I see the BBC web people sorted out the links to the programme notes (so you’re reading my blog, eh? Don’t go away, I’ve got a question for you, and you’ll see in the last para I’m extremely angry about something else seemingly even more careless) but they still managed to confuse me. Am I supposed to call the piece that ended the first half of Prom 40 a ‘Concertino’ or a ‘Capriccio’?
Whatever, it was wonderfully capricious; ‘capering’, as in the root sense of the word. Even if the choice of instrumentation was capricious in the more common sense . . . Still, it worked marvellously, especially with that groaning, playfully head-butting euphonium. Forgive me for putting off the review this deserves, for apart from not being able to decipher my handwriting 48 hours on, my pen split after the first few bars and spread ink all over my notes and my fingers thereafter, which didn’t help. I’ll have to get back to you on this one, but it really was superb.
I don’t know anything about the Paul Wingfield ‘reconstruction’ of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, and I have too much to catch upon to go into it thoroughly, so I’ll leave that aspect to others. Whatever it entails, Boulez and his forces made it utterly convincing and absorbing. A blogging colleague, if he’ll allow me to be so familiar (Doundou Tchil) wrote that it “has always been a poser to me, because it's huge and sprawling, and that sort of thing tends to bring out extreme syrup from most conductors.”
I don’t know whether he will agree, but this was Rice Krispies popping all over the place, with a nice solid foundation of whatever a substantial Slavonic peasant breakfast equivalent of bacon eggs and toast might be. No clogging golden (or Maple) syrup anywhere. And a good helping of goat’s milk instead of skimmed in more than a few places where the ‘folk’, or ‘popular’ roots showed through, pointed up very neatly and unselfconsciously by Boulez, and sung with real pleasure, understanding and grasp by the combined BBC Symphony and London Symphony Choruses. . . Who also managed to convey perfectly the heady smell of incense of a Greek Orthodox church in the more purely liturgical parts.
Boulez even showed us in the Intrada, Introduction and elsewhere, without any pedantry or pedagogy, where the Mass has some foundation both in Slavonic popular music, and even in the Sinfonietta, which any competent musician could probably reconstruct almost entirely from the first three minutes.
There were sections that were dance-like: the ‘Svet’ (Sanctus) where you could visualise the chorus in full peasant costume; trance-like (the Agnus dei) with its romantic lyricism, numinous stings and almost ethereal woodwind; and rousingly, exuberantly rowdy, like a crowd at the fair, in the stunning ‘Slava’ (Gloria).
And what tension in the complexity of the Kyrie. Boulez built it up with a perfect grip on chorus and orchestra, relaxing (as he did elsewhere), then tautening it in almost Hitchcockian fashion, until in the Crucifixus, the culminating ‘scream’ from the chorus was almost unbearable.
The penultimate movement is a soaring, vivid, vibrant organ solo (played by Simon Preston, who else?) which was an entire cathedral in itself, as glorious, as huge, as Santa Sophia. Yet played with superb delicacy of touch and sympathy. The last movement, the ‘repeat’ of the Intrada, now celebratory, joyous and like a rowdy country fete, Boulez took at breakneck pace, without a single stumble. It was breathtaking.
There is, of course, always a little snag in this sort of performance at the Proms, and, because the BBC either cannot or will not pay the sort of fees most toprank singers demand (though I did, gloriously, hear Monserrat Caballe in a Prom once) we are often a little let down by the quality of the soloists, however much they make up for it, as they did in this Prom, by sheer enthusiasm.
I thought the soprano in the ‘Slava’ (Gloria) wobbly, and not (at least as I heard it from the radio broadcast) really powerful enough, and sometimes strained; the mezzo and tenor I also thought were less forceful than I might have hoped, though clearly Simon O’Neill (tenor) was putting his soul into it, as was the bass (Peter Fried) much as Boulez’ Mass really sounded as though it needed a thoroughly ‘Russian’ sounding one.
Even so, this was a truly glorious performance. Another from this season that if you missed on the night, or if you miss the repeat, you will regret. As this supposedly was Boulez’ final appearance as a conductor (according to the presenter, though concerts are advertised in London and Paris through to December) you might not get another chance.
(It looks as though that comment might have been the product of very casual or careless background ‘research’ for his script that nobody thought of checking. Apparently, Boulez has said he doesn’t want to conduct opera any more, not simply not conduct . . .For god’s sake, BBC, get this kind of thing right, will you? It’s not the first time this has happened in the last three or four seasons. Since it really startled me, it serves me right for not checking it properly on the night, too. So now, I can’t trust a single word any of the presenters say, and I’m going to have to ‘fact check’ everything myself. Make my life harder, why don’t you? I would have been sacked by any of my editors on the spot for something like that.)
I apparently misunderstood—not paying enough attention—the announcer in fact referring to his last appearance conducting opera. (See comment.) However, that doesn't invalidate my general strictures on the quality of some of the background research and proof-reading for Proms material over the last few years: the confusion between the 'Concertino' and 'Capriccio' being a prime example: it's the 'Concertino' in the Proms Guide and 'Capriccio' in the Radio Times, I see.
I've already admitted I make mistakes too; and I dare say before the end of the season I'll make more. I believe I've assigned Doundou Tchil the wrong gender. Sorry.
BBCSO, BBC Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Chorus/Pierre Boulez: Janacek, Glagolitic Mass.
The photo is of a mural in a Birmingham house (now destroyed) representing a scene from Petrushka, painted by house guests in, I believe, the late twenties, to surprise Philip Sargent Florence (whose wife, Lalla, was prominent in the early family planning movement) on their return from a performance in Paris . . .The cottage over the stables, which he rented to Louis McNeice, and in which W H Auden stayed when he was in Birmingham, has also gone, and there isn't even a blue plaque in the housing estate that now covers the site. . .