BBC Proms 2016 / 2: Exsultate Domine and Faure

I didn’t go to the Albert Hall tonight. Yesterday’s school reunion took more of a toll than I anticipated it would. Post lunchtime bath I fell asleep drying off on the bed. I woke up four hours later. That was Sunday gone. A weekend of reminisces and extended much-needed dozing.

I listened to the first half via BBC iPlayer Radio and watched the second half on TV. I sat next to a cat overwhelmed by the humidity in the air,  me observing my other half laughing heartily at a Frankie Boyle stand-up on Netflix. The earbuds I bought in Budapest are pretty special: when I listened to Radio 3 I could hear nothing but Sara Mohr-Pietsch, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and assembled voices.

The broadcasting element of the Proms is what I think I love best. When radio works at its very best it’s incredibly addictive. That’s when I’m waiting for the hours to pass so I can switch on whatever device I’m going to listen to and attend whatever the event actually is.  I’m a sucker for live relays – that’s my weakness. In these moments, I marvel at how technology can make it possible for me to listen to something happening about 45 minutes away from me on public transport. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of that experience. Next time I go to the Albert Hall I might try listening on an FM radio at the same time. I understand that’s what the Test Match Special nerds do too.

In that respect alone, the Proms is an introvert’s paradise for me. The summer is my own personal holiday, one that I can turn on or off whenever I want. And when I’m there I’m calmer. I felt it on Friday night at the Albert Hall. The stresses and strains of the working week (much of it probably self-imposed) dissipated. The BBC Proms as a music festival feels like home. That sense of togetherness is heightened when I’m sat in a packed auditorium. And once I’ve experienced that just once in South Kensington, the live radio relays effortlessly conjur up the memory of that hall-bound experience.

Tonight’s concert was a varied one. On paper it risked being populist and popular: Mozart’s Exsultate Domine (made famous in my lifetime by Kiri Te Kanawe singing at Prince Charles and Diane Spencer’s wedding in the early 80s), Haydn’s Paukenmesse, Faure’s Pavane, Cantique de Jean Racine, and Requiem.

In practice it was exquisitely executed, catapulting far beyond the wallpaper status the likes of Faure’s music sometimes occupies present-day. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – often starkly represented on the Royal Albert Hall stage – played with beautiful precision, remaining close to the beat marked out by conductor Stephen Cleobury.

Lucy Crowe shone with shimmering vibratos and a bell-like tone, devoid of the mawkish sentimentality often relied upon by sopranos desperate to re-create the florid performance which secured the work’s popularity in the 80s.

The concert’s real high-point was the second half. Faure’s music can come across a little creepy, most evident in the orchestral arrangement of his Pavane. Like Elgar, Faure has melancholy pretty much off pat, but the Pavane lacks any hint of redemption. And what that means is that it needs to be handled carefully, just so the implicit hint of menace in the melody doesn’t get out of hand. And I suspect that because the Pavane landed with such a sense of creepiness to it that Cleobury had pulled off something special in tonight’s performance: I’d not heard it in that way before.

Where Faure triumphs is in the like of Cantique de Jean Racine. I sang it as a kid in the school choir – just chorus and piano. The orchestral arrangement risks mawkish sentimentality. The florid harp, in particular, needs to be kept under control otherwise we risk listening to something other-worldly and, worst-case scenario, musically irrelevant. What saves it is Faure’s breathtaking harmonic progressions. There remains an uplifting sense of joy buried deep in Cantique. It is the finest balance of melancholy and celebration.

Faure’s Requiem from the OAE under Stephen Cleobury was a triumph. Where Haydn’s ‘protest mass against war’ seemed disconnected in its politeness, Faure’s mass for the dead successfully juxtaposes beauty and horror without resorting to ugly extremes or fawning deference. There was a haunting vulnerability in the voices, sometimes extreme, which made the musical proposition all the more bittersweet.

This work should be listened to in full uninterrupted and free of distractions. That way you’ll feel the force of the glorious brass and the terrifying suspended violin solo in the Sanctus. And after that, the breathtaking vocal talent of boy soprano Thomas Hopkins who, without any shadow of a doubt, stole the show when he sang the Pie Jesu.

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