sat 07/12/2019

Prom 26: BBCNOW, Stutzmann review – a banquet of fervent favourites | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 26: BBCNOW, Stutzmann review – a banquet of fervent favourites

Prom 26: BBCNOW, Stutzmann review – a banquet of fervent favourites

Brahms, Wagner and Mozart's Requiem make for an enjoyably old-fashioned feast

Fatma Said, Kathryn Rudge, Sonnyboy Dladla and David Shipley in Mozart's Requiemall images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Not every Prom has to push musical boundaries or bust concert conventions. On the face of it, last night’s programme from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (and National Chorus of Wales) stuck to a thoroughly traditional recipe. Two familiar 19th-century orchestral warhorses cantered out for the first half, followed by a beloved choral blockbuster delivered by massive forces who engendered a big, hearty, hall-filling – dare I say Victorian? – sound. So far, so retro – although it was a surprise to learn that Mozart’s Requiem has not graced the Proms nearly so often as you might have assumed. 

Yet the conductor who vigorously steered this evening of luxurious period drama, Nathalie Stutzmann, would have made news even a decade ago. Some overdue revolutions soon become almost unnoticeable. In fact, what’s truly distinctive about the podium presence of the French contralto-turned-conductor (now chief of Norway’s Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra) is her background as a vocalist rather than an instrumentalist. She led a trio of works that painted the Royal Albert Hall in ever-deeper layers of heroic grief and epic sorrow. It built into an emotional blow-out, or grande bouffe, in which the individual ingredients never lost their flavour or the chef her tight control.

Brahms’s Tragic Overture can feel a bit like Hamlet without the prince – lavishly atmospheric mood-music waiting for the action to begin – but in Stutzmann’s hands it acquired perceptible shape and momentum. The BBCNOW brass grew in assurance, with some radiant horn and trombone passages, while the strings brooded and agitated with a stormily introspective authority. For all its background turbulence, Brahms’s mini-symphony still feels lacking in resolution. That made it, I suppose, a suitable warm-up act for the exquisite agony of delay in the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. This high-calorie pre-interval pairing looked cloyingly rich on paper. In execution, the transition permitted Stutzmann to show that Brahms’s and Wagner’s immersive soundscapes can feel less diametrically opposed in practice than in theory. Stutzmann (pictured above) coaxed some fine, forest-dark sonorities from the all-important lower woodwinds (such as Lenny Sayers’s bass clarinet), and the Prelude crested and broke with a jolting force. As for the Liebestod, it lacked for nothing in swelling intensity, and Stutzmann throughout emphasised the drama rather than the languor as we rose inexorably towards its peaks. The cellos, led by Alice Neary, purred, glowed and pounced. After the earth duly moved, Stutzmann rightly stretched out the enraptured silence for the span of a long sigh. An old-fashioned spell of bliss, perhaps, but still an utter treat.

For the Mozart Requiem, Stutzmann chose to position the four soloists as a tight band between the orchestra beneath them, and the vast arc of the BBC National Chorus of Wales behind. This layout forfeited some of the dramatic impact of having singers ranged in a row at the front of the stage. Given the hall’s unforgiving acoustic, it also led to a danger of drowning – which, thankfully, seldom seemed likely to happen. The advantage of this location was that the singers (pictured below) stood so close to the brass: crucial in the heart-stopping duet of bass and trombone in the Tuba mirum, but also a way to accentuate the dialogues between voice and instrument that thread throughout the whole work. 

Stutzmann attacked the opening section with an exhilarating pace and drive, unleashing the chorus in a sustained burst of yearning and terror that stopped for breath only after the Dies irae. Although the Welsh army did delight us with a classic Albert Hall choral immersion, this was by no means some crude wall of sound. Stutzmann balanced high and low voices carefully, and spotlit the tormented arguments and dialogues among the vocal parts as much as the pleas and invocations of the soloists. Perched in limbo between band and choir, the lone voices did just occasionally sound stranded. Each brought a special flavour and colour to the ensemble, however: Fatma Said’s silvery and ethereal soprano; Sonnyboy Dladla’s romantic and cultivated tenor; Kathryn Rudge’s full-bodied, vibrato-rich mezzo; and David Shipley as a robust, intrepid sheet-anchor of a bass. Magic moments for the BBCNOW brass abounded, with trombones (Donal Bannister, Jake Durham, Darren Smith) relishing their limelight and basset horns (Lenny Sayers, Katie Lockhart) adding a special flavour to the sombre palette of the woods. 

For many in the hall, though, the choir above all will have carried the laurels away, from their blistering Rex tremendae and fearsome Confutatis to a plangent Lacrimosa, an overwhelming Offertorium and a Sanctus that sped like a train but stopped in a thumping heartbeat. The heaven-storming crash and bite of the “sempiternam” that ends the Agnus dei may owe as much to Süssmayr’s posthumous completion of the requiem as to Mozart himself. Still, a wholehearted performance – which this was fom first to last – always convinces you that Süssmayr told the truth when he claimed that his mighty teacher had explained how the work should end. As the chorus grippingly ebbed and flowed through the Lux aeterna towards a closing calm, Stutzmann proved that trusted formats – and familiar favourites – can still take some beating at the Proms. Let’s hope she returns soon.

Comments

The Mozart suffered too often from a surfeit of 'romantic' pulling about (especially in the Quam olim Abrahae sections). It sounded more like Berlioz than Mozart! Why do they still persist in using the awful, corrupt and error-strewn Sussmayr version?

The excellent choir was let down by some shambolic sits and stands. This particularly marred the Confutatis entry.

The Mozart Requiem sounded like it had been orchestrated by Wagner. What an overblown, unsympathetic, tiresome and historically inaccurate performance. Should have been more like the Rossini Petite Messe than Verdi's Requiem.

Loved it - many thanks to all...

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