The First Night

Toccata* and Fugue in D minor for organ, BWV565 [Fugue orchestrated Wood]
The Music Makers, Op.69
The Planets, Op.32

Martin Neary (organ)*

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 16 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“We are the music makers / And we are the dreamers of dreams…” – the opening of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s ode The Music Makers and a reflection of the spirit in the Royal Albert Hall on the first night of the 110th season of BBC Proms.

The £70 million, eight-year RAH refurbishment was completed in March. The archways at either side of the hall have been enclosed by glass, which produces extra space for additional bars and general ‘milling about’. A word of warning: all bags now need to be searched, which is right and proper if regrettable, but most concert halls don’t have twelve doors to enter by. On this Proms first night, bag-searches were at just a few of the doors and made for confusion and irritation. People with bags were passed to those entrances with security present and then escorted to their required entrance to the hall – this left security desks unattended, which needs to be addressed, pronto.

Martin Neary’s credentials as an early-music performer are impeccable; he conducted the first British performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on period instruments and has twice served as President of the Royal College of Organists. His performance of the Toccata on the refurbished organ was uninspiring, though: for all the improvisatory nature of the music there needs to be some overall view, which was lacking. Sir Henry Wood (the founder of the Proms) orchestrated both the Toccata and the Fugue and has an interesting history. Wood’s previous arrangements had been criticised, so for the first performance in 1929 he announced that the orchestration was by the recently deceased Paul Klenovsky, a talented pupil of Glazunov. It was a huge success and played at each Prom season until, in 1934, Oxford University Press sought permission to publish it and asked Wood for a contact for Klenovsky. Wood had to come clean! To juxtapose the organ Toccata with the orchestral Fugue was interesting albeit not without consequence: balance was an issue with the orchestra appearing weak in comparison. Wood considered Stokowski’s famous “Fantasia” version too “organ-conscious”; yet in this situation it was exactly what was needed.

Elgar’s The Music Makers deserves wider recognition. Written in 1912, at a time when the composer’s creative muse appeared to be waning, Elgar quotes extensively from some of his earlier successes: the theme and Nimrod from Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures, the Violin Concerto and both the symphonies, the Second then recently completed. Perhaps this is why The Music Makers is less often performed than the works that it includes. With such piecemeal construction it is very easy for it to sound contrived. This performance erred a little in this regard with the constant ebb of rubato passages interrupting the flow. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was impressive although there was a tendency for her to be covered by an over-enthusiastic chorus and orchestra.

Gustav Holst’s international reputation rests solely on The Planets. The work follows an astrological pattern from youth to old age. It has often been suggested that Mars was written as a direct result of the start of the First War; in fact it was completed a few months before. The dappled blue light returned behind the stage for Mars (we had a light-show for the Bach, something that divided opinion). The string players used the wooden parts of their bows, and the timpani were struck with hard sticks to produce a battle-drum effect that rose to a climax with the mistimed brass chords!

Venus continued the practice of sloppy timekeeping; the pulsing wind chords were anything but regular. This movement requires definition, which was seriously lacking, but Mercury and Jupiter were much more secure with some fine phrasing in the wind passages of Jupiter. It was also good to find Leonard Slatkin not wallowing in sentimentality for the famous ‘big tune’ of Jupiter, though the join with the opening scherzo-like theme was a little abrupt.

With the anguish of the opening two movements dispelled, the orchestra was rock-solid in the second of the three slow movements, Saturn, although the tubular bells needed to be more audible. The attacca into Uranus took some of the audience by surprise, and the vision of two timpanists playing as one is always a spectacle; here a fine demonstration of teamwork from John Chimes and Christopher Hind. The organ has its say once more and it would have been hard to miss its glissando.

Slatkin also moved seamlessly into the final planet that Holst was aware of – Neptune. Mercifully Slatkin refrained from including Colin Matthews’s Pluto. I’ve nothing against that work but Holst’s way of ending Neptune is awe-inspiring – the orchestra now silent, a female choir wordlessly intones and fades into the distance. Mystic indeed!

Unfortunately there was one member of the audience who couldn’t resist applauding too early, just as the conductor’s hands started to fall. Whatever happened to appreciating the importance of silence?

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 19 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content