Thursday, 28 August 2014

Red herrings - why the BBC drops new music

An article popped up in the Guardian just before 6 pm today, titled "Why does the BBC assume its audience won't like new music?" It deals with the fact that Harrison Birtwistle's Sonance Severance has been dropped from the BBC TV 4 broadcast of Prom 33. Hang on! Before jumping on the sackcloth and ashes bandwagon, try a bit of common sense.

First, Birtwistle's piece is only three minutes long, dates from way back and isn't a particularly crucial part of his output.  The really important part of this Prom broadcast is Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, a  significant milestone in modern music. Not knowing who Lutoslawski is, would be a much greater scandal.

Second, it's taken the Guardian a while to twig onto the story, which I first ran on 11th August, titled "Why the Proms musical apartheid on BBC TV?" The Guardian uses almost the same title, but my piece is more detailed. Read my article in full here. 

Third, let's think critically  If we really care about new music, we should be looking not at TV but at the new music being performed in the first place. BBC TV4 is a generalist channel,  it's not aimed at cutting edge. It's like blaming Aldi for not stocking Beluga caviar. TV coverage of the Proms this year hasn't been as good as it used to be for various reasons, but that's a separate issue.

If we're going to talk about new music, at least we could understand what new music is. The two composers Daniel Barenboim featured in his Prom were pleasant enough, but won't change music history. They deserve credit, but shouldn't be used as footballs in a game they're not  playing.  The real crux of the matter is why the BBC needs to programme music that's too  bland to be original.  I've written a lot about the poor quality of new music this season many times, so search this site. By dropping some of the "new" music from TV, the BBC is doing some composers a huge favour.

Why is this year's "new" music so dull? The Proms audience is the biggest audience in the world. The bigger the audience, the higher the number of those who think they can't cope with what they don't know.  Because the BBC (and the arts in general) are under attack for being "elitist", they have to conform.

The trouble with art is that it's created by artists, not marketers. I don't believe that audiences are necessarily anti-innovation.  But public opinion is shaped by the media,  by politicians who play people off each other and, alas, by an increasingly vocal minority who espouse the musical equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church. If we genuinely care about new music, the real issue we should be addressing is not red herrings like BBC TV4 but much wider issues.. But that might mean being original.

Seoul Philharmonic shines Prom 55 Chung, Wu Wei

When Unsuk Chin's Šu (2009) for sheng written for Wu Wei premiered in London at the Barbican in 2011, it didn't work for me at all.  I wrote then  that "overall the music didn't develop the possibilities beyond the initial novelty"  of this remarkable instrument, and "Wu's playing is assertive and full bodied but I'm not sure how far he's stretched as an artist by this material"  (read my full piece here which has background on the sheng and on Wu Wei, the soloist). But at BBC Prom 55, when Myung-Whun Chung conducted the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the piece was transformed. What a difference a sympathetic orchestra makes!

Chung and his orchestra intuitively understand the context.  Šu isn't so much a concerto in the usual sense as an orchestral expansion of the instrument.  Wu Wei plays a modern version of the ancient instrument, The "modern" Sheng is much bigger, often 36 pipes as opposed to the traditional 17. Playing so many reeds by fingers alone would be difficult, so modern Shengs are keyed for ease of operation. Range is bigger, volume is bigger, many more musical possibilities. Just as in the west, composers had to write new music for new instrumental and performance styles. There's a whole genre of modern Chinese music that's different from traditional folk idiom, but also from western form. Wu Wei's instrument  is so unique that it's inspired many composers to write for him. He's fascinating, exploring the myriad nuances and possibilties with such poise that one almost forgets how difficult the instrument is to play.

Unsuk Chin adds her characteristic panoply of eccentric instruments and jokey asides, but Chung fundamentally lets Wu Wei lead, so  Šu evolves like a solo work with embellishments.  Apart from ceremonial music, Chinese music wasn't orchestral  in the western sense  but closer to chamber forms. Chung understood the balance. in favour of soloist, allowing the main line to flow smoothly without slipping into the eddies.  Sheng legato is amazing, and Wu's masterful circular breathing creates wonders. Yet the instrument is also oddly percussive, so Wu can shape staccato riffs  and jerky rhythms.  This is modern music, and not uniquely Chinese, but greatly invigorating. For an encore Wu followed with an arrangement of his own, based on a traditional folk melody. Wu's variations on the basic melody displayed his instrument's versatility. Pipa or flute or voice might be more plaintive,  but the sheng is robust and confidently inventive.

Although the BBC is making a big deal about global orchestras this season, the Seoul Philharmonic is in an altogether more elevated league than many of the others. It's world class, so good that it can easily stand on its own merits, and should get the credit it deserves. Korean musicians  (and singers) dominate orchestras and opera houses all over the world. In Korea, classical music  isn't a niche but part of mainstream life and national identity. (Read my article on Jihoon Kim's Korean recital here).  Please also see my posts on orchestrations of Arirang.  Western politicians who complain that classical music is elitist should address the collapse of music education instead of slamming arts organizations that produce good work.  The German concept of Bildung applies in many Asian countries. English speakers just don't comprehend. With the large pool of musicians in South Korea, Chung is able to choose players of an unusually high standard.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra don't quite have the panache of  Chung's other orchestra, the Orchèstre Philharmonique de Radio France, but what they do have is the sensitivity to create refined, diaphanous textures. This  La Mer sparkled.  Shimmering lustre, balancing the darker undercurrents.   This Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor, 'Pathétique' also impressed. Altogether a satisfying Prom with an orchestra we should hear more often (other than on recordings). 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Small nation seeks independence - Guglielmo Tell Edinburgh Festival

From Juliet Williams at the Edinburgh International Festival:

Usher Hall, Edinburgh 26th August 2014 sung in Italian by Teatro Regio Torino; conductor Gianandreo Noseda;  Dalibor Jenis, Guglielmo Tell; Angela Meade, Mathilde; John Osborn, Arnoldo; Mirco Palazzi, Gaultiero; Fabrizio Beggi,Melcthal; Marina Bucciarelli, Jemmy. William Tell's son; Anna Maria Chiuri, Edwige, William Tell's wife; Luca Tittoto, Gessler; Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, Ruodi; Luca Casalin, Rodolfo; Paolo Orecchia, Leutoldo

"The choice of this tale, Rossini's last opera, of liberation from oppressive rule by a larger country to the south east for the Edinburgh Festival as Scotland ponders the question of independence is perhaps apposite and has already been noted, for example in the Herald. This performance was also dedicated to the memory of Claudio Abbado, remembered in a moving introductory speech by festival director Jonathan Mills. 

This production had two great stars: Dalibor Jenis  (photo above) in the title role, and the music itself. Jenis excelled both vocally and in his stage presence as the baritone hero. His performance was for me the highlight of the show and was consistently excellent. John Osborn was good in the tricky role of Arnoldo. His lengthy aria opening the fourth and final act of the opera attracted lengthy applause. This is part of a well-performed scene in which the Swiss confederates rouse their strength to prepare for battle despite the capture of their hitherto leader, William Tell. Angela Meade as Mathilde gave a lovely performance in Act Three in her dialogue with Arnoldo as to their divided loyalties given that their love falls across the political divide of their respective countries. She came into her own in this scene, and in the closing scene of this act, where her tenderness towards William's son was clearly apparent. In a generally even cast, amongst the smaller parts Paolo Orecchia stood out as Leutoldo the shepherd. Rossini's energetic and likeable score, opening with the eponymous overture was played and sung with enthusiasm in Italian by Teatro Regio Torino's musicians and chorus. The big sound resounded in the Usher Hall's favourable acoustic in this concert performance, but the nature of the libretto cries out for staging, and it is a shame that touring the fully staged version to Edinburgh was not practical. It is an enjoyable production which whets the appetite to see this work again."

Lots of chances coming up. Wonderful Guillaume Tell at Munich a few weeks back with Bryan Hymel hitting C after C after C and  Michael Volle as Tell. Pity about the dull production. Antonio Pappano is another William Tell specialist (wonderful Prom and CD). He's bringing Guillaume to The Royal Opera House London in July 2015. John Osborn and Gerald Finley.

Edinburgh International Festival : Commonwealth Strings

From Juliet Williams in Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival Chamber series looks forward and back

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings Op.47 Peter Sculthorpe: Sonata for Strings No.3 Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis Gareth Farr: Relict Furies for mezzo-soprano and double string orchestra Tippett: Concerto for Double String Orchestra Scottish Ensemble Commonwealth Strings Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano

The morning concert series in Edinburgh's Queens Hall usually features distinguished chamber musicians in small groups. Yesterday's performance saw a larger ensemble take to the stage, showcasing the talents of an international group of young Commonwealth players in an Antipodean-influenced programme. In between good accounts of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, they commemorated significant Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe who died earlier this month – his work was also performed by the Kronos Quartet here last week. The well-known Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis was taken at a very slow tempo, creating a new insight into this frequently performed piece, making it almost reminiscent at times of Arvo Part.

After the interval a new commission from young New Zealand composer Gareth Farr followed. Taking the theme of the centenary of the First World War his work looks at the anger and pain that those who survive, those who are widowed and those whose loved ones return permanently injured are left with. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was the soloist with large forces, also required in Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra which closed the programme. Whilst commemorating the Great War and the loss of a major influence, this event also looked forward to the talent and creativity of the young and outward to the talent in other parts of the Commonwealth as well as the traditions of our own country. Listening via the BBC iPlayer has the additional bonus of Kiri Te Kanewa's account of Songs of the Auvergene (extract) in the interval. 

Those of us who can't make it to Edinburgh  can hear no fewer than 15 EIF concerts on BBC Radio 3.  All chamber - opera, theatre and big orchestral works aren't included, but there have been some real treasures among the chamber concerts.  Bostridge/Adès, Anna Prohaska's Songs of war,  and Stéphane Degout yesterday. Most remarkable of all,  The Hebrides Ensemble  with a truly brilliant extended Stravinsky A Soldier's Tale. Graham F Valentine (pictured above) created a brilliant narration  which followed the metre of the music, yet was full of wisecracks and word plays, some so uniquely Scottish I coiuldn't get them. This narration was a work of art,, not mere "filller". I hope  someone's recorded it so it won't be lost. Would that we could hear more of Valentine in London.

I listened to the Commonwealth Strings concert too, quite pleased with Peter Sculthorpe's Sonata for Strings no 3.  Landscape music which evokes the vast open horizons of the outback. Sculthorpe reproduces exactly in sound, the way  flocks of Rodsellas and other types of parrot  suddenly take off from the trees in which they perch, screaming in unison. Often there will be a few thousand birds together. An amazing sight which you have to have experience to believe.  I's be very wary, however, of ascribing "Aboriginal" colours  to Sculthorpe's work.  Given what happened to the indigenous people of Australaia, plundering their heritage is a kind of cultural rape.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice Bejun Mehta

"This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta. The film is sung, played, danced and staged in a style not inappropriate to the day of the opera’s premiere in 1762 on the stage of the Baroque Theatre of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic—or in the theater’s wings, stairs and basement, doing service for Orfeo’s journey to the Underworld."

Read the full review HERE in Opera Today

Monday, 25 August 2014

Creative People......

This one has been around a while but it's still true:

  • get bored but find ways out of it
  • take risks
  • colour outside the lines
  • think with their hearts 
  • make mistakes
  • hate rules
  • work independently
  • change their minds
  • infuriate plods

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Glyndebourne 2015 season announced

Interesting Glyndebourne 2015 season announced! Three new productions, three revivals and one new commission.


The FIRST EVER UK production of Donizetti Poliuto (from 21st May) will be conducted by Enrique Mazzola and directed by Mariame Clément, the duo behind Glyndebourne’s acclaimed 2011 production of Don Pasquale. American tenor Michael Fabiano, who made his Glyndebourne debut in Festival 2014’s new production of La traviata will sing the title role alongside Ana María Martínez.

Handel Saul will be the fifth work by Handel to be staged by Glyndebourne since the opening of the current theatre in 1994. Brilliant and provocative director Barrie Kosky will direct, with Ivor Bolton conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Christopher Purves will sing the title role, Iestyn Davies will perform David, the acclaimed British soprano Lucy Crowe makes a role debut as Merab and American tenor Paul Appleby makes his Glyndebourne debut as Jonathan.

Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail last seen in the Festival in 1988. Robin Ticciati will undertake his fifth Mozart opera for Glyndebourne, conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and a cast including Sally Matthews, Edgaras Montvidas and Mari Eriksmoen.

The revivals might be even better :

Bizet Carmen - David McVicar's 2002 production revived for the second time. Good performers: Jakub Hrůša conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with  Stéphanie d’Oustrac in the title role, Paulo Szot as Escamillo, Lucy Crowe as Micaëla.

Britten The Rape of Lucretia  - Fiona Shaw's production with Leo Hussain, Kate Royal, Christine Rice, Allan Clayton and Duncan Rock

Maurice Ravel L’heure espagnole/L’enfant et les sortilèges. Laurent Pelly's brilliant production of L’enfant et les sortilèges is back after only two years. It's wonderful - read my review of the premiere HERE in Opera Today

"Surrealist fantasy with wit and style! L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges, the Ravel Double Bill at Glyndebourne, mixes charm, intelligence and nightmare.The audience applauded the scenery, but this time the praise was sincere.  Ravel's music and ideas come alive. I'm tempted to say, "beyond our wildest dreams", because dreams release the creative imagination. .....L'enfant et les sortilèges" says director Laurent Pelly "lasts about 45 minutes, but has the depth of an opera of three or four hours". (read the interview in Opera Today here). Ravel's music is extraordinarliy vivid, but his concepts don't easily translate into visual images. Pelly, however, is a master at bringing abstract ideas to life, as anyone who has seen his Glyndebourne Humperdinck Hansel und Gretel would know. The Teapot and the Chinese cup dance, their "human" bodies exposed beneath the hard exteriors of their form. Ravel glories in mad chinoiserie......the words aren't real but dadaist invention, even in Colette's original."

 Danielle de Niese sings the two main roles.Coming home to Glyndebourne to sing is hugely special to me. Playing both an adulterous femme fatale and an androgynous young boy in the same evening will be an exciting challenge and transformation for me as an actress. I have labelled it my 'Meryl Streep moment' - a chance for me to show different sides of my musical and dramatic palette. Glyndebourne and I share a common goal in constantly aiming to reach new heights and I am thrilled to be taking audiences on this artistic journey."

The new commission is Luke Styles' new opera Macbeth.

David Pickard, General Director of Glyndebourne, said: “I am delighted that, as well as maintaining our high artistic standards and international reputation for discovering exciting young artists, Glyndebourne’s 2014 Festival reached broader audiences than ever before. As a privately funded Festival, I am particularly proud that we are the only UK opera company to offer our performances for free online to be accessed by audiences right across the globe. Those streamings, together with the success of our dedicated Under 30s performance, were highlights of the season for me. I hope that all those who saw Festival 2014 operas, whether on stage, on screen or online went away with a new, or renewed, love of live opera.”

  • Box Office sales of 98% of financial capacity
  • A doubling of the live audience of 98,000 who attended Festival 2014 in person through cinema screenings and free online streamings
  • Sell-out of the first dedicated Festival performance for subscribers to Glyndebourne’s Under 30s scheme
 photo credit Simon Annand

Komsi Oramo Prom Russian (and other) Fairy Tales

Wonderfully evocative!  In BBC Prom 49, Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC SO showing how exotic dreams and magical tales still inspire creative art.  The soloist was Anu Komsi, Oramo's wife and twin sister of Piia Komsi, both coloraturas with such remarkable range that they've inspired several works written specially for them.. Although this Prom was billed "Russian Fairy Tales" it could well have been billed as a showpiece for Anu Komsi's exquisite singing. .

Ravel's Mother Goose Suite (Ma mère l’oye)  created the perfect mood. Lustrous, shimmering textures, sparkling with light and delight. Fairy Tales are beautiful, but strictly speaking they're wasted on children. As Bruno Bettelheim demonstrated decades ago,  fairy tales deal with the subconscious, and are a lot darker than they're made out to be.  Beneath the gossamer in Ravel's music lie details which suggest something more sinister. Hollow-sounding woodwinds, brass like the call of hunting horns. Could the high-pitched violins suggest pain and longing?  Do the horns suggest hunting, or death? Why is the princess of the pagodas, Laideronnette, supposed to be ugly? No answers.  In this magical realm answers mean less than dreams.

In Jukka Tiensuu: Voice verser (2012?),  Anu Komsi's voice operates like a magical force of nature. Her tessitura is so high it seems almost unearthly, and her projection so powerful that her voice seems to stretch into infinity. High winds and strings cry out, like high-flying sea birds.  Strings form elliptical sounds like waves.  Immediately I thought of Sibelius Luonnotar (more here) where the voice represents the primeval being who created the universe, after swimming for centuries in an endless ocean. When Komsi's voice switches from extended legato to sudden staccato, she makes gasping sounds that could be Luonnotar giving birth to the earth, stars and skies. Yet for all this extreme virtuosity, this is a quirkily humorous piece which  suggests play and joyful interaction between singer and orchestra. This is music with wit and and spirit, proving that "new" music can be fun and spark the imagination. We can also hear why so many are in love with Komsi's voice. She's technically superb but can also convey warmth and feeling.

Amazingly, Komsi recovered her voice after the interval, to sing Karol Szymanowski's Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess. Komsi and Szymanowski could have been made for each other. Both favour tessituras so high that that they seem to defy gravity.  Much of Szymanowski's output created parts for violin, where only the best violinists can sustain extended lines at the top of register. Komsi makes great feats sound easy. Szymanowski's fantasy was far more than lush reverie.  In the years before 1914, he visited the Middle East and North Africa, fascinated by the exotic sounds he heard. Like many composers in his time, Szymanowski was searching for alternatives to  western tradition.  There's nothing tame about this ulullating legato, these strange leaps up and down scales.

 In the first song, The Lonely Moon, the phrases cry out like imams calling the faithful to prayer, designed to carry over vast distances.  Perhaps this is intentional, for the mood suggests longing, reaching out towards something that can never be grasped. The trills and melismas in The Nightingale allow Komsi's voice to flutter like a bird trying to escape its cage. In The Song of the Wave, Szymanowski catches the idea of surging movement, sparkling arpeggiatos dancing over rolling rhythm. The ocean is beautiful, but the sailor might drown.  Whether the singer is lover or Nereid hardly matters. Szymanowski wrote the songs for voice and piano in 1913 orchestrating  the three above in 1933 when he'd rediscovered Poland and modernism. At this Prom we hear Sakari Oramo's new orchestrations for the three other songs,  sensitively  in keeping with Szymanowski's style yet sympathetic to the uniquesness of Komsi's voice. Infinitely better than the pointless, unidiomatic orchestration of Butterworth Andrew Manze used in his Lest We Forget Prom last week.

To complete this evening of exotic dreams, Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade. Yet again Oramo weaved his magic. The BBC SO played with great beauty, not disguising the little dark details that conceal what Sheherazade will be faced with if she can't spin more tales of fantasy.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Ilan Volkov Iceland Symphony Orchestra Tectonic Classics Prom

"Classical tectonics" - strange name for Ilan Volkov's Prom 48, but pretty good for a Prom featuring the music of Iceland.  A friend of mine loved Iceland because he said it was like no other place on earth. Most of the country is uninhabitable and closed off completely in winter. The people are fiercely independent, yet close knit. They formed one of the world's first consultative democracies.  The landscape seems bleak until you realize it's constantly changing. Lava and magma and emission of gas and water, volcanoes and earth movements, steam in the air that freezes. Time seems ambiguous, too, he said. Sagas and tales of ancient heroes haunt the land, my friend says, even though no-one talks about it.

Landscape as metaphor for music. Haukur Tómasson's Magma operates on multiple levels at once, distinct ideas operating separately and together, moving forwards with unstoppable force. This is  new music anyone can access if they use their imaginations. It borrows the majesty of the earth itself and transforms the emotions generated in us into abstract form.

Jón Leifs' Geysir added to the magic.  Needless to say, you could listen and imagine geysers bursting from the bowels of the earth, and so on. Liefs has a cult following because his music is strikingly modern and yet emotionally vivid. Around 10 years ago BIS issued most of his published music, including the wonderful Hekla. It's extraordinarily atmospheric, but also works as abstract music because it's very well crafted and sophisticated. Think of  Harrison Birtwistle's Earth Dances and his shifting tectonic plates of sound. Click here for a link to Hekla and to my 2011 post on Harpa Hall, home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. .

When Ilan Volkov became Chief Conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in January 2011, i wrote "Iceland punches bigger than its size". Iceland might be small but it has vision. The world banking crisis began in part in Iceland, but the country sorted out much of the mess in a way Britain and the US probably wouldn't dare. When Volkov went to Iceland, he did himself, and the country, a world of good.

Volkov seems an ideal choice too since he's adventurous and innovative,  sympathetic to ideals, yet also the kind of conductor who works well with musicians who might not have the polish of, say, the Berliners and Viennese. More power to the Icelanders for that. Their Beethoven 5th might have been pretty ordinary but they sounded like they were enjoying themselves. The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms was decidedly rough technically, but they played with verve and obvious engagement and carried much of the audience with them for that very reason. The same cannot be said of some of the other international orchestras this season, some of which were so dull that even world famous conductors couldn't resuscitate them. .As the OAE slogan goes "Not all orchestras are the same".

Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor was played by Jonathan Biss. This was infinitely more rewarding than the Bernard Rands Concerto for piano and Orchestra last week, which might well take the prize as the least new piece of new music this year against formidable competition, from composers living and dead.  Thinking of Leifs and formidable landscapes, Sibelius's Symphony no 7 is so original and so tightly crafted that it says so much in 17 minutes that even Sibelius might have been daunted to top that. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Illuminating Britten War Requiem Nelsons CBSO Prom

Andris Nelsons conducted Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at Prom 47. Nelsons' War Requiem with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham is legendary, but the Royal Albert Hall is a unique setting. It illuminates even relatively straightforward performances, like Bychkov's on 11/11/13 more here)  But whatever the reason, Nelsons' Prom Britten War Requiem was exceptional. You can never say "the finest ever" but this came close. Wh ? I think because Nelsons brought out its fundamental musicality. The War Requiem carries emotive baggage, which is perfectly valid, but Nelsons emphasizes its musical depth, making its impact even more powerful.

"Kleenex at the ready… one goes from the critics to the music, knowing that if one should dare to disagree with ‘practically everyone’, one will be made to feel as if one had failed to stand up for ‘God Save the Queen' " said Igor Stravinsky. He had a point, for the image we get of the 1914-18 war is distorted by media emphasis on the Western Front. Stravinsky knew that what happened on the Eastern Front was arguably far more catastrophic. Famine, ethnic cleansing, the rise of Bolshevism and the collapse of the Old Order.  "Which war, whose requiem?" as Ian Bostridge wrote in A Part of History: Aspects of the British Experience of the First World War (Continuum, 2008) . Can a piece commissioned to commemorate Coventry tell us about Dresden, Stalingrad, Nanjing, Hiroshima and the Holocaust?  Nelsons' magisterial account connected the War Requiem to the ages, and made it timeless. Exceptionally good choral singing (concert master Simon Halsey) and playing made this a Prom to remember.

The long chords of the organ thundered into endless resonance, searching infinity. Shimmering brass, and the bright, younger voices of the BBC Proms Youth Choir: a Requiem Aeternam that truly felt eternal.  "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? " comes as a shock. The brutality of Wilfred Owen's imagery emphasized by the quiet menace of the tolling bells in the orchestra.  Trumpets led forward, dazzling in their brightness, percussion at once beautiful and brutal, in telling contrast. For whatever reason, mankind is seduced by war.  Hence, perhaps, the contrast between "bugle" and solo flute, and the first appearance of the soprano.. The elegance Nelsons draws from his players and singers is far more unsettling than straightforward dissonance.The swirling counter-rhythms in the chorus  further shake us from our bearings. Nelsons defined the critical descent into silence from which the soprano (Susan Gritton) rose. Lovely back and forward rhythms, yet chilling, for they suggest the swaying of a body being carried on a stretcher. "Move him into the sun " thus felt surprisingly physical, even earthy, for Owen's poem refers to clay and the fields unknown soldier might have tilled. The poem, however, is titled "Futility" for the sun's rays cannot revive the dead.

What "offering" is this Offertorium?  jaunty rhythms like a mad folk tune from the ancient past. This sets the context for the "Abraham and Isaac" passage, where Toby Spence and  Hanno Müller-Brachmann sang together, victim and killer bound in an unclean pact.  We're in the trenches but the weight of  Biblical forces bears down. "Half the seed of Europe, one by one" is destroyed. Nelsons marks the silences between each repeat, so the portent sank in fully .

The Sanctus refers to the sacrament of consecration. Bell sounds rang out, as in the most holy moment in the Mass. Susan Gritton's voice shone on the word "Sanctus", but also picked up on the "medieval" decoration Britten wrote into the part, not always observed so cleanly. From cataclysmic tumult to all-illuminating transfiguration. All the forces Nelsons had at his command united in a glorious pinnacle of overpowering brightness. Truly, "after the blast of lightning from the east, the flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot throne".

In the Agnus Dei, Britten quotes Owen's "At a Calvary near Ancre" which mentions a wayside calvary with the image of a crucifix and priests whose proud faces are "flesh-marked by the Beast". How few conventional performances recognize the irony!  Britten's sympathies are not with the Church. This Libera Me was driven by powerful forces indeed. Gritton's voice marked the choppy, deliberately breathless excitement which culminated in a glorious  crescendo.  Insistent tappings in the orchestra, machine-gun staccato deployed with purpose, mixing death and transition. A transformative Liberation indeed. We've passed through Owen's "profound dark tunnel"  (a reverse of birth) into a new , strange plane of existence where earthly enmities have no meaning. Listen to the quiet drone behind Spence's voice on the rebroadcast,  it's very atmospheric. The baritone's final words need no accompaniment. Müller-Brachmann intoned the words "I am the enemy you killed" so it felt personal. At the culmination of his War Requiem, Britten brings back the youthful chorus, the blending of orchestra, organ, massed voices and soloists suggesting a glorious rebirth, a bright new tapestry looking forwards. This time, when we hear the bells and the words "Requiem Aeternam", we are on another plane.  Best Prom of the 2014 season so far!

Please explore my other posts on Britten and Britten's War Requiem on the BBC Proms and on war. More on this site about Britten than any non-dedicated site

Please also see Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today

photo of Andris Nelsons : Marco Borggreve