Two recent prize-winners at the Proms. Catriona Morison was winner of Cardiff Singer of the World 2017 whilst Elim Chan won the Donatella Flick Conducting Prize in 2014. Chan made an immediate impression in a thoughtful reading of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture that drew responsive playing from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It was notable for its dreamy Romanticism rather than drama with a hushed opening, tension given to Mendelssohn’s subtle harmonic shifts and woodwind solos, played poetically.
Morison was particularly impressive Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Without reference to a score she used her rich mezzo to give an urgent and unsentimental reading of Elgar’s work which can seem overwrought in less subtle hands: simple and touching, natural and direct, and the climax of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ was delivered with ringing top notes. ‘Where Corals Lie’ was beautifully phrased, and the final ‘The Swimmer’ was ardent although some of the words were lost against the storm-tossed fervour of Elgar’s heavy orchestration, although Morison has great feeling for text, and reminds of Norma Proctor. Chan’s accompaniment throughout brought out numerous deft touches in Elgar’s scoring. The clapping between songs was tiresome.
Morison had a major role to play in Errollyn Wallen’s This Frame is Part of the Painting. It’s a twelve-minute paean to the work of painter Howard Hodgkin and its title relates to the tension between Hodgkin’s carefully created frames and the painted canvas. It is a shame that the programme only included one of Hodgkin’s glorious paintings as they are integral to an understanding of the music, which begins shimmeringly, over which the singer intones a poem written by Wallen herself in response to Hodgkin’s artistry. It does more than illustrate Hodgkin’s expressive brushstrokes and lush colours and seems to be about creativity itself. It is a complex work that sometimes sounds like Ravel and becomes denser orchestrally as it goes on and the tone darkens. I’m not sure that Wallen’s words always match her music in quality but it is a piece that will repay further hearings. The section where four horns quote the ‘Kyrie’ from William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices as the singer lists Hodgkin’s favourite paints (Cadmium Yellow Deep, Payne’s Grey...) was strangely affecting.
The evening closed with a very familiar musical homage, Mussorgsky’s for-piano Pictures at an Exhibition, written to commemorate painter and architect Viktor Hartmann, in Ravel’s orchestration (could we though have had Henry Wood’s version?). Chan gave an account that was bold, well-characterised and not without subtlety. The linking ‘Promenades’ became progressively more nostalgic and there was a misty tenderness to ‘The Old Castle’, contrasted with youthful impetuosity for ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ and the Limoges marketplace. Detail could have been more cleanly articulated in certain sections but the quiet string-playing during ‘Catacombs’ was mesmerising. Some of the brass solos sounded tired, but the players rallied for the gathering force and tumult of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, urged on by Chan at her most expansive. Chan has charisma to burn and seems able to throw fresh light on core repertoire.