While the Ninth might seem like a Proms fixture, foreshortened renditions shorn of Beethoven’s choral Finale were the order of the day until the creation of the National Chorus, precursor of today’s BBC Symphony Chorus. More recently the commissioning of a short a cappella work to kick-start proceedings has been a feature of the Alan Davey / David Pickard regime. In 2018 the composer was Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvia’s answer to Eric Whitacre. This year the slot was occupied by Jonathan Dove in his sixtieth-birthday year with the rider that it also marks the ninetieth anniversary of that erstwhile National Chorus (and, by extension, celebrates regular renditions of the complete Ninth). Dove’s programme note seemed to promise some kind of multicultural gloss on Beethoven’s Caucasian vision of brotherliness but Alasdair Middleton’s text reads like 1980s’ Peter Gabriel as rewritten by a slightly backward child. The settings are no better. As the World turns on its dark side, all-purpose, vaguely minimalist uplift simply won’t do.
There were more notes in Dieter Ammann’s thirty-two-minute ‘Gran Toccata’, the literal and syllabic banished in favour of highly-coloured randomness. This was no accident. The Swiss composer, present to acknowledge warm applause, had enjoyed a formative spell as a free-jazz performer on a multiplicity of instruments. I am not familiar with his concert music but here he favours a sort of moto perpetuo burble from which emerges the occasional dazzling sonority or half-remembered shard of Ligeti (in various guises), Stravinsky (in Petrushka mode) or whatever. The pockets of consonance and micro-tonality add variety but not substance or shape. Meanwhile the solo part manages to be both exhaustingly continuous and often inaudible, in the RAH at least, weaving in and out of the texture, “a cog in the big orchestra machine” as the composer puts it. The programme booklet managed to include a large and spectacularly irrelevant caricature of Liszt who (triangle notwithstanding) would never have countenanced playing second fiddle to marimba and vibraphone. Ammann may not have turned in a Concerto as the template is conventionally understood but his flashy, kinetic discourse gripped many listeners. I felt a little sorry for Andreas Haefliger, so rarely able to demonstrate his thoughtful, elegant side. That said, he must be happy with the work as he is introducing it to Boston, Helsinki and Munich to name but three. Presumably he was playing the right things: he had the sheet music and an old-fashioned, human page-turner.
After the interval, the main event. Or so it must have seemed for the bulk of the capacity crowd. Attendances have been impressive this year. Audience behaviour less so. Witness the late smattering of clapping after the first movement, acknowledged with a rueful shrug from the podium. It was that movement which worked best, crisply enunciated with forthright timpani. The partial standing ovation at the end may have come as a surprise too given that even the Finale was fresh and purposeful rather than self-consciously grand. The choral contingent of around 130, spilling into the rows just behind the performance space, acquitted itself with distinction – which is not to say that it eclipsed memories of the 250-strong BBC Proms Youth Choir assembled last year. Of the vocal soloists, located throughout the performance behind the violins massed on the left of the platform, only the tenor might have been found wanting in character.
What then was the problem? Was it perhaps my own subjective response to feel that Beethoven’s profounder contemplations had been short-circuited by what had gone before. Sakari Oramo is a fine conductor yet on the night his breezy tempos and fluid phrasing felt a little beside the point, the music-making attractive and unexceptionable where it needed to aim higher. To boldly go where no man has gone before. Or something like that…
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms
- Oramo records Sibelius
- Oramo records Busoni’s Piano Concerto with Kirill Gerstein