The Bells – Choral Symphony, Op.35
Violin Concerto in D
The Year 1812 – Festival Overture, Op.49
Albina Shagimuratova (soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor) & Mikhail Petrenko (bass) [The Bells]
Baiba Skride (violin)
BBC Symphony Chorus
Crouch End Festival Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 18 August, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
A Russian programme oddly shaped and of no particular relevance to wider Proms themes but enjoyable for all that. Edward Gardner may not be the most innovative conductor of his generation but he is among the most liked and the glowing sounds he obtained from the sometimes intractable BBC Symphony Orchestra showed just why he should be so highly regarded.
Stravinsky’s early Scherzo fantastique, still something of a rarity, has long-standing Proms connections in that it was one of the ‘novelties’ introduced by Henry Wood with his Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1914. After a long period of neglect, its modest revival in the present century suggests that we have become more tolerant of wholesale stylistic pilfering. Gardner managed to galvanise his ensemble into playing of the appropriate industriousness and energy even if the music does rather outstay its welcome. Was it perhaps one of outgoing supremo Roger Wright’s little jokes to have two BBC Symphony Orchestra concerts in succession open with curtain raisers inspired by unmanageable insects, bees in this case?
It was not until André Previn’s Rachmaninov Centenary Concert in the 1973 season that The Bells was scheduled for the first time at the Proms, albeit in an English-language version. Gardner had a strong mixed cast (seated upfront in separate clumps): the unflatteringly transliterated Albina Shagimuratova, standing in for Luba Orgonášová, Australian Stuart Skelton and stalwart bass Mikhail Petrenko. The latter sings on the recent Berlin recording from Simon Rattle and was terrific. What made this performance extra special was the size of the choral contingent, considerably larger than that assembled for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Mahler 8 last June at the Royal Festival Hall. The combined forces of the Crouch End Festival Chorus and BBC Symphony Chorus mustered real ferocity and power in the third movement, erasing memories of the Lilliputian group which accompanied Gianandrea Noseda’s BBC Philharmonic in 2011 (billed, at least, as the Mariinsky Theatre Chorus).
The second half opened with more Stravinsky and a work rather less suited to the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. Baiba Skride’s detailed characterisation of the Violin Concerto, encompassing both the scratchy and the lyrical in the modern manner, probably sounded more convincing on Radio 3. In the venue itself, certain lines retreated into inaudibility. That said, there was some acute interplay with orchestra members and an eloquent end to ‘Aria II’ where the tone was unfailingly mellifluous.
The 1812 Overture has closed many a popular matinée concert at the Royal Albert Hall but is rarely heard during the Proms. You never know quite where you are with what Tchaikovsky himself regarded as a below-stairs, tabloidy sort of piece. On this occasion the presence of a large chorus for the Rachmaninov suggested that we were in for enhancements of the vocal kind so the booklet note’s suggestion that we would hear the choral version prepared by Connecticut-born Igor Buketoff (1915-2001) seemed plausible. Plausible if somewhat wide of the mark. Didn’t his RCA recording give the chorus more to do than just the opening and closing hymns? The result was dazzling enough with computerised cannon and mortar effects upfront and copious bell-sounds coming from somewhere in the Gallery. The audience, large but generally quiet, expressed great enthusiasm for the old warhorse. In 24 hours we had come a long way from the distilled remembrance of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms