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

Listen to the best concerts from BBC Proms 2017

Links to some of the best concerts in this year’s Proms. This page will be updated throughout the season.

Elgar 1 | Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim

Elgar 2 | Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim

ShostakovichViolin Concerto No. 1 | Nicola Benedetti and BBC Symphony Orchestra

Shostakovich October | BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Shostakovich 10 | BBC National Orchestra of Wales

HarmoniumBBC Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven 3 ‘Eroica’ | Aurora Orchestra

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition | BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathetique’ | BBC Philharmonic


BBC Proms 2017: Week 3 Recommendations

Slim pickings this coming week. Just as well I’m off to Verbier.

Saturday 29 July – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Stephen Hough – Brahms 1

The BBC Phil with Juanjo Mena performing Tchaikovsky 6 was an unexpected highlight last week. How will the band fare with conductor Mark Wigglesworth in the BBC Phil’s next appearance? Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 is the one I’m listening out for.

Sunday 30 July – BBC National Orchestra of Wales – Sir James MacMillan’s A European Requiem

The European premiere of MacMillan’s A European Requiem is one half of a double-bill with Beethoven 9. Ode to Joy just sounds like a break-up song now. So, MacMillan’s work makes for a potential new discovery. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday 2 August – Philharmonia Orchestra – John Adams Naive and Sentimental Music

This was one concert I definitely wanted to go to and will, if I can do so abroad, listen to on the radio. Because Adams.

Thursday 3 August – Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie – Brahms Symphony No. 2

Brahms 2. German orchestra. Jarvi, conductor. Dead cert.

Ernst Ottensamer (1955-2017)

Ernst Ottensamer – principal clarinettist with the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic – has died. He was a paltry 62.

In truth, he died last weekend following a heart-attack. So, in writing about the news, I’ve taken my time. It amazes me that even when you’re a digital native, news can sometimes take its time to dribble through.

Mind you, no-one wants to prematurely announce someone’s death, so perhaps it better to have waited until the usual outlets have done so first.

It’s sad news. What death isn’t? Sad in part because in addition to be a hugely successful clarinettist himself, Ottensamer’s talent permeated to his equally phenomenal sons, also clarinettists.

Father Ernst has the enviable achievement of managing to create something magical out of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – a core work for any clarinettist, and one that made me want to bite my own hand off whenever I heard it, until I heard his recording for basset clarinet. Highly recommended.

Search YouTube and you’ll find this reference to the great man’s passing in an Austrian news bulletin – a measure of how highly the man was regarded, and how musicians are regarded in Europe too. There’s a thing. It wouldn’t happen here. Maybe it should.