BBC Proms 2017/21: European Requiem / Beethoven 9 / BBC National Orchestra of Wales

I don’t know much of James MacMillan’s work. But based on a couple of listens to his European Requiem, I think he’s someone whose work I’d like to explore a little more.

But …

Let’s not extract the joy out of proceedings

Radio 3 went to great lengths to contextualise MacMillan’s work before it was performed. A sign of the times no doubt.

I get why the explanation was necessary. Post-EU referendum, we’ve entered a phase where everything has to be clarified in case someone’s misled, offended, or something is misconstrued. It’s important that the BBC maintains its commitment to impartiality. No-one wants the right-wingers thinking the BBC is pedalling an anti-Brexit agenda.

But that contextualisation is at the cost of personal discovery.

God forbid we’d be allowed to be revel in an ambiguity and arrive at a sense of what the music means to us on an individual basis. Do we have to experience a work of art precisely as the composer intended?

European Requiem

I love MacMillan’s writing for chorus. His rich harmonies create an uncompromising wall of sound that is comforting in places, and terrorising in others. Some of the solo lines for Jacques Imbrulgio had a haunting effect, the chant-like melisma conveying a desolate air in places.

MacMillan’s obvious enthusiasm for bold rhythms makes the work accessible on a first listen too, giving the percussion section in the orchestra a central role in contributing to an inclusive end product.

Beethoven 9: underwhelming

In the spirit of aspiring to be objective, it’s probably worth me being transparent. I tend to have higher expectations of a performance if the work is popular. Holst’s Planets Suite is one example, similarly Elgar’s tiresome Enigma Variations. So too Beethoven 9 – the kind of work that demands precision because it is played so very much.

BBC NOW’s playing was efficient and workman-like, but prone to slip-ups in places. I’ve heard a lot of eye-squinting intonation over the past three weeks and Beethoven 9 was in no way the worst demonstration, but there were some surprising moments.

I’m a stickler, I know. And quite rightly, a lot of people for whom this concert was targeted and attended by, wouldn’t be unduly phased. But, if the Proms is to call itself the greatest classical music festival in the world then I do think spot-on intonation at all times should be a deliverable.

There were moments when soloists and ensemble competed with different speeds in the final movement, and I would have liked the slow movement to linger a little more than it did. A lot of the time things felt rather hurried.

But, what really shone was the rich vocal ensemble in the final movement, and in particular the bass soloist. The chorus too, performing without scores, was the boldest evocation of Schiller’s Ode to Joy I’d heard in a long time.

Listen to the concert in full on the BBC Proms website

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