Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Unready Steady Go

The Olympic-themed Proms began on Friday before we were ready. Red-jacketed attendants were as sparse as G4S security guards and some of the audience were still finding their own seats when Ed Gardner, the first conductor in a relay of such, strode on, leant forward in the gloom and brought in the brasses for the world premiere of Turnage’s opening fanfare Canon Fever. Gardner should have insisted that the whole orchestra be present, not just those required. The scene looked less than festive. The players didn’t even stand up and the rhythmic but harmonically empty score lacked any sense of theatre.

Gardner handed the baton on to Sir Roger  Norrington for Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture. The tympanist flourished with each yapapum and Edwardian melancholy informed the central theme. Has Norrington abandoned his faith in non-vibrato string-playing? There was plenty here warming the tone yet trying in vain to counter the faulty light display distracting the audience.

It was not until Sir Mark Elder took the baton and Bryn Terfel sang Delius’ Sea Drift that real drama rescued the season’s opener. The craggy bass-baritone stood tall on the edge of the stage, gazing out over the promenaders as if out to sea, and sang with a range of vocal colours as wide as the weather. He brought to life Walt Whitman’s nesting sea-bird pair, their easy flight, their loving ménage, even the wafting wind. The sense of sorrow when the female one day fails to return was palpable and the male’s subsequent perpetual mourning cry was almost unbearably poignant. Terfel’s high sotto voce induced wonder as strong as that which drew the poet’s boy daily to the summer-long tragedy. If Elder allowed the BBC Symphony to be a little too loud at times, it was only to imitate rough untamable nature.

Martyn Brabbins conducted Tippett’s Birthday Suite for Prince Charles, the familiar folk melodies emerging from the grey harmony like leading runners from the pack. The silver trumpet repeatedly played a flat fifth in the Berceuse like an archer whose aim was off. Gardner returned for the home straight’s long, creaky account of Elgar’s Coronation Ode whose poetry was feeble beside that of Whitman. Even the Land of Hope and Glory finale, the source of the great Last Night singalong, suffered by association with the humourless sycophancy of the previous six choruses. At least Elgar had the sensibility to haunt us with the last-minute composition Daughter of Ancient Kings, its interrupted cadence insinuating itself on the ear so deeply that after two renditions, we came to expect not the triumph of soh-doh, but its solemn anticlimactic soh-la.

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