sat 20/07/2024

BBC Proms: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Fischer | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Fischer

BBC Proms: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Fischer

A Berlioz requiem that was at its best at its loudest

Conductor Thierry Fischer was unable to coax the BBC National Orchestra of Wales into their finest playing

On the one hand, having a massed brass and percussion section (I counted 16 timpani) in front of three massed choirs lent this evening an air of fantastic anticipation. Boom and crash and honk: that’s what we wanted. On the other hand, it was immediately a measure against which anything less than deafening volume would be harshly judged. All reminders of the potential clout were constantly there, embodied by bored-looking trombonists counting their hundred bars’ rest.

The key here is to make those quiet moments magical – and that didn’t quite happen this evening.

Berlioz’s Requiem has such immense scope and room for magical interpretation, too. Thierry Fischer flailed his arms, incensed and possessed, but he was unable to coax the BBC National Orchestra of Wales into their finest playing. The strings were constantly dwarfed by the forces around them, and when they were left to their own devices they were attentive, but not quite as dynamic or galvanised as the score requires. Luckily, salvation arrived in the form of those bored trombonists and the rest of the massed ranks. Suddenly, the spectacle was justified and the anticipation very definitely matched by sheer power. The fanfare at the end of the Te Deum would’ve made a pretty good alternative to defibrillation, should the need have arisen.

Inconsistencies were mere hurdles in the way of appreciating the work

But, again, as soon as the volume dropped and the exposure became ever more stark, the wheels wobbled. There were moments of divinity (the choral section of the Sanctus was especially winning, despite tenor Toby Spence’s slight unease – perhaps he overdid it at the Novello prom days before), but striking the middle ground was fairly impossible. And so it became a constant back and forth between these extremes. Occasional majesty was offset by timid and uncertain introspection.

Perhaps the main culprit (and it often is at the Proms) was the open nature of the hall itself. It’s nearly impossible to maintain intimacy for long when the nave is so brightly lit, which can make for glorious, communal experiences – but tonight, it was a distraction that made the front strings feel very small indeed. It seems unkind to even implicate something so unchangeable as a room, but it is completely necessary with a work of this size to pay equal attention to those moments when we’re not blown back into our seats, cheeks flapping.

So, by no means a complete success, but when one is faced with all those massed ranks, it’s incredibly difficult to resist. The hushed ending didn’t warrant the excessively long awed silence that Fischer insisted we observe while his hands were still raised, but on the whole inconsistencies were mere hurdles in the way of appreciating the work in all its might.

Occasional majesty was offset by timid and uncertain introspection

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Fischer's failure to observe the spatial separation of the four off-stage brass bands specified by Berlioz was a decision which must have disappointed a lot of the audience. The whole performance was a dull lacklustre affair and fell far behind the other two choral evenings conducted by Sir Mark Elder and Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

Could not disagree more with both the above reviews. The performance was grand and intimate. Toby Spence sang beautifully . The whole performance was magical, I would not have expected such a good sound at the Albert Hall.

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