BBC Proms Review, The Times

Posted on July 22, 2009

Manchester Camerata’s appearance at The BBC Proms reviewed in The Times

“Bernard Haitink, 80 and evidently frail, was roared on and off the Albert Hall podium by a capacity crowd on Monday. Quite right too. He and the London Symphony Orchestra produced a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that sets the gold standard for this season’s Proms. Noble in spirit, scrupulous in interpretation, immaculate in execution, and — in its final, fragile whispers — unbearably poignant in effect, it held 5,000 people mesmerised for 90 minutes. And this was achieved, as has always been Haitink’s way, without a smidgeon of excess or false theatricality.

The baton scarcely moved six inches in any direction all night. All the energy — from conductor, and from the inspired LSO instrumentalists who produced finesse after finesse in their solo and ensemble playing — was channelled into disclosing Mahler’s enigmatic score, not imposing sensational histrionics upon it.

That’s the only way to make sense of this massive, swirlingly contradictory symphony. It has little of the ominous downward thrust of No 6, the charm of 4, the overarching narratives of 2 and 5, or the joyous grandeur of 8. It’s the work of a man who has sensed, like Yeats, that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” — neither in the world of 1909, nor in his own life, nor in the tonality-based musical style in which he worked.

Haitink and the LSO were superb when delineating its complex pile-ups of emotions and counterpoints. But they rose to the sublime in those passages where life seems to hang precariously by the single thread of a flute line, or violins hovering on the threshold of inaudibility.

All of which leaves me with few words to describe the other two Proms on Monday. Pity, because both were good. In Cadogan Hall, Andrew Carwood’s Cardinall’s Musick celebrated the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s coronation with choral music from his reign, including two elegant ditties by the King himself.

Intricate melismatic motets by Ludford, Fayrfax and Sampson were sung with exemplary clarity, alongside more familiar pieces by Tallis, Taverner and Cornysh. I did wonder whether the voices needed to be quite so hard-edged; but Carwood’s interpretation of Tudor music has a compelling momentum.

So did Douglas Boyd’s conducting of Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, presented in the late-night Prom by his excellent Manchester Camerata, with the BBC Singers and four fine soloists. But voices? In a work written for orchestra or string quartet? Well, this is a rarely-heard choral version made by Haydn.

It is dignified, touching and (sung with such refined blend) beautiful. However, the voices sometimes softened the impact of this intense music, particularly at the end when Haydn tests the classical orchestra to destruction in his depiction of the earthquake.

The Times
Wednesday July 22, 2009

To read this article on The Times website, click here.