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Forces of nature (Proms 20-31 August 1999)

Royal Albert Hall
08/20/1999 -  

20 August 1999
György Kurtág Messages
Martin Brabbins (conductor)
BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra
21 August 1999
David Matthews Symphony No. 5, Benjamin Britten Les illuminations
Ian Bostridge
Nicholas Cleobury (conductor)
Britten Sinfonia
23 August 1999
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 3
Michelle DeYoung
Bernard Haitink (conductor)
City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra
26 August 1999
Antoine Brumel Missa 'Et ecce terra motus
Bo Holten (conductor)
BBC Singers, His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts

Louis Andriessen Trilogy of the Last Day
Oliver Knussen (conductor)
London Sinfonietta Voices, New London Children's Choir, London Sinfonietta
31 August 1999
Igor Stravinsky Circus Polka, Judith Weir Natural History, Frederick Delius Brigg Fair, Richard Strauss Symphonia domestica
Dawn Upshaw
Mark Elder (conductor)
BBC Philharmonic

David Lang Cheating, Lying, Stealing, Julia Wolf Believing, Steve Martland Horses of Instruction, Glen Branca Movement Within, Brian Eno/Robert Wyatt, Rhett Davies Music for Airports 1:1
Bang on a Can All-Stars

August at the Proms, after the initial showpieces that start the season, and before the major orchestras arrive in September, is an opportunity for imaginative programming and a showcase for the BBC's own orchestras. This year some of the themed programmes seem not to have paid off in terms of audience popularity, while the presence of a lollipop (or at least a familiar symphony) on a high-risk programme has lured an appreciative audience for the whole lot.

The UK premiere of Kurtág's Messages on 20 August wasn't, perhaps, particularly risky. The work is only twelve minutes long including five cough-and-shuffle breaks between six four-phrase messages. Each message is interesting in texture, suggesting a personal relationship between the composer and the addressee, and the text from a Cornish gravestone is powerfully allusive in itself and strikingly set. In the vast space of the Albert Hall, and framed by Rakhmaninov, Bartót's near-romantic Piano Concerto No. 3 and Petrushka, the messages were movinginly human in scale.

Mozart ran cover for another new work the next evening, with the overture to The marriage of Figaro and the Prague Symphony framing the world premiere of David Matthews' Symphony No. 5. The Britten Sinfonia under Nicholas Cleobury made this sound mechanically energetic, but not radically innovative. Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin also found a charming performance that was not likely to frighten the horses.

But any horse with sense would be frightened by Ian Bostridge's Les illuminations, a felinely sinister version. Bostridge is highly theatrical, with spider-like gestures, but in a much more inward way than Peter Pears. This is true of his singing as well.He doesn't go out to ingratiate himself with the audience, but offers his  voice as an opaque symbol to be read like the rest of the text and music. His voice is in much better shape than Pears's ever was, and extremely beautiful in itself, though getting broader and darker.

Also on 21 August, a late-night prom by the BBC Symphony Chorus under Stephen Jackson, with the organist David Goode,  offered the slightly pregant combination of Strauss's Die Göaut;ttin im Putzzimmer and a selection of choral works dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Thoroughly enjoyable in itself, it provided a gentle introduction (for those that could stay awake) to das Ewig-Weibliche in John Eliot Gardiner's performance of Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust the following Saturday. Goethe, born 250 years ago, and the idealization of the feminine might have been a productive theme for this year.

Bernard Haitink and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a beautifully lucid account of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 on 23 August. Haitink somehow revealed a sense of wonder in a populated landscape constructed from German musical traditions. The repetitive marches of the first movement really sounded geological, and the scampering tunes of the third movement were not entirely cute, or totally undermined by the movement's use in naff wildlife documentaries. The second three movements moved strikingly from existential despair through cheerful conventional religion to spiritual ecstasy that mirrored the massive feel of the first movement.

Interestingly, the same ground (as it were) was covered in a much bolder, and more sparsely attended, concert on 26 August. Brummel's Missa 'Et ecce terra motus', composed at the beginning of the sixteenth century, takes its title from the Gospel text (for Good Friday) which provides the seven notes of the ground bass. The text alludes to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but it is a cathedral of a mass, building twelve voices into pillars linked by less solid elements, with a complex texture that is both structural and decorative. Bo Holten dedicated the performance to the victims of the Turkish earthquake.

The second part of the concert, performed by the London Sinfonietta, also claimed to deal with destruction, the end of the world itself, but actually delivered artifice and a surprising amount of entertainment. Andriessen's version of the last day has a lot to do with the Breughels and Bosch, eclectic, surreal and grimly humourous. The first movement (previously heard in London ealier in the year) combines a dense setting for male voices of a poem by the Dutch poet Lucebert, who died in 1994, which evokes a post-AIDS last supper, with a grimly humourous setting of a mediaeval poem about a talking skull, sung by a treble. Gwylim Bowen sang with amazing professionalism, and looked terrifyingly vulnerable under the hot lights and empty space of the hall. But, in spite of his blond curls, he seemed to enjoy the monstrosity of what he was singing. The second movement "Tao" set a philosophical poem about death by Lao Tzu against an early twentieth-century Japanese vignette about a sinister knife grinder, impressively spoken by the pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama, who also played the koto. The final movement was an even more sinister rework of Saint Saëaut;ns's Danse macabre.

Another odd prom on 31 August returned to more positive themes of nature. It began with Stravinsky's Circus Polka, for elephants, who hated it, and included the European premiere of Judith Weir's Natural History. This song cycle for soprano and orchestra set Taoist poems by Chaung-Tzu, adapted in English by the composer, in a straightforward, reflective way which suited Dawn Upshaw perfectly. In the second part, Strauss's Symphonia domestica returned to the idea of a landscape build from German music, though this time it includes a very familiar household. (This concert was recorded for television. The audience was so small that those in the circle were moved to the stalls, but they still didn't exactly look packed.)

The proms in August ended close to midnight on 31 August with a concert that probably should have been on earlier. Bang on a Can All-Stars presented an  programme which resulted from late changes but worked splendidly. David Lang's Cheating, Lying, Stealing, put a sinister spin on the generally feel-good idiom of minimalism in a negative self portrait which also made an interesting counter-weight to Strauss's self-congratulatory domesticity. Julia Wolf's Believing had the players use extreme vibrato and other weird techniques to pull a similar idiom apart, so that it seemed to reach its formal conclusion only by an act of faith from the performers. And Steve Martland's Horses of invention offered a heroic transformation of the classical minimalist idiom. In the second part, Glen Branca's Movement within was almost literally mind-blowing, using accumulated microtones to evoke hallucinatory effects, after which Michael Gordon's realization of Music for airports 1:1 was a refreshing wind-down. Unfortunately, many people must have felt like chilling out then going to sleep afterwards instead of struggling with the last underground trains and buses to get home.

H.E. Elsom



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