Proms 2011 – Benjamin Britten

Purcell, arr. Joby Talbot
Chacony in G minor [BBC commission: world premiere]
Cantata misericordium, Op.69
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20
Spring Symphony, Op.44

Amanda Roocroft (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Alan Oke (tenor) & Leigh Melrose (baritone)

Trinity Boys Choir
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Mark Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 14 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mark Wigglesworth at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/ChristodoulouAt the BBC Prom on 12 September 1963 Benjamin Britten conducted a concert of his music with the London Symphony Orchestra to anticipate his 50th-birthday on 22 November. The works played then were as now, although on this occasion Purcell’s Chacony (Chaconne) has been newly arranged by Joby Talbot to follow Britten’s own edition of it. For Proms 2011 some serial indisposition led to three changes of personnel: Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s place on the podium was taken by Mark Wigglesworth, while Alan Oke came in for John Mark Ainsley and Leigh Melrose for Christopher Maltman.

Talbot’s take on the harmonically dense Chacony, evidently arranged with the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic in mind, was underpinned by the hypnotic sound of bells, both bowed and struck. It’s a brief but impressive exercise from the composer of the Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Talbot’s sinewy orchestration propelling the piece to a peroration worthy of Stokowski’s Bach.

For Cantata misericordium, which had received its premiere at that 1963 Prom, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was joined by the male singers from the substitutes’ bench together with the BBC Singers. (In 1963 Peter Pears and Thomas Hemsley were the soloists.) This rewarding work may have been hobbled in posterity by Britten’s decision to set the parable of the Good Samaritan in a Latin version by his contemporary, Patrick Wilkinson, rather than in a vernacular text that would boost the immediacy of its storytelling. Perhaps, given the work’s place in Britten’s chronology, the composer was still in the world of the Missa pro defunctis? Whatever the explanation, the finished product combines the choral impact of War Requiem (whose theme of brotherhood it shares) with the dramatic tension of a miniature opera. Piano and harp leapt in tandem from Britten’s light, string-led orchestral textures to inject adrenaline into Leigh Melrose’s perturbed ‘Insidias timeo’ (I fear an ambush), whereas Alan Oke’s sympathetic tenor found an unmistakable echo of ‘Let Us Sleep Now’ in the Samaritan’s soothing counsel ‘Dormi nunc, amice, dormi’ (Sleep now, my friend, sleep).

Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) is a work of such power that one wishes Britten had been stirred (or maybe commissioned) to compose more purely orchestral music than he did. Its opening timpani thwacks soon give way to a rocking ‘Lacrymosa’; Mark Wigglesworth confidently located the music’s Mahlerian pulse and maintained an edgy, eloquent reading that avoided overstatement and let the notes speak for themselves as they built towards their grand climax. The ensuing ‘Dies irae’ burned its trail with lightning speed, Wigglesworth testing the BBCSO brass to the limit with the force of its fiendish chromaticism. His grip never relented until the music’s rage gave way to the lyrical finality of the closing movement, ‘Requiem aeternam’, whose haunted strings and funereal pedal unmistakably recall the heartbreak of the composer’s Violin Concerto. Unlike that work, however, the quiet final descent resolves on a closing note of serene acceptance during which few will have breathed.

Christine Rice. Photograph: Rob MooreNew life was born in Spring Symphony (1949), Britten’s optimistic cycle of settings from the English garden of verse. The conductor and his estimable team of soloists worked hard to override the work’s twee aspects – Oke, Amanda Roocroft and Christine Rice (Pears, Heather Harper and Norma Procter in 1963) drew on all their operatic know-how to deliver Thomas Nashe’s birdcall without blenching – while the sturdier material rang through the Royal Albert Hall’s cavernous void thanks to the collective strength of the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and Trinity Boys Choir. The opening pages lacked mystery in Wigglesworth’s reading, but from the fortissimo ‘Shine out’ we were off and rolling.

Alan Oke was at his best in ‘Waters above!’, a Henry Vaughan setting (from a collection joyously titled Pious Thoughts and Ejaculations) where his marvellous legato and rapt high notes were enchanting. When the tenor reached the diabolical difficulty of George Peele’s ‘Fair and Fair’ he was rather more tentative, losing his way quite badly during his off-the-beat duet with Amanda Roocroft (who was not in great voice, it must be said). If ever a piece of music felt like delayed echo on a telephone line this must be it, and as a late substitute Oke can be forgiven for struggling with such technically demanding material. Christine Rice had the work’s poetic plum in the shape of ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’, an inspired setting of W. H. Auden which she sang with immediacy and an intelligent sensitivity to meaning. Everything about Rice’s interpretation drew the listener towards the poem’s telling final stanza. The Trinity boys made a hearty entrance in Peele’s ‘The Driving Boy’, singing with vigour and whistling with gusto, but later on their top-line trebles were barely audible in William Blake’s ‘Sound the flute!’ and ‘Sumer is icumen in’ was insufficiently yelled (for that’s what it takes) to cut through the roistering racket of orchestra and full chorus at the work’s conclusion.

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