Vom Himmel Hoch … Threni

Christmas Oratorio, BWV248 – Chorale ‘Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein’
Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’, BWV769
Bach, arr. Stravinsky
Chorale Variations on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’, BWV769

Daniel Hyde (organ)

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Hilary Summers (mezzo-soprano), Alan Oke (tenor), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone) & Sir John Tomlinson (bass)

BBC Singers

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Atherton. Photograph: Hong Kong PhilharmonicI wondered whether I would really want to hear anything after Mahler’s Third Symphony, especially after such a great performance as given by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony earlier in the evening, but an hour later I was glad to be back in the Royal Albert Hall for one of those intelligently programmed late-evening Proms that bridged some 200 years of musical history – from Bach to Serialism.

The ur-Bach was give to organist Daniel Hyde who led straight from the chorale ‘Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein’, in its Christmas Day harmonisation from the Christmas Oratorio (transcribed down a tone to C major, to match the key of the following two pieces), to the later Canonic Variations on the same theme, known as ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’. The great Royal Albert Hall organ sounded wonderful even in what perhaps should be much more intimate music, Hyde’s articulation clear and rhythmic.

Obviously carefully planned, the players of the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Singers were present from the start, so Stravinsky’s Chorale Variations based on the second Bach piece could start almost seamlessly (after applause for Hyde had died down). Composed at the time of (and perhaps as a companion piece to) “Canticum Sacrum”, Stravinsky is here faithful to Bach with his own deft instrumental colouring (if change of title from “Canonic” to “Chorale”. My only complaint was that the BBC Singers were not as incisive as Hyde’s fingers had been, nor the London Sinfonietta’s players, so the words did not carry clearly.

No such fault could be levelled at the revelatory performance of Stravinsky’s late, but first serial piece “Threni”. Amazing that “Threni” was making its Proms debut (just as remarkable as Oliver Knussen’s conducting of Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony was only its sixth in the 116th-season of the Proms). While it’s religious inspiration (the Lamentations of Jeremiah) leaves me cold, I was intrigued how his adoption of a 12-note row was subservient to the ritual of the piece, with its pairings of singers, and the choral whisperings of Hebrew at the start of each section.

With singers that surely could not be bettered today (and a quotient of the Atherton family involved – sister Joan leading the second violins, daughters Elizabeth, one of the soloists, and Susan, in the BBC Singers) David Atherton returned to the London Sinfonietta which he co-founded. Unfussy and direct this was a gem of a performance with committed performances from all concerned. In retrospect I was intrigued that the evening had started with the 35-minute first-movement in Mahler’s Third Symphony and ended, some three-and-a-half hours later, with the 35 minutes of “Threni”, a soundworld apart from the Mahler, but somehow a satisfying corollary.

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