tue 30/11/2021

BBC Proms: BBCSO, BBCSC, BBC Singers, Wigglesworth | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: BBCSO, BBCSC, BBC Singers, Wigglesworth

BBC Proms: BBCSO, BBCSC, BBC Singers, Wigglesworth

A concert recreation proves authentic but far from dusty

To lose one performer (to misquote Oscar Wilde) may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose three begins to look like carelessness. With last night’s Prom killing off soloists faster than you can say Sinfonia da Requiem there are few who wouldn’t have forgiven a comfortably adequate sort of Sunday evening. As it was, however, despite the loss of Christopher Maltman, John Mark Ainsley and conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, the combined BBC Symphony, Chorus and Singers under Mark Wigglesworth delivered a performance that grasped not only the casual brilliance of Benjamin Britten’s virtuoso writing, but also the rather more timid sincerity of his politically and emotionally charged music.

Recreating the 1963 Proms programme Britten himself conducted, the concert balanced the composer’s Spring Symphony with two of his most underexposed and underrated works – the Red Cross commission Cantata misericordium and symphonic poem Sinfonia da requiem. Prefacing all this however was the evening’s sole contemporary innovation; in place of Britten’s own arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor we instead heard the premiere of a new arrangement commissioned from Joby Talbot (whose Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was debuted by the Royal Ballet earlier this year).


Purcell’s harmonic perversions might often be hidden by the tightly corseted structures of his music (though the chamber music exposes the greatest quantity of dissonant flesh), but his bittersweet Englishness is nevertheless fashioned from an opposition between illicit harmonic tension and release. Exposing this tension with poise and no little wit, Talbot’s arrangement follows in the tradition set by Britten himself. Rather than risk unbalancing the complex interior workings of Purcell’s cyclic structure, Talbot instead reworks the colour of the dance, adding bells, whose lingering, jarring whine gives the lie to the strings’ smooth resolutions. Cheeky little glissandi decorate the string parts, and variations in orchestration culminate in a thumping, brass-led iteration, complete with cymbal crashes that emphatically announce the arrival of modernity.

OkeThe core of Britten’s Cantata misericordium – a Latin-texted narration of the story of the Good Samaritan – is surely the passages for solo strings that punctuate each episode. There’s a simple intensity to this writing for quartet that cuts through the musical allusions and pastiche flirtations of the ensemble writing to get to the nub of the matter. Beautifully performed by the BBCSO section leaders, these passages set the tone for a considered performance that saw the BBC Singers in unusually restrained mode, matching the other-worldly purity projected by Samaritan Alan Oke (pictured above).

The fractured cries of “Beati” that open the Cantata misericordium seem the echo of those heard 20 years earlier in the Sinfonia da requiem. Here the fretting begins in the cellos, passing up through the orchestra in a sequence of convulsive repetitions. Patterns repeat obsessively – the rituals of mourning that refuse to be fulfilled, refuse to be satisfied. A testament to his pacifist beliefs, Britten’s work struggles against itself – the central dance of death with its flutter-tongued sirens and hellish whirrings seems forever in danger of becoming seduced by its own rhythmic urges. Wigglesworth held his forces in check, never quite surrendering to the macabre glee Britten glances toward but ultimately rejects.

The precision of colour (both musical and emotional) that the BBCSO brought to the Sinfonia relaxed into the garden party that is the Spring Symphony. Altogether too heavy on the “dainty forest fare” it’s a work whose virtuosity rather outstrips its limited, occasionally even twee subject matter. Fortunately the Trinity Boys Choir retained vocally some of their tougher personas from ENO’s recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bringing just the right amount of chesty personality and attitude to The Driving Boy. While we’ve had some outstanding work from children’s choirs at the Proms this year, Trinity once again proved their professional quality.

If the boys’ choir was all about earthy energy, then Oke’s tenor solos were once again the stuff of the heavens, and while his merry cuckoo could have done with a little more playfulness in its dance, the unbroken line of Waters above had all of Pears’ purity with none of the tightness. Christine Rice (used rather more substantially here than in Brian’s Gothic Symphony) gave disturbing emphasis to Welcome, Maids of Honour, aided by the swelling urges so obscenely rendered by the strings, and Amanda Roocroft once again reminded us of her particular affinity with Britten and his word-setting. As skilful a finale as any Britten achieved, Beaumont and Fletcher’s sweeping vision of London here brought the evening to a vivid and apt close, a joyful release to the tension so carefully fostered by orchestra and singers in the first half.

This may have been one of the Proms’ Choral Sundays concerts, but the argument put forward so eloquently by Wigglesworth and the BBCSO was that even when writing wordlessly for orchestra, Britten was equally capable of articulating his convictions and dramatising his concerns.

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