Magazine article The Spectator

Resplendent Staples

Magazine article The Spectator

Resplendent Staples

Article excerpt

Notwithstanding the much-touted Spanish Theme, this year's Fronts have so far been most remarkable for memorable performances of some resplendent staples of the chorus-and-orchestra repertoire, including its two biggest-ever mammoths, Mahler's Eighth Symphony and Schonberg's Gurrelieder. Another celebrated monster, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, ended the season's opening concert, the next evening yielded The Creation, and within less than a month came Israel in Egypt, the St Matthew Passion, DvorAk's Stabet Mater, Rachmaninov's The Bells, and a splendid evening of ceremonial coronation music. Still to come, as I write, are a new(ish) three-hour St John Passion and Easter by Sofia Gubaidulina, three symphonies with a strong choral component (Mahler's Great Chain of Being third, Sibelius's Kullervo and, of course, Beethoven's Ninth); Elijah, the Durufle Requiem, and Handel's Samson. The season is also rich in opera: though a bit thin on less-than-standard 20th-century music and positively meagre on new commissions, the heart in several central respects still beats loud and sound.

I'll hope to cover these other aspects next month. Meanwhile, choral works. Belshazzar's Feast (19 July - BBC forces joined by a choir from Washington, under Leonard Slatkin) came over oddly dulled. Walton's art-deco extravaganza needs more fire, both for the crackling onomatopoeia celebrating the gods of iron, wood, stone, brass etc. and for the whirling stampede praising the one true God. This muted account at least benefited the score's elegiac side: woe by the waters of Babylon, and the lament, amidst the final rejoicing, for the great city, its pride abased, its wealth scattered, its musicians silenced, the light of its candles sconced.

Disappointment with the St Matthew Passion (various forces under Trevor Pinnock, 4 August) is harder to voice. Speeds were conservative, even sensible, by authentic standards, precluding both nervous dramatic momentum and profound meditation. Despite small choral forces, textures were often opaque, and the soloists did not shine, declining as the tessitura descended to a wooden Jesus and a coarse solo bass. Dvorak's Stabet Mater, an inspired piece, to my shame new to me (except its eia mater, fons amoris, beloved of every Anglican chorister), also suffered from rough solo singing. Its great strength was the Welsh chorus, plus that of the LSO, and the fervent direction of Richard Hickox (27 July).

It was here that, listening at home, I began to be aware of balance anomalies. The basic choir/orchestra sound was well focused but the four soloists were virtually in one's lap - not agreeable when so raucous as John Tomlinson nowadays, or so Silvikrin'd as Jorma Silvasti! …

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