If the standard Prom consists of an Overture, Concerto and Symphony then this concert from the BBC Philharmonic, which began with a gallant performance of the Don Giovanni Overture, felt well on its way to meeting all expectations.
It suddenly stopped feeling quite so conventional, however, as soon as Oliver Knussen’s Symphony No. 2 began. This was not so much because the piece cannot really be described as a ‘Voice Concerto’ in all but name, and more because it feels unique. With the majority of it drafted when Knussen was just eighteen, and its four movements employing the poems of German Expressionist Georg Trakl and of Sylvia Plath, it is an exceptionally delicate and intricate affair. Utilising Japanese musical forms with their combination of repetition and development, and various blends of orchestral instruments to create a myriad of textures, it proved the perfect vehicle for demonstrating the talents of Gillian Keith.
The soprano is required to cover over two octaves, and Keith’s mature and beautifully clean sound captured a perfect sense of otherworldliness as befits this meditation on sleeping and dreaming. When her voice hit the highest notes, it possessed a direct and yet pleasing metallic quality, and while audibility was occasionally a problem in the first and fourth movements, her two spoken lines possessed as much aesthetic value as any others that came from her breath.
Although Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 has not always been so elevated, it is now one of his most popular, with a host of recent recordings. Even the most ardent fan, however, might feel that Schoenberg was overegging the pudding when he described it as possessing ‘perfect repose’, given its sinister inner movements that contrast markedly with the outer ones. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda had no problem in bringing out the various shades of light and dark, even if the performance lacked stylistic integrity in that the resulting effects felt too obviously striven for. The sound of some individual instruments and sections was exceptionally fine, but especially in the first movement the eerie wind was matched by strings that were too raw and strident. A little more velvety richness might have generated a less stark sound, and made the required contrasts all the more subtle and interesting.
The transitions between the ghostly and heart-warming passages in the first Nachtmusik also felt too obvious, although the march-like rhythms were successfully managed. The sounds of the trumpet echoed in the air, and of the French horn imitated in the clarinet, were particularly effective, while the ‘distorted’ Viennese waltz rhythms in the third movement left an impression. The second Nachtmusik saw many individual instruments shine, with leader Yuri Torchinsky’s chirpy violin solos standing out and Tom McKinney’s guitar and Steve Smith’s mandolin playing revealing purity of tone, while possessing a vivacious yet haunting quality. The contributions of the flute, oboe, bassoon and French horn were also outstanding.
In the fifth movement Noseda successfully counterbalanced the obviously joyful elements with the more disconcerting or mocking undertones, but there was a notable difference between this performance and one two years ago at the Proms. Then the vision of Ingo Metzmacher, conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, came across so strongly that it became possible to feel every moment in exactly the way that he intended it to be felt. As such, by default it felt as if the perfect version was being played out before us, while here the definitive performance remained locked inside our heads, acting as a basis by which to measure the current output. Nevertheless, though this rendering felt slightly more visceral than insightful, such an approach was perfectly valid, and still largely successful.