The First Night – A Child of Our Time

Berlioz
Overture – Le Corsaire, Op.21
Mendelssohn
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Elgar
Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
Tippett
A Child of our Time

Janine Jansen (violin)

Indra Thomas (soprano)
Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Sir Willard White (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 15 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This concert was dedicated to the “memory of the victims of the London bombings, 7 July 2005”, and if there was a somewhat muted atmosphere amongst the audience, rather than the customary animated anticipation at the start of the 111th Proms Season, well there might be in the circumstances.

The programme had not been changed, and so the Elgar and Tippett were co-incidentally apt for the occasion.

In actuality, the programme was a bit of a hotchpotch, with two concert overtures framing a very well-known concerto in the first half, and Tippett’s darkly-hued oratorio to follow.

Proms 2005 started with Berlioz’s boisterous seascape, appropriately since ‘the sea’ is one of this season’s thematic threads. It was well-played, with character and vigour; the opening especially impressed with the security of the string lines and the pungency of the woodwinds’ syncopation. The brass was allowed to project strongly, but not overwhelmingly, and ifthe performance ultimately lacked the last dash of swashbuckling swagger, it was nevertheless an infectious start.

I have not heard Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto for a while and I’m not sure that I heard much of it here. This was a small-scale (with reduced string section), generally quiet and restrained performance which, it seemed to me, was due to the soloist’s difficulty in projecting her essentially modest tone into the spaces of the Royal Albert Hall.

There is no question that Janine Jansen can play the solo part, since, one or two high notes aside, her intonation was secure and her technical facility impeccable. But she visibly struggled to fill the hall with sound and even though the orchestra was clearly playing ‘down’, the sight of the soloist playing arpeggios and runs against the accompaniment with no audible result was hardly a satisfying experience. Dynamics had to be subdued – so the occasional dramatic fortissimo passages were not able to register, and the performance felt like a cliché of Mendelssohn; far too dainty for its own good. One hardly recognised Hans Keller’s description of this work being the “greatest of all” violin concertos.

To be sure there were some lovely passages in the slow movement, with some beautiful cantabile playing, but even these failed to ‘register’ fully, and the thrust of the first movement and the flightiness of the finale were not really conveyed at all. However, Norrington and Jansen may be congratulated for finding the right tempo for each of the movements, and the transitions between them were extremely well judged.

On the question of performance practice, Norrington ensured that minimal or no vibrato was used throughout this first half of the concert. But if this applies to the orchestra, does it not also to the soloist? Jansen’s left-hand was quivering constantly and animatedly, whilst no vibrato was encouraged – or permitted – from the strings of the orchestra.

Norrington then went on to give a verbal introduction to the Elgarand Tippett works, citing their relevance to London in the presentsituation.

Elgar certainly depicted a bustling, animated capital, but there was a darker side to London even in 1901, which he eschewed in his Overture – perhaps Vaughan Williams hinted at it in his A London Symphony – preferring to focus on the outwardly positive, maybe.

In any event, the Cockaigne Overture (which Norrington, in his speech, emphasised was a reference to Cockneys rather than to an illicit substance) is a bright-eyed piece, with only momentary pauses for reflection, and its character was convincingly – even defiantly – conveyed by Norrington and the BBCSO which was on fine form throughout the concert.

Actually, I felt the overall pulse to be a little on the steady side,though the strutting city populace was spruce in its projection, and the various episodes distinctly delineated. The orchestra blazed and was subdued – as appropriate – and the final peroration, with a weighty organ contribution, was either affecting or slightly discomfiting, depending on how comfortable one feels at the less-than-subtle musical suggestion of Empire-flag-waving.

Michael Tippett’s centenary was marked in this concert. Although two other 1905 composers are represented at this year’s Proms (Lambert and Rawsthorne), it is sad to see Christian Darnton being passed over.“A Child of Our Time” still conveys a pertinent message for today, with its theme of human beings’ inexplicable cruelty to one another, allied to the possibility of hope for better times.

In many ways, the strongest point of this performance was thecontribution of the BBC Symphony Chorus, which projected words and none-too-easy angular musical lines with consummate conviction and security. The famous spirituals were sung from memory and the fervour was really quite moving. In these, one also appreciated soprano Indra Thomas’s soaring lines; though elsewhere her ample and rather tremulous tone did not make forideal clarity of text or pitch.

Christina Rice impressed with richness and solidity of tone, and her articulation of a sometimes intractable libretto was thoroughlycommendable.

Sir Willard White was a grave and sonorous Narrator, his awkward lines being given with a touching simplicity and made to sound quite natural. He was a powerful soloist in “Go down, Moses”.

I continue to be ambivalent about Ian Bostridge’s reputation. Whatever he may be able to achieve in the recording studio, the fact remains that in a concert with orchestra he is hardly able to make himself heard. Thus several low notes all but disappeared, and in the phrase just before the spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I see” the high-lying exclamations of “No! I must save her” were all-but-inaudible against the brass.

Sir Roger Norrington presided authoritatively, and elicited someprecisely articulated and expressive playing. There were one or two moments of imprecision, but this was, in all, an appropriate – if uneasy for various reasons – start to this Proms season.

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