Prom 38: 18th August 2001 – Salve, Sidus Polonorum

O Lieber Herre Gott
Selig Sind die Toten
Ich Weiss Dass Mein Erloser Lebt (Geistliche Chorwerke)
Fest- und Gedenkspruche
Chorale Prelude and Fugue on O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid
Salve, sidus polonorum (UK premiere)
Concerto for two pianos
De profundis
Friede auf Erden

Percussion ensemble, BBC Symphony Chorus conducted by Stephen Jackson
David Goode (organ)
Philip Moore & Simon Crawford-Phillips (pianos)

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 18 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It was good to hear the BBC Symphony Chorus given something worthier of its talents than Sally Beamish’s piece, which I reviewed earlier this season (Prom 12). The Chorus is more than able to sustain a Prom of its own – especially with such interesting programming. That said, I do wish someone at the Proms office would do something about programme lengths by taking into account applause, platform changes, Radio 3 introductions etc when estimating the timing of a programme. By 11.40 the two Schoenberg pieces had not started … this does not take into account the poor unfortunates, such as your reviewer, that rely on public transport; with a 15-minute walk to the tube station, Ihad to leave before the Schoenberg – one of my main reasons for going to the concert in the first place. On the evidence of what I did hear I am sure the performance was splendid.

The three Motets by Schutz set a high standard. One of the strongest points of many that have developed under Stephen Jackson’s leadership is the BBC Symphony Chorus’s diction – consonants bounced around every corner of the hall and every line of the intricate counterpoint was clear and energetically projected. A rare, hugely welcome, Prom outing for this remarkable composer.

Brahms was a particular admirer of the music of Schutz and, indeed, his counterpoint – antiphonal exchanges between divided choirs and graphic word-painting are not a million miles away from the earlier German master. I am ashamed to say that somehow I have managed to miss Fest-und Gedenkspruche and, not to put too fine a point on it, I was totally knocked out (even considering the wheezing RAH organ which was switched on to warm up during this piece)! Although the sopranos sometimesseemed stretched by Brahms’s high-lying writing, the energy and joy of the performance overcame such a slight reservation. The resolutions of the sometimes startling and stark harmony were quite extraordinary – from a compositional point of view – and beautifully performed. The final bars must go on to my list of one of the most striking “Amens” in music.

Though in some ways logical, the inclusion of the early Brahms Chorale Prelude, was in others unfortunate. It did neither the programme length nor Brahms any good at all – though this may be my allergic reaction to most Romantic organ music rather than David Goode’s spirited performance.

As Adrian Thomas explained in his informative programme note, we have heard very little from Gorecki in the past few years. Since the huge success of the perhaps infamous Third Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), the composer has suffered frequent ill health and his output has slowed down considerably. Even works Gorecki has composed have not always been released for performance. The UK premiere of his Op.72 cantata, Salve, sidus polonorum is the first major work to be heard in this country for some time.

This memorial cantata was written to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bohemia’s Polish-born patron-saint, St Wojciech (St Adalbert), and brought together Gorecki’s two main interests – music of the Polish church, quoting two 15th-century chants, and Polish folk music – the last movement ’Alleluia’ is Gorecki at his most rumbustious. As well as a large chorus the work calls for organ, two pianos and a colourful array of bells, glockenspiels and gongs – bell sounds predominate the last movement in particular, which glitters and dances with unrestrained joy. As with much of Gorecki’s music, repetition plays a strong part – both in the more reflective moments, which to my mind work most successfully – and the more rhythmic, ecstatic ones, in which the invention seems less inspired. Illness prevented the composer from being present – but he could not have wished for a more faithful presentation of his work.

Philip Moore and Simon Crawford-Phillips then had the stage to themselves for Stravinsky’s Concerto for two pianos – not the ideal Albert Hall piece, much of the detail being eaten up before reaching the audience, but an account that was without any doubt well under the fingers of these talented young players.

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