BBC Prom 9

Royal Albert Hall, 21 July 2018

As soon as the 2018 Proms Youth Choir sang the first vibrant note of Eriks Esenvalds’s unaccompanied setting of Longfellow’s sonnet “A Shadow”, you knew that this was going to be quite an evening. Two hundred and fifty singers seated in one stage-right huge bank created a very warm strong sound which burst joyfully through the grandiloquent Royal Albert Hall acoustic. And if some of the exposed top soprano notes felt a bit strained, well I can live with that. It will be a long time before I forget this piece – a first performance – which ends with the choir whistling and the sound slowly dying away to the tinkling of bells and small glockenspiels in the hands of some of the choir members. The choir consists of University of Birmingham Voices, University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir, North East Choir and BBC Proms Youth Choir Academy. Each group had trained separately and then come together for a four day intensive rehearsal residency led by Chorus Director, Simon Halsey who conducted this fine performance.

Next, in a concert entitled War and Peace, came Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem played by Georg Solti’s World Orchestra for Peace which draws players from orchestras based in several continents. They’d sat quietly waiting in position during the opener. And if I may be allowed a “girly” observation it’s good to see a band in which the women dress in different colours. Visually very jolly. Coloured shirts for the chaps next, please.

Donald Runnicles splits his first and second violins across the stage which, as always, makes the lower strings sound more integrated – especially in the pizzicato section in the third movement’s lush (hopeful?) conclusion. The second movement was memorable too. With its col legno tattoo rhythm, snare drum and trumpet tune it really was Dies Irae and – in a piece which ensures that all four percussionists work hard for their fee – the decelerando ending with all those offset notes from different sections is not for the faint hearted. This lot brought it off with all the passion and panache it needs.

But the jewel in the crown was the magnificent account of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony which formed the second half – the choir now re-grouped evenly behind the orchestra. I have actually sung this piece in the Royal Albert Hall and so understand well the problems of the conductor being a very long way away – not an issue at this performance, partly because the impeccably trained choir sang without copies so that their responses were impeccably precise.

Runnicles gave us lots of sensitivity and colour in the first three movement with effectively exaggerated piano passages in the first and close attention to the detail with some very crisp string runs in the second – as well as making the very best of one of my favourite moments when the timpani take over from the bassoon lead and we’re into anticipation and excitement.  The lilting lyricism of the third movement was tenderly clear too with emphasis on delicate pairings of instruments which sometimes get lost in the texture.

Introducing the Ode to Joy theme at a brisk tempo and very softly left Runnicles with plenty of colourful, dramatics places to go and he certainly did – inspired perhaps by the fabulous quality of the choral singing (four good soloists too but somehow – seated between the orchestra and choir they seemed almost secondary in this performance). Verbal precision and very accurate pitching drove the piece along to its triumphant conclusion – any nervousness now forgotten as the sopranos sailed through those sublime, long high notes. Bravo to all concerned.

Susan Elkin



Heritage Opera: Cosi fan tutte

Bayham Old Abbey, Saturday 21st July 2018

How should one pitch Cosi? Given the vast range of approaches, starting with a tennis match in the early 1930s is as good as any. All the more so if this is carried through with some sense of style and a precise concentration on accents, cut glass and otherwise. The problem arises when one comes to consider how seriously we should take the events and the characters themselves.

In Sarah Helsby Hughes’ production comedy is the key and there is a tendency to skate over the emotional problems this may throw up. If anything the girls fall back on alcohol to excuse both their conduct and their changes of affection. Serenna Wagner’s Dorabella is gently over the top in smanie implacabile while Sarah Helsby Hughes’s Fiordiligi is upstaged in come scoglio by the arrival of afternoon tea. Their cut glass accents are maintained to the end, though it is difficult to accept two such upper crust young ladies giving house room to Yorkshire navies. For once, the appearance of two East European strangers might have made more sense.

David Jones gives us a suave Guglielmo who is very much at the mercy of Don Alfonso. This is one of the most curious reinterpretations of the score. If Don Alfonso is a valet, why does he seem to have so much power and is able to be so outspoken? There might be a case for making him Jeeves – underplaying his wit and insight while all those around him make fools of themselves – but this is not the way he is played. Neil Balfour sings Don Alfonso with aplomb but never quite seems in control of the situation. On the night, Nicholas Sales as Ferrando was indisposed and so his part was sung, off-stage, by Joseph Buckmaster. This was far less obtrusive than one might expect as the event used microphones for all concerned and so we had little idea where the sound was coming from except from the nearest speaker. It was a pity that the PA system seemed to have a mind of its own and arias broke down mid-way only to return just before the end. Fortunately I was close enough to hear the direct sound as well as the electronic.

Heather Heighways’ Despina was certainly one of the most convening characters of the evening. Her diction was impeccable and she made much of the new translation. Looking at the transformed suitors she notes ‘I’d rather snog my granddad’ which seemed totally in keeping, as did the transition of chocolate into martinis.

The small orchestral ensemble gave us a perfectly acceptable cut-down version of the score, though Benjamin Cox could have put a bit more pace into the opening scenes. Later events were better paced and the outcome convincing both musically and dramatically.

If soave il vento was the musical highlight of the whole performance, it could hardly fail as it gently floated into the late evening sky.

Bayham Abbey opera is always a date to put in the diary and we look forward to next year.