Prom 6 at Cadogan Hall and Prom 51

Monday 20th August 2018

There was an unexpected link between these two Proms – loss, death and redemption. The lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall brought Sakari Oramo together with the BBC Singers for an a cappella concert of English choral music, opening with Frank Bridge’s setting of Shelley’s Music, when soft voices die. This set the tone for the day, its Elgarian melancholy resting easy on the ear before the equally lyrical Vaughan Williams setting of O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes. The harmony here is particularly effective with the strong bass line supporting at the end as if to raise up the spirits of the mourners.

Holst’s Nunc dimittis seemed conventional by comparison with these first two but the polyphonic feel to the conclusion is effective.

The premiere of Laura Mvula’s Love Like a Lion – a setting of verse by Ben Okri – was quite at home within the earlier English composers. She draws on the spiritual tradition as well as gospel harmonies to create an immediacy of contact yet one that has a very clear voice of its own. Like a Child had delicacy and clarity, while I will not die used solo voices against the strength of the united choir. The final Love like a lion is closer to the spiritual tradition but wears its history lightly. The work was very well received and rightly so as Laura Mvula’s writing has individuality as well as an ability to communicate at a first hearing.

The longest work in the programme was Parry’s Songs of Farewell. It opens with a fine sense of conviction in the face of loss. My soul there is a country and I know my soul speak of faith confronting adversity, and rising above it, and Never weather-beaten sail of the desire for release. However the intensity of feeling seems to get dissipated as the cycle continues. There is an old belief draws on Lutheran modes as well as Elgarian harmonies but it seems as if Parry’s heart is not really in it and by the time we come to the final setting of Psalm 39 there is an uncomfortable sense of simply wanting to get to the end without any overall shape or vision for the outcome.

When so much of the earlier parts of the programme had been so moving it was a pity to end on a rather deflated note.

No such problem at the Royal Albert Hall in the evening where the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. They opened with a lucid, expansive reading of the Prelude to Act one of Wagner’s Parsifal, the silences being all the more effective within the vast spaces of the hall.

After this they were joined by Malin Bystrom for Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Again it was the clarity of line within Strauss’ often complex orchestration which impressed, allowing the soprano to float over it without any sense of stress or undue pressure. The opening of September shimmered into life, a sense of hardly being there at all held throughout, with the solo violin part in Beim Schlafengehen particularly effective.

If the reality of death seemed all too close in Im Abendrot then the larks at the end brought a transcendency and openness that was breathtaking. One could hardly imagine the work better sung or played.