Mystery Prom 1: Rameau; Chevalier de Saint Georges; Mozart – Britten Sinfonia, National Youth Chamber Choir & David Bates

Hippolyte et Aricie – Bruit de tonnerre; Ritornello
Dardanus – Tambourins I & II
Castor et Pollux – ‘Tristes apprêts’

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Symphony No.2 in D

Dardanus – ‘Lieux funestes’
Platée – Orage
Les Indes galantes – Suites d’orchestre: Entrée les Sauvages: III. Chaconne

Requiem in D minor, K626 [compl: Süssmayr]

Samantha Clarke (soprano), Claudia Huckle (contralto), Nick Pritchard (tenor), William Thomas (bass)

National Youth Chamber Choir

Britten Sinfonia
David Bates

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 20 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Well, one thing has been proved: the idea of a Mystery Prom works.  The first of four – the programmes for which were only announced on the day the Proms opened – attracted the second-biggest I’ve seen this year (only topped by the Philharmonia and Víkingur Ólafsson last Saturday).  Of course, in any normal year, this would have been a sell-out, as it was a typically strong programme: the Mozart Requiem preceded by earlier French works from Rameau and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who it’s assumed Mozart met when in Paris, as they were the guests of Duke d’Orléans at the same time in 1778.

Boasting four debutants and with the Mozart featuring the National Youth Chamber Choir, there was a youthful aspect to the music making: vital, alive, and not hide-bound to convention.  Bates directed the opening Rameau salvo of pieces without a break, the audience alerted to the start of the concert with the crash of a thundersheet for the Bruit de tonnerre to sweep through the Royal Albert Hall like one of this summer’s flash floods.  After the toe-tapping Tambourins from Dardanus, soprano Samantha Clarke mourned the early death of Castor in Castor et Pollux, who – as Telaira, daughter of the sun – sang with despairing simplicity against Rameau’s aching instrumental lines.  Matching the mood was tenor Nick Pritchard in ‘Lieux flunestres’ – a late addition to Dardanus – and featuring two mournful bassoons (that most doleful of instruments): Sarah Burnett and Shelly Organ.

In between Rameau at his most despairing, was Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s Second Symphony, quickly reused as an opera overture.  Bates positively danced through this, encouraging a lightness and buoyancy that was disarming. It was not the first time the Chevalier had graced the Proms (Chineke! facilitated his debut on its debut at a Late Night in 2017 – its back for a full evening on Tuesday), but perhaps one of his Violin Concertos could grace the stage soon?  The first half was completed by two more Rameau excerpts: another storm (so like this British summer!) from Platée and the Chaconne from Les Indes galantes.  A short first-half, perhaps (or one that flew by too quickly), but one definitely leaving the audience hungry for more Rameau.

Mozart’s sombre, dark orchestration of his Requiem (here, as usual, as completed by Süssmayr – no biography of him provided) marked a change of mood, back to Rameau’s deeply felt vocal excerpts, with the lack of upper wind immediately telling in the trombone, basset clarinet and bassoon opening.  Bates kept the music flowing and played the first sections continuously.  The National Youth Chamber Choir – 34 strong and socially distanced behind the Britten Sinfonia on the stage risers – were in an unusual formation: from the conductor’s left: tenors, sopranos, basses then mezzos.  But the balance was very natural, and even though they couldn’t produce a wall of sound (as we’ve come to expect with much bigger choirs in this venue), clarity and diction were excellent.  Matched by the soloists (Clarke, now in black with a flowing cape, and Pritchard, joined by contralto Claudia Huckle and bass William Thomas), this was a moving performance in two senses: not only emotionally, but also in performance, Bates leaning on his period experience from La Nuova Musica. 

A longer pause than he’d given us up till the at the end of the Lacrimosa elicited a barrage of applause (perhaps the ‘Amen’ had made unwary listeners think it was the end), which slightly marred the remaining movements, and we might have had a moment of silence at the end, given the nature of the piece, but the spontaneous applause there was a mark of the success of the performance.

More Mystery Proms like this one, please!

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