Prom 11: Christopher Columbus / Stabat Mater

Walton arr. Christopher Palmer
Christopher Columbus – Suite
Stabat Mater, Op.58

Janice Watson (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Charles Clarke (tenor)
John Tomlinson (bass)

BBC National Chorus of Wales
London Symphony Chorus

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 27 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

An eminently sensible idea to run this Prom without an interval AND to have it start early – what more could one ask for? Well some commitment to the music-making would have been nice – from some quarters. There was no doubting it from the choruses in both works – they attacked Walton’s music with great gusto, spitting out the consonants and clearly had a fine old time with the sort of Cecil B. de Mille meets Belshazzar’s Feast soundworld that Walton conjures up. The solo contributions, as unfortunately was to be the case throughout the evening were less distinguished – Paul Charles Clarke an under-powered tenor in the last movement (with its echoes of Troilus and Cressida, several years before the opera’s composition) and Catherine Wyn-Rogers giving a rather uninvolved account of the touching ’Romanza’.

This, ironically, was the only section of the score that Walton approved for publication after its use for a BBC radio play. Whether or not this curious hotch-potch does Walton any favours is arguable – an entertaining novelty perhaps, but the music, although scored with the composer’s customary panache, just isn’t very good. The first movement is a sort of Belshazzar’s Feast with local colour (in this case castanets and Spanish-sounding trumpets) and the slow movement relies heavily on music from Henry V. Walton always resisted attempts to make Columbus into a concert-piece saying that the music was only good enough for the purpose that it was written. Although Christopher Palmer did much good work on behalf of British music, I fear that on this occasion the composer really did know better.

It is odd to think that Dvorak’s setting of the Stabat Mater was having its first Prom performance – despite being conducted by the composer in the same hall in 1884. Dvoøák was by all accounts overwhelmed by the size of the RAH. On this occasion he may well have been underwhelmed by a solo quartet seemingly unsure of their notes and lack-lustre in practically every other department as well. Janice Watson, stepping in for an indisposed Susan Chilcott, may well have had some reason to be reticent, but the rest disappointed and certainly a pale reflection of the enthusiasm of the chorus. The movement the soloists had to themselves (’Quis est homo…’), although well supported by conductor and orchestra, has a fascinating passage that finds them accompanied by effectively a miniature brass band; this merely highlighted their general weakness.

The work has its longeurs, most of which appear in the extended first movement, but after a slightly shaky start with some surprisingly badly-placed unison Fs, the orchestra and chorus warmed up to give a moving, involved account, with some beautiful playing from the wind section in particular. Although Richard Hickox was quite rightly emphasising the Verdian influences in the score (Dvorak had little time for other living composers apart from Verdi), the graceful wind writing and inimitable melodic sense make it impossible to doubt Dvorak as the composer. He saves his coup for the last movement, an extended blazing ’Amen’ (again wonderfully sung by the combined chorus), which makes way for the opening movement to return and for a peaceful conclusion.

It was good to hear this major work by a still somewhat underrated composer.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday, 30 July, at 2 o’clock

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