Prom 36: A Space Odyssey

György Ligeti
Lux aeterna

Richard Strauss
Also sprach Zarathustra

Jennifer France – soprano
Clare Presland – mezzo-soprano

Edvard Grieg Kor
London Philharmonic Choir
Royal Northern College of Music Chamber Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 11 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Music used in Kubrick’s landmark 1968 film ‘2001: A space odyssey’ being used to create a space odyssey of its own in the Royal Albert Hall in 2023? Would the newer younger audiences the proms have always sought to attract even know of the film, never mind have seen it? Strange marketing perhaps but, that said, the Royal Albert Hall was pretty full with as diverse a crowd as one could wish for. 

Perhaps the stand-out component of the concert (of many great moments it must be said) was the performance of Ligeti’s Lux aeterna as sung by the Edvard Greig Kor from the gallery of the RAH which opened the second half of the concert. With the lights of the hall dimmed to an eerie blue, the orchestra on stage sitting silent in the darkness, only conductor Edward Gardner was spot-lit. The building became a cathedral, seemingly opening out into a ‘space’ from which unseen ethereal voices sounded. Gardner’s conducting was impressively clear – any singer in the audience would relish following such a beat – and the choristers responded with vocalism that was fresh, and simply magical. With the familiar religious text crisply enunciated the effect was that of a collective meditation, Gardner cleverly extending the sensation long after the final vocal echoes had abated.

There then followed an impressively expansive yet controlled account of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra – that famous opening blazing out into the hall making as big an impact as it does in the opening sequence of the Kubrick film. Then, of course, the atmosphere of the work changes totally. The solo string instruments present the warm exposition of the main theme of the Von den Hinterweitlern section, beautifully developed by the rest of the orchestra in all its complexity. The clarity was striking; orchestral felicities each given due weight and prominence owing to faultless control of dynamic. The chuntering woodwind before the Tanzlied section was both exhilarating and menacing in equal measure. Gardner eked an infectious, almost beguiling, lilt to the dance before the sombre final section following the twelve chimes of midnight. 

The first half, Ligeti’s unbelievably complex Requiem, needs a different space and atmosphere entirely. It is not a comforting Requiem in any sense but one of both pain and horror. Above all it needs tension and both subtle (and unsubtle) variations in volume. The challenges were met. From the entry of the basses and the trombones the shifting tonalities were immediately apparent – some great low voices were evident too.  Soloists Jennifer France and Clare Presland were impassioned and wonderfully contrasted from a vocal perspective; France’s ability to nail notes from out of nowhere with both force and precision: dazzling. Gardner led the whole with unerring confidence, and the effect was again communal – not even the unfortunately timed mobile phone ‘intervention’ in the closing minutes managed to dispel that, even if it marred enjoyment slightly. Shame on the perpetrator.

It is interesting to reflect on the performance as a whole. How might the atmosphere have differed with the running order reversed or changed? The Requiem could be an amazing response to the Strauss… an odyssey for home trial perhaps?

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