Prom 64: 7th September – Late-night Birtwistle

Photograph of Toru Takemitsu

Sonance 2000
Tenebrae David* [BBC commission: world premiere]
Three Latin Motets (The Last Supper) [first live UK performance]
Hymn to St Cecilia
Garden Rain
Signals from Heaven

BBC Singers
London Brass and Reeds conducted by Stephen Cleobury and Sir Harrison Birtwistle*

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 7 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A reasonable size audience gathered for another late-night Prom – again finishing on time! Thank you! An intelligent, varied programme that once more suffered from the unhelpful acoustic of the RAH – would it not be more sensible to find another venue for these concerts? Is there not a local church that would host a concert of music for brass and voices? Is there not a more sensible venue for a concert such as the late-night Pierrot Lunaire (Prom 59) that had an audience of about three hundred people?

Whatever, the acoustic was perhaps helpful for the opening work played by London Brass, the fanfare Sonance 2000 that Sir Harrison Birtwistle wrote for the millennium service at St Paul’s Cathedral. In this performance the 18-part ensemble were placed around the Gallery with a lonely-looking trumpeter by the organ – very impressive it sounded too. Birtwistle’s growling and typically uncompromising dissonance must have had an unnerving effect on the gentlefolk of St Paul’s; nonetheless it provided an imposing opening to this Prom.

Whilst the brass-players found their way down from the Gallery, the BBC Singers under Stephen Cleobury sang Britten’s evergreen choral classic, Hymn to St Cecilia – one of the most perfect matches of words and music that I know. Again not helped by the acoustic, the solo lines where less distinct than they might have otherwise been, but the textwas crystal-clear and the performance highlighted the radiance and the simplicity of this remarkable little masterpiece.

It is difficult to imagine a bigger contrast than the one between the music of Birtwistle and that of Toru Takemitsu, whose music for brass was also featured in this Prom. If there has been a quieter piece for brass ensemble than Garden Rain I haven’t heard it. Indeed this sometimes proved the difficulty in this performance – some of the notes not sounding as clearly as they might have done, but the refined subtlety and slow-moving delicate tread that Takemitsu brings to his orchestral music makes a fascinating response to a medium from a composer unversed in the English brass tradition.

However, Birtwistle’s Tenebrae David, a BBC commission, was directed in a typically no-nonsense manner by its composer, and blew away the cobwebs of the brass tradition in other ways. Written in memory of the art critic David Sylvester, the material for this work comes from Birtwistle’s recently completed orchestral work, The Shadow of Night (to be premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra and Dohnanyi next January). Perhaps this 8-minute work signals a new departure – bell-like signals separated by prolonged silences; long stretches of chorale-like ideas that gradually thicken-out into more characteristic textures with threatening tuba glissandi (an peculiarly disturbing sound!): enthusiastically received here.

Birtwistle did not re-appear to take a bow after the fine performance of his Three Latin Motets – perhaps it had something to do with the bright idea of interspersing them with Takemitsu two fanfares – Signals from Heaven – brief, rather sugary pieces ending in glowing major keys. Alongside the complexity of the motets neither composer was done any favours – I can’t think why such programming was necessary.

The motets accompany the ’Visions’ that occur in The Last Supper and are meditations on the last hours in the life of Christ. In the opera they are performed on tape – thankfully the BBC Singers are very much alive and gave a most assured rendition of what was described as a ’live premiere’! Jonathan Cross in his programme note describes the music as “extraordinary and extraordinarily beautiful,” which seems as good a description as any – the dense polyphony at least alludes to music of an earlier age, not least Palestrina, but they remain entirely Birtwistle. It’s just a shame that the music’s difficulty makes it likely that only choirs of the BBC Singers’ ability will be able to perform them.

Stravinsky’s Mass is another great work – originally intended for liturgical use rather than concert performance, the compose replacing the organ with a mixed wind/brass ensemble of ten players. The story of the work’s inspiration is good, true or not. The composer played through some Mozart masses and wrote, “As I played through these rococo-operatic sweets of sin, I knew I had to write a mass of my own, a real one” – the implication being that, for Stravinsky at least, Mozart’s music had insufficient gravitas for the high solemnity of the Mass, a view that this writer, of no particular religious faith, has some sympathy with.

So the mood of Stravinsky’s Mass is one of seriousness, ritual, mostly syllabic word-setting and austerity. That is not to say that the work does not have variety and colour – at least in theory. Sadly, these elements were missing in this performance – not least in the solo contributions – the few examples of florid melismas in the ’Sanctus’ and ’Benedictus’ did not come over at all well. The whole sounded unremittingly severe and clinical – very disappointing.

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