Continuing the theme of Proms Firsts, the concert on 12 July brought us Berio's 1968-9 Sinfonia. The performance saw the return to the Proms of the Swingle Singers, who had also performed at the premiere.
Berio based his experimental composition Sinfonia on the structure of a traditional symphony. It offered five movements, distinct in theme. Though the transitions between these settings were very fluid, the piece clearly had a fulcrum in the rousing third movement.
The first movement aims to portray the origins of music. Fragments of sound echoed through the orchestra, including the voices in the orchestra's midst. The impression was of discordant chaos: a sense of unearthing mystery suggesting some form of primitive culture. The effect was convincing but did not make for comfortable listening, and the ethereal feeling pervaded into the second movement, which proceeded without a pause.
It was now that attention turned to more familiar time signatures and classical themes. The third movement felt more accessible musically, although this was counterbalanced by the excerpts from Beckett's The Unnamable being recited by the male voice. Unfortunately, the intention of this recitation was not at all clear, especially given a low amplification of the voice. One was left wondering whether the performance was a narration of the poem or merely a collection of indiscernible phonic fragments.
The fourth and fifth movements represented a revisiting of the polyphonic, elusive qualities of the first and second. However the final sections of the fifth offered a satisfying climax to the work.
The challenging material was dealt with capably by the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome, under Antonio Pappano. Particularly versatile and skilful were the percussionists. Despite certain difficulties grasping the core of the Sinfonia, and the piece's apparent inapproachability, this part of the programme seemed to be very well received. Testament this was, then, to the broad-minded nature of the modern Prom-goer.
Following the interval was Rossini's Stabat Mater. The great composer of opera here strayed into the genre of spiritual music, albeit with embellishments that were clearly recognisable as operatic Rossini.
Stabat Mater is full of yearning and passion, and explores the range of musical feeling of orchestra and voice. Antonio Pappano conducted with admirable expressiveness, whilst the orchestra played with beautiful attention to the details and nuances of the work. Both the conductor and the orchestra were sympathetic to the chorus and soloists at all times.
The introduction captured the attention immediately. In the first aria, tenor Colin Lee gave a superb performance, producing an authentic Italian sound of real distinction. Following this was the soprano – mezzo-soprano duet. Janice Watson (standing in at very short notice for an unwell Emma Bell) sang delicately, whilst Joyce DiDonato gave a powerful and commanding rendition. The quartet of soloists was ably completed by the bass, Ildar Abdrazakov, who sang his solo aria in a resonant and very moving fashion. Whilst the four voices were not perhaps the most natural combination when singing together, each sang individually with beauty and reverence.
The final movement of the work, in the form of a fugue, seemed to pay homage to the great spiritual works of Bach and Handel, and provided a truly fitting finale to the Mass.
The soloists were more than competently assisted by the Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome. Thea capella fifth movement was particularly moving, with the chorus displaying admirable diction, projection and musicality, and such impressive performances continued throughout the work. In fact, both the Chorus and the Orchestra performed the music of their fellow countryman naturally, sensitively and with feeling.
Doubling an orchestra can be a dangerous undertaking but Kurt Masur's relationship with the London Philharmonic and Orchestre National de France is such that it was impossible to see the join! The concert on 18 July opened with one of the lushest performances of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings that I can recall – the platform swollen with the strings of both orchestras. The outcome was unexpected for the intensity of sound seemed to outweigh the problematic acoustic and for once this sounded like a full normal orchestra is a more 'normal' acoustic. That said, the range of dynamic was magnificent with the most sensitive of solo playing building to a highly sensuous warmth and vitality.
After the interval Bruckner's Seventh Symphony gained in the same way, with the most extraordinary presence of the brass and woodwind, creating a wall of sound like a vast waterfall rushing down from the roof space and engulfing all of those inside. Yet it never sounded too loud. If anything I was more than ever aware of the hushed solo phrases and introspective bridge passages in intense contrast to the monumentality of the fully scored sections.
Throughout Kurt Masur looked relaxed and so at ease with his forces that there were times he gave up conducting all together, just a nod or a flick of a finger to change direction. Tempi for both works were on the fast side – with a lightness of touch one might have expected of a much younger conductor. It was masterly and the orchestras responded with obvious delight.
I suppose I will have to get used to audiences attempting to applaud between movements. It didn't happen when I started going to the Proms – we learned what to do from the regulars. Why does it happen now?
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