Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 17: BBC SSO serves a menu of fine dining and party food from Brahms and Walshe

28 July 2022


It was a Prom of two halves at the Albert Hall.

Prom 17

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Elena Tsallagova & Shenyang (Photo: Mark Allan)

Jennifer Walshe’s 2018 The Site of an Investigation isn’t so much a piece of music as a work of Performance Art. Orchestral music is in there, certainly, in the form of filmic background effects or passages of pastiche: triumphant brass fanfares and floating, dream sequence strings. For the rest, it’s a collage of spoken poetic commentary (by Walshe herself) and timbral effects from a large percussion section featuring special guest ‘instruments’: popped bubble wrap; collapsing water cooler bottles; the wrapping of a toy giraffe in brown paper and parcel tape. The work is intended as a reflection of our chaotic and random windows on the contemporary world mediated by the internet and social media (as the programme note hints: “…the 50 open tabs on your internet browser”).

The topics covered are very much of 2018: microplastics in the oceans; homophobia; racism; Mars landings; artificial intelligence. Doubtless, had the piece been written more recently, the ‘culture war’ hot-button topics of transgender, pronoun use and BLM would also have had a look in.

The difficulty with critiquing works like this is that the phrases that might be used are as clichéd as the statements of the work itself. Mostly, it’s about the too-obvious. All of these topics are important and worthy of our understanding and viewpoint. And, yes, our internet lens projects a chaotic mess where importance and priority are difficult to assign, where echo chambers are all too real, and where (as Nicholas Carr outlined in his 2010 book The Shallows) wide but shallow attention dominates. It’s not easy to tell, then, whether the piece is a neutral reflection on these facts, or is casting shade on the vacuous nature of our virtual lives; perhaps that was the point. Either way, it came across as a work of surfaces with little substance. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov gave a masterly performance – but then, their material was hardly demanding – and the piece hung together well enough, with some artful phrasing in the text; but compared with the more rigorously constructed multimedia works of the last century (by the likes of Ligeti, Maxwell Davies, Stockhausen and Berio) it lacked nourishment – like a children’s party at a swanky Fifth Avenue address, it was expensive, glittering, and occasionally bizarre, but ultimately cotton candy and cupcakes.

“The topics covered are very much of 2018…”

Ilan Volkov (Photo: Mark Allan)

More substantial musical nourishment was, however, provided in the second half of the Prom, as the orchestra was joined by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and soloists Elena Tsallagova (soprano) and Shenyang (baritone) for a performance of Brahms’s rich and nuanced A German Requiem. Pulling contrast out of the seven (ostensibly) slow movements is the trick here, and Volkov and the performers managed this with aplomb, serving a banquet of dishes precisely calculated for (and contrasting in) timbre, dynamic, tempo and expression. The young singers had clearly worked hard under their chorusmaster Ben Parry, as intonation and blend were to the fore, and the fugal entries (and there are some tricky ones – ‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn…’; ‘Der Gerechten Seelen…’;) were accomplished with élan. The entry at ‘Herr, du bist würdig’, for example, needs to signal a gear change from the final-sounding perfect cadence just before it, and the clarion-like altos did not disappoint here. Perhaps the only small criticism (and this is more about programming for the forces) is down to nature: adolescent tenor and bass voices haven’t yet developed the heft that a more mature physique will allow: bassoons rather than horns and trombones. The Brahms occasionally calls for ‘vocal brass’, and, alas, didn’t always get it. Some of the tenor and bass entries didn’t have the oomph that they really need, and the stormy battle between life and death in the penultimate movement remained diffuse. The orchestra, though, worked with this, such that the voices were supported well but never swamped.

The two soloists were perfectly chosen for the roles; Shenyang’s voice has a solidity when required, but enough top harmonics to carry the listlessness of ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’. Tsallagova’s ‘Ich habt nun Traurigkeit’ was a dish of sweet fruit with a side order of cream. Utterly lovely.

• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.


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Prom 17: BBC SSO serves a menu of fine dining and party food from Brahms and Walshe