Monday 18 July 2011

BBC Proms 2011 Opening Weekend – A View from the Gallery (4)

Prom No.4, Harvergal Brian's Growing Pains

It has been almost impossible to avoid coverage of this concert in any write up on this year's Proms. I should imagine that most readers of this blog will know the context of this piece – not performed complete in London since the 1960s, only five complete performances ever, requires around 1,000 performers, a bigger undertaking than Mahler 8, etc. etc.

The first thing to be said therefore is that this is the kind of thing the BBC is there to do and Roger Wright should be commended for programming the piece. It is clear that it was the most enormous logistical feat to do and enormous amounts of effort on the part of many people went into making it a success which as a performance it absolutely was. Both the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra played superbly (I had always previously ranked the latter in the second teir, on this showing unjustifiably). The massed ranks of eight separate choirs managed what are fiendishly challenging parts with aplomb and deserve to be listed accordingly: Eltham College Boys Choir, CBSO Youth Chorus, Southend Boys and Girls Choirs, Brighton Festival Chorus, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, The Bach Choir, Cor Caerdydd. Two aspects particularly seem worthy of record – the moments where different sections seem to be singing different lines determinedly against each other – not as cacophonous as one might imagine and the near unaccompanied section which as the pre-prom radio feature noted harks back to the world of Tallis.

I should also mention the four vocal soloists. The hall's curse of certain voices affected the tenor, Peter Auty, who sounded strained in the Gallery and didn't seem to quite surmount the challenges of the part, though again it sounded very difficult. Susan Gritton's soprano, whether on stage or away to my right in the Gallery was spot on, and Alistair Miles also cut successfully through the texture.

And what about the orchestra in all this. Without trying to explain the music technically (if you want that go read the programme note on-line) they have to get us through three purely orchestral movements before the choir and vocal soloists even have anything to do. The commitment, as with the choirs, was total. Every section of the orchestra has an exposed line at some point and nobody faltered at the challenges. Really the programme ought to have singled out the section soloists – but of particular note was whoever played the xylophone solo I mentioned in an earlier post. I now believe the hype. The section was totally exposed and incredibly fast and the performer delivered it with stunning precision. Just watching all this from the Gallery was a visual feast – perhaps most of all when you had all four timpanists in the brass bands and the two in the main body of the orchestra hammering away full blast.

Meanwhile on the podium, Martyn Brabbins was mastering these insane forces with superb control throughout and doing his absolute damndest to give shape to this rather sprawling piece.

But this is really where the trouble lies. Yes, there are some stunning moments. The conclusion of the first movement, the transition from the end of the third into the first entry of the massed choirs, the final tumultuous intervention of massed brass bands and full percussion in the orchestra. Most of all, I was stunned by the complexity of the shorter fifth movement, Judex crederis. But ultimately, for all these fine moments, I was in the end ever so slightly reminded of whoever it was who remarked of Wagner that there are some lovely moments but some long quarter of an hours (a view when applied to Wagner incidentally from which I do dissent!). Whereas Mahler, having as my brother tells me one person has put it, hit you with a train in the first half of the Eighth Symphony is then able to take you on a further journey, Brian hits you with the train in the first movement and then seems to keep backing up for another go. Maybe one needs to hear it more than once but to my ears it just doesn't seem to quite hold together as a complete piece. It also struck me, and this is the reason for the title of the review, that this piece shows Brian working through a great litany of classical influences – there are bits that recall Verdi's evocation of Charles V, Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice, Elgarian oratorio, Beethoven 9, plainsong, not to mention Mahler, and I'm sure others will have heard different things. Brian just doesn't succeed sufficiently here in working these influences through consistently to a successful sound world and meaning of his own even though there are things which don't sound quite like anything else.. Of course there is the intriguing question as to how many of those influences Brian might actually have heard given that when he was writing the symphony (1919-27) there wasn't the ease of exposure to a wide-range of music that we have today. That would of course complicate my theory, but it would not get away from the failure of the piece in the end to master these gargantuan forces and six long movements into a cohesive whole – at times I did feel that what he really needed was a good editor.

One reviewer has already (David Nice at The Arts Desk) opined, while praising the performers, that hopefully this will satisfy the Brian officionados and the rest of his symphonies can now be kept at bay from the Proms. I actually feel that I should like to sit down with a CD, or better a live performance, of the Second Symphony. Because the question to me is, did Brian having worked through these influences, having got this massive piece out of his system move on to something stronger and more completely his own. Given the infrequency with which any of his works are programmed it seems likely that the answer is no, but when I have a free minute I still retain sufficient curiousity after last night to look into it for myself.

Postscript: This was the final concert of my Proms weekend. Overall I'm glad to have returned to proming after such a long time, and once I'd adjusted to the Gallery sound it has an awful lot to recommend it – the visual experience of the Brian could not I think have been duplicated in the Arena. I do feel a bit of a pang thinking of the season tickets returning night after night for the next eight weeks, though I'm not sure my back would stand up to it. It has been a lot of fun, and I hope to come back for more next year (or possibly even later this season if I can squeeze something else in).

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