bates truly made the words’ point — and went beyond them.
Next up was the short D major Symphony by Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The Britten Sinfonia offered cultivated playing, which might have been richer of tone, but they were clearly acting under orders. (Why such puritanism for music of a decidedly non-puritanical age? Must we still labour under the yoke of sub-Stravinskian diktats concerning a certain, long since discredited brand of ‘authenticity’?) At least there was none of the exhibitionism fashionable among some self-declared ‘specialists’. If it would be silly to make excessive claims for this music, it is pleasant and has just enough in the way of playing with expectation to hold one’s attention. The ebullient finale, for instance, lacks symphonic direction but retains a nice line in incident, clearly enjoyed by players and audience alike.
Nick Pritchard joined the orchestra for ‘Lieux funestes’ from Dardanus. Unfazed by sometimes tricky tessitura, Pritchard shone in another gloriously unhurried account, basking in its moment. Rich bassoon writing again made its mark; the orchestra in general seemed, not unreasonably, more committed to Rameau’s music than to Bologne’s. Harpsichord-wind machine-pizzicato strings: a vivid storm from Platée worked its magic nicely. Finally, for this half, the closing Chaconne from Les Indes galantes functioned rather as it does in Rameau’s opéra-ballet itself, culminating and closing. If a grander vision would not have gone entirely amiss, there was much to delight in colour and rhythmic detail.
After the interval, bassoons and other woodwind took up hints from much of that music and plunged us into the very different world of Mozart’s Requiem. The opening ‘Introitus’ had plenty of clues as to where Bates might lead us, though I could hardly have guessed at the extremity of his nullifying anti-vision. Although it was taken swiftly, lightly, and merely bar-to-bar — no real phrasing, let alone longer-term thinking — there was choral and orchestral detail to admire, though peculiar mannerisms from the violins already gave pause for thought: far more ‘period’ in the pejorative sense than anything we had heard from Rameau. The following ‘Kyrie’ was clear enough, I suppose, though rushed. Quite what Bates thought, or thought Mozart thought, of its tripartite invocation was anyone’s guess.
The ‘Sequenz’, though, left one in no doubt as to the travesty this would continue to be. A ‘Dies irae’ that was merely fast, quite without terror, and a peremptory ‘Rex tremendae’ that suggested a King of dreadful majesty incongruously rushing for the bus, came either side of a considerably superior ‘Tuba mirum’, which at least gave us opportunity to hear each of the vocal soloists in turn. William Thomas’s dark, characterful bass proved especially welcome, his peculiar cadenza less so. He was not, alas, the only soloist to follow such dubious practice. If the ‘Recordare’ was predictably fast, voices were well balanced, responsive, and sincere. The orchestra, alas, went for naught, relegated to the status of an end-of-pier band. By the time we reached the ‘Confutatis’, it was less a matter of rushing for the bus as the vehicle freewheeling downhill, brakes having failed. Bizarre.
The decision suddenly to perform the ‘Lacrimosa’ at a reasonable tempo, welcome though it was, spoke in context more of sentimentality than anything more elevated. There was, to be fair, splendidly fruity woodwind playing and the National Youth Chamber Choir, at last permitted to sing freely, took its chance to shine too. The rest, alas, was more of the same: a ‘Domine Jesu’ live from the Tokyo Olympics, a ‘Hostias’ whose inconsequentiality ought truly to have shocked anyone attentive either to words or music, and so on. There was fine conversation between the soloists in the ‘Benedictus’, though ornamentation might again usefully have been eschewed. As for the bald, unqualified assertion in the programme that the movement was written by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, I can only suggest that the person concerned actually listen to its material — and then some of Süssmayr’s own church music. After a double-speed — well, almost — ‘Agnus Dei’, nothing could have saved either this disposable Requiem, or the poor souls on whose behalf it was supposedly sung. Requiem for a fashion victim, as someone once said in a different context.