Prom 72 – The Shadow of Night

The Shadow of Night [UK premiere]
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Diana Damrau (soprano)
Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It’s good to see that even a Proms era of continued and varied change can still accommodate the once mandatory Beethoven Nine on the penultimate night. Even better that the first half can consist of a major recent work by a leading British composer.

Premiered in January last year by the Cleveland Orchestra under tonight’s conductor, The Shadow of Night is the latest in a sequence of substantial orchestral works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle – stretching back at least 30 years to The Triumph of Time and even further to Chorales from 1963. At 25 minutes, and scored for an orchestra in which higher timbres seem almost to escape from the predominantly bass-orientated sonorities, the feel of The Shadow of Night is demonstrably closer to ’Triumph’ than any of the later pieces, albeit with a richness and subtlety of orchestration that Birtwistle has seldom before approached. Powerful and distinctive though his scoring has long been, only latterly can his handling of the orchestra be said to have assumed a confidence bordering on intuition.

Formally, the work proceeds from its genesis in a three-note motif derived from Dowland’s ’In darkness let me dwell’ to a series of plateaux which – first rising in, then sustaining the accumulated intensity – conveys the sense of an ongoing processional, albeit one more abstractly motivated than the famous Breughel-inspired sequence in ’Triumph’. Dürer’s engraving ’Melencolia I’ has been cited as an inspiration – indeed the registral stratification which takes flight in the later stages, only to be held in check by the implacable motion of the lower registers, conveys a tangible attempt to break free from the prevailing sombreness. The outcome, as usual with Birtwistle, is not of matters left unresolved, but rather left undisturbed by the nature of events heard over the course of the piece.

Having championed Birtwistle’s pieces on several occasions with the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi has a rare feel for and understanding of how the music works – something readily conveyed in this expertly prepared performance, which unfolded as the single, arching span surely intended by the composer. The ample acoustic gave space to the terraced interplay of wind and strings, if inevitably robbing the music of some of its immediacy. Certainly a performance at the Royal Festival Hall or Barbican – perhaps for Birtwistle’s 70th birthday next year – would make a welcome comparison.

How to characterise the Choral? The opening movement, powerfully but not ponderously launched, maintained a viable balance between lucidity and intensity, though the cross-rhythmic energy of the development went for comparatively little – leading to a reprise which was superbly articulated if underwhelming. The Scherzo was too streamlined for its bracing humour fully to register, although Dohnányi found an attractive Arcadian luminosity in the Trio. If lacking the inner profundity that others have brought to it, the intertwining themes of the ’Adagio’ rose to a nobly conceived apex – and with the treacherous horn writing securely delivered.

The ’terror fanfare’ opening the finale was disappointingly tepid, but the performance regained conviction in a flowing presentation of the ’Ode to Joy’ theme, Dohnányi steering a safe course through the intricacies of Beethoven’s variational structure. Alastair Miles was the pick of a solo quartet well matched in vocal quality and character, and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir beefed-up the Philharmonia Chorus, which may well have performed the Choral more than any other comparable organisation.

So, a penultimate night well contrasted in content and soundly delivered by all concerned. For this reviewer, the Proms season ended, if not in revelation, then with a high degree of satisfaction.

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