Prom 15: 31st July 2001 – LATE-NIGHT HAYDN

Beethoven
Adagio and Allegretto (The Creatures of Prometheus)
Judith Weir, arr. Andrew Parrott
Missa del Cid
Haydn
Mass in B flat (Creation)

Simon Callow (narrator)
Emily Van Evera (soprano)
Deborah Miles-Johnson (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Agnew (tenor)
Christian Hilz (bass)
New London Chamber Choir, London Mozart Players conducted by Andrew Parrott

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Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 31 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London


Thankfully the RAH had cooled off a little by the time this late-night Prom started. The brief excerpts from Beethoven’s ballet provided a fitting ’overture’, with some particularly expressive woodwind playing in the ’Adagio’.

Judith Weir’s piece was half a world premiere! In the late 1980s the BBC commissioned several leading composers to write new works for its “Sound on Film” series. Weir’s response was a piecebased on the Latin mass (movements labelled Kyrie, Gloria…) but setting texts in English and Spanish following the adventures of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, otherwise known, thanks mostly to Hollywood, as ’El Cid’ – photographs of a sword-wielding Charlton Heston helpfully appeared in the programme.

The work revolves around the Cid’s religious fervour and his bloodthirsty exploits against the Moors – a disturbing contradiction that is still as sadly relevant today as it has ever been. In Andrew Parrott’s new arrangement for four-part chorus and a small orchestra of winds and low strings, a narrator (on this occasion the fruity tones of Simon Callow put to good effect) links the sung sections with introductions and comments on what is to follow.

Judith Weir’s music is, as ever, the model of clarity – nowasted notes, characteristic and ingenious use of silence, quirky little phrases and doublings between voices and instruments, beguiling and elusively beautiful invention; her craft is also simple and direct. Unlike another choral work that I had cause to hear in the last few days (Prom 12), whilst one might be able to point to influences in Weir’s language – Stravinsky perhaps, Janacek,maybe even Poulenc, her voice is instantly recognisable and her technique is impeccable. The choir and orchestra sounded as if they loved it – the audience certainly did – the opening ’Kyrie’, its long chromatic lines marked “like a Muezzin’s call to prayer,” and the closing ’Agnus Dei’, surrounded the composer says by “… silence and desolation…” are still haunting me as I write this review the morning after.

Although easily one of my favourite composers, I would make nogreat claims for Haydn’s ’Creation Mass’ of 1801. Of course, his handling of the choir is superb, and there are characteristic surprises that make one sit up and take notice – for example the long, strange organ solo that begins the ’Credo’ – but, in this performance at least, I was conscious of the piece outstaying its welcome. The soloists have little to do and when they did have something to sing their contributions were not that distinguished; certainly as far as the female soloists were concerned, who were alarmingly under the note at times.

The choir’s contribution was certainly more secure – wide-ranging dynamics, clear words and vigorous counterpoint – but even they appeared to run out of steam before the end. Quite how the LMP manage to follow its new Music Director’s extraordinary conducting technique I don’t know – but manage they did at this concert: he clearly knows what he wants, which is the importantthing.

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