CHORAL MUSIC AT THE PROMS 2017

At this summer's Proms I sampled music which stretched over five centuries. The oldest work, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, was breathtakingly performed by French group Pygmalion, conducted by Raphaël Pichon, in their Proms debut on 31st July. Their use of the Albert Hall's vast auditorium was remarkably inventive, with soloists and small groups of musicians giving voice from the rear and sides of the gallery. The audience was enwrapped in the music. It was enthralling to hear a single tenor voice, as limpid as water, pealing forth like an angelic benediction, the sound floating above our heads. The numbers and formations of the performers onstage changed continually to allow for the different musical requirements of each section, and their semi-constant movements, like some grave celestial dance, added to the intensely charged atmosphere.

Given that Fidelio is set in a jail just outside Seville, it was very apt for the Spanish choir Orfeón Donostiarra to be the chorus for the performance on 21st July by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. The necessarily rudimentary staging conveyed the essence of the story and the characters' complex relationships, with enough dialogue, always hard to put across in this vast venue, to maintain continuity and delineate character. Ricarda Merbeth, gorgeously attired in a black velvet gown (would trousers not have been more appropriate?) looked and sounded somewhat matronly for Leonore, but she assailed the role's near-impossible vocal dynamics with aplomb. James Cresswell, a late replacement as Rocco, was understandably "on book" while his colleagues sang from memory, but was deeply into his character and tellingly conveyed how the man's latent sense of decency was awakened by Leonore's courage, and his singing, as ever, was a wonder to hear. Louise Alder as Marzelline, fresh from winning the audience prize at Cardiff Singer of the World, enchanted us all with her bright, flexible soprano, and made me wish more than ever that the character did not fade out so much in Act II. I particularly liked Benjamin Hulett's lively, sparky, cheeky, almost-too-assertive Jacqino, whose singing was a joy. When he sauntered up to Marzelline at the end, hands in pockets, one eyebrow raised, we knew that this couple would be all right. David Soar's noble bass was ideally suited to Don Fernando. The only unsatisfactory singer was the dry-voiced Detlef Roth, whose foot-stamping, petulant Pizarro was dreadfully tame.

But the star of the evening was Stuart Skelton as Florestan. Few moments in opera have their expectations pitched so high as that opening cry of "Gott!". He began with a thread of sound, swelled it to a mighty peal that reverberated around the Hall, and reeled it in to a diminuendo that died away to nothing. The audience gasped. His opening aria has a reputation of being almost unsingable, but although his voice is so huge it retains the flexibility to negotiate the breakneck final section with pinpoint accuracy. The sheer beauty of his tone in the trio Euch werde Lohn reduced me almost to tears.

Both orchestra and chorus caught the hesitant, dreamy wonder of the prisoners' O welche Lust and the growing radiance and ecstasy of the thrilling finale. Elsewhere the orchestra was uneven, particularly in the overture, perhaps an indication of under-rehearsal during this packed Prom season.

Berlioz thought big and it is not always possible for modern performances to do justice to his demands, but I think that even he would have been satisfied by Le Damnation de Faust on 8th August, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the massed forces of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. But mighty though the numbers at his disposal were, Sir John kept the sound fleet and agile. The Hungarian March almost danced, the Dance of the Sylphs twinkled like so many dragonflies, and the Will o' the Wisps' seduction had an appropriately ominous note. The protean Monteverdi Choir and National Youth Choir of Scotland, musically shape-shifting from carousers to citizens to demons and angels, were fabulous. The addition of the Trinity Boys' Choir for the prayer during the Ride to the Abyss was a masterstroke. The terrified screaming of those young voices as Méphistophélès rode them down was the most riveting moment of the night.

Damnation was written for concert performance but is often appropriated by opera companies, despite the difficulties in staging it convincingly. Yet Sir John demonstrated that there is no need for staging. The drama is all in the music, which makes the mind's eye paint scenery finer than any opera house could ever afford. He had a magnificent quartet of solo singers. Laurent Naouri's wiry baritone missed the effulgence which basses have brought to Méphistophélès' music, but his vocal agility, pungent diction and total absorption in the performance more than compensated. He was ably seconded by the promising Ashley Riches as Brander. Ann Hallenberg's glorious voice caught all Marguerite's innocence and sorrow. And the phenomenal Michael Spyres carried all before him in the title role, an epic performance from an epic, world-class, unique tenor. His voice trumpeted like a brass section, his command of the text was terrific, and he subtly shaded the character from the disillusion of the opening to growing guilt as Faust realised the terrible cost of achieving his desires. Is there anything this boy can't do?

Beethoven was in evidence again at the concert on 30th June when the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the CBSO Chorus under Xian Zhang played two choral works composed nearly two centuries apart which have a common theme of European unity. The Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy theme of which has become the theme song of the European Union, was preceded by Sir James MacMillan's European Requiem - not, as cynics might think, a lament for Brexit, but a work composed to the standard liturgical text in the long-standing European tradition of concert Requiems. It is a muscular, involving work which sets troubling suggestions of conflict against tenderly moving episodes, and the musical writing is solidly satisfying. Iestyn Davies' plaintive, passionate countertenor and Jacques Imbrailo's glorious baritone were both outstanding.

The Ninth Symphony received a rousing performance which bade fair to break the speed record, especially in the headlong pell-mell of the second movement, while the third was wonderfully soft and tender and the fourth drove us on briskly to the triumphant choral conclusion. The chorus surpassed themselves and the four soloists were excellent. Usually it is the bass who steals the show, but on this occasion it was (yet again) the tenor, Simon O'Neill, who made his Alla Marcia solo sound like an annunication by angels.

Katie Barnes

This review is taken from edition 259 of Harmony