The Voice II

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg – Prelude to Act One
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
We Turned on the Light [BBC commission: second realisation]
Alexander Nevsky

Christine Brewer (soprano)

Elena Masistina (mezzo-soprano)

The Shout
The Rabble
Orlando Gough

BBC Symphony Chorus
Huddersfield Choral Society

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 29 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 20 (The Voice I) was a triumph, but Prom 21 (The Voice II) was more like the curate’s egg. Parts, like the Wagner prelude, were ghastly. Parts, like Prokofiev’s 40-minute cantata, were simply bland. Parts in between made the hair stand up on the back of the neck; made the throat dry; attached themselves to our souls demanding our undivided attention and absolute recognition that this was indeed a superb act of music-making.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is rightly known as a flagship for performances of new music; the musicians have the technical skill to make accurate performances with limited rehearsal. Playing four-in-a-bar does not suit this orchestra – so in Wagner the band simply falls asleep and makes silly mistakes (note the violins and violas parting company about five minutes in).

Michael Henry is one of the many talented members of Orlando Gough’s vocal group “The Shout”. As a composer and arranger he has received rave reviews. He has sung backing vocals for Diana Ross, Robbie Williams and Sir Cliff Richard and has performed at Glyndebourne as “The Voice” in Tippett’s opera “New Year”. “Stand” is an a cappella, a joint-composition for Henry and Gough; here only the first half of the piece, written by Henry, was performed. The other half, Gough says in his programme note, “we leave to your imagination”. “Stand” sounds like it has been meticulously composed, but in fact it has been meticulously constructed giving each member of “The Shout” room to express themselves through improvisatory calls and responses. The piece is a work of genius. It is energetic and impassioned much in the way of a protest song of the 1960s. Indeed it is a protest song of sorts using collected words by Nelson Mandela, Bertrand Russell, Emmeline Pankhurst and others.

Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” was originally written for a symphony orchestra but he suppressed that version and his 1950 revision for chamber orchestra is now only ever played. The reduced forces of the BBCSO made a sympathetic accompaniment to Christine Brewer’s powerful delivery. The poignant closing plea of the child to know his own identity was superbly executed by her.

The second rendition of Orlando Gough and Caryl Churchill’s “We Turned on the Light” was even better than the first just a few hours earlier. The work is scored for a large chorus and symphony orchestra as well as “The Shout” (Gough’s own small choir drawn from diverse musical backgrounds) and “The Rabble”, an amateur group that was brought together from Glasgow and London to sing this piece. They did not refer to music and sat in the audience seats closest to the stage.

In his programme note Gough says that he and Churchill wanted to write a piece about catastrophic consequences from apparently innocent actions, such as climate change. The lyric is in the form of eight couplets with a chorus that ends with the words “It’s hard to love people far away in time”. This is a hard-hitting lyric that makes you sit and think, but it is almost at odds with the relentless and rapid three-in-a-bar of the music. There are a few snarls to be heard emanating from the brass that perhaps signify anger but the power of this work is in exactly how unaware the music appears to be of impending doom.

The BBCSO and David Robertson were superb in this “second realisation” with a precision that, with hindsight, was lacking in the earlier performance in the earlier Prom. By contrast to the superb clarity of the previous youth choirs, the chorus for the evening rendition was not so well drilled and the previously clear words muffled and unintelligible. “We Turned on the Light” proved a great success. It is approachable and though it uses large forces it is not out of reach of the many amateur choral and orchestral societies around the county.

After the interval a very lacklustre performance of the cantata that Prokofiev drew from his score for Eisenstein’s film of the same name, the music in the cantata less powerful, which this performance confirmed. The choral sound was weak in the bass – maybe some ‘basso profundo’ singers could have been brought in to reinforce things. There were some good points of note – in particular the menacing ‘Battle on the Ice’ – but overall this performance was paled into insignificance by that which appeared before the interval.

At the end of a long day of choral music the highlights are very clear. Orlando Gough and “The Shout” are something very special; so too The National Scottish Youth Choir, singers of great ability and a fresh sound. The Proms format of dedicating a day to a particular genre is a good one.

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