S&H Concert review

PROM 67: Schoenberg, Goehr and Vaughan Williams, Sanford Sylvan (narrator). Joan Rodgers (soprano), Simon Keenlyside (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus, Philharmonia Chorus, Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin (CC).


Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw makes its point in the most direct of fashions. Its depiction of Nazi oppression is positively harrowing. Leonard Slatkin chose to present Schoenberg's score in the starkest of terms. What's more, he understood that there is lyricism even in the most gruesome of circumstances. Sanford Sylvan was an effective narrator, his Sprechgesang appropriately disjunct, throwing into relief the chorus' final, telling statement of the hymn to Israel, 'Shema Yisroel'.

In 1986, the Proms hosted the premiere of Goehr's a musical offering (JSB 1985). a second musical offering (GFH 2001) makes an apt Proms successor. Goehr's musical affinity with the past's great luminaries has prompted a number of works, including the successful Arianna (a recreation of Monteverdi's lost opera). 'Based' on the Sarabande from Handel's Keyboard Suite in D minor, the second musical offering is in two parts: an 'Overture with Handelian Air' and a 'Concerto with Double, for orchestra'.

I remain unconvinced as to the validity of this approach, at least in Goehr's hands (I have no doubt that as a concept it retains integrity). Goehr achieves his intent to make an 'imagined sound world', and there is no doubt that his orchestration is masterly. But as a piece it appeared over-long and somewhat nondescript in its effect. The true treat of the evening was to follow.

Slatkin assembled a massive chorus for Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony, wedding the Philharmonia and the BBC Symphony choruses (with the magical Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir as semi-chorus). The opening of the symphony was, appropriately, overwhelming in effect. If Slatkin's tempo seemed rushed at first, its purpose became clear at the restatement of the opening lines, 'Behold the sea itself', given all the structural weight it could possibly want. Throughout the performance, Slatkin's obviously careful preparation paid off. Time and time again, Vaughan Williams' delicacy of scoring and sensitivity to the text shone through.

If the baritone soloist was somewhat anonymous to begin with, Joan Rodgers more than made up for it in her sparkling rendition of the solo soprano part. Last time I heard her (in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande at the Opéra Garnier, Paris), she disappointed, so what a pleasure it was to hear her full of voice and displaying the innate musicality that is her trademark. She was commanding at 'Flaunt out, O sea, your separate flags of nations' and throughout displayed an enviable ability to soar over the textures.

I have little but praise for the choral contribution to this performance. In fact, if there was a star in this performance, it would have to be these ladies and gentleman. They were inspirational towards the end of the concert, and consistently excellent throughout.

Colin Clarke

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