Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 21: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Xian Zhang @ Royal Albert Hall, London

30 July 2017

(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The blue and gold flags were out in numbers for Sunday night’s European-flavoured Prom, which featured the European première of Sir James MacMillan’s A European Requiem and Beethoven’s ninth symphony, whose Ode to Joy is the official anthem of Europe. The nationally symbolic dragons of Wales and China were also there in spirit, represented by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales under Xian Zhang.

MacMillan’s European Requiem (premièred last year at the Oregon Bach Festival) was written before Brexit, but it is nonetheless a deliberately fractured work, portraying, through calm choral note clusters, the long peace in Europe since World War two, but also, through insistent militaristic interruptions from brass and percussion, its upheavals and internal squabbles. Written as a single 45-minute movement, it follows in the tradition of concert Requiems by composers such as Brahms, Delius, Joubert and Britten, and in the ironic twist of a homophone, it is the latter composer whose influence stands out in the piece. This was most noticeable in MacMillan’s clear use of orchestral texture and colour: the harp-and-glockenspiel twinkling underscoring ‘et lux perpetua’; the big brass build-ups to the shouted ‘Hosanna’, the full-on percussive ‘boom-tish’ interruptions throughout; the swirling dream-like woodwind for ‘chorus angelorum’. The choice of soloists was also Britten-esque: the spirit of the Church Canticles was summoned by Iestyn Davies’ sweet-but-piercing counter-tenor and Jacques Imbrailo’s edgy light baritone moving together in ‘In paradisum’.

Xian Zhang
(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The work, though, continues beyond Britten in its incorporation of more contemporary tropes. Davies’ solo passages in the Kyrie owed something to the Middle East – and he became, for the Kyrie, a counter-tenor muezzin. There is also a nod to the holy minimalists in the work through the use of canon (particularly in the choral writing) to build note clusters. The Agnus Dei is the emotional heart of the work, and the hushed homophonic choral passages interspersed with muted fanfares and a busy string trio, along with its close on a whispered ‘sempiternam’ assured the work’s future popularity. Both chorus and orchestra gave admirable performances, bringing out all of the subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) nuances that the piece requires.

Xian Zhang, big on gesture, approached Beethoven’s last symphony like a woman on a mission – the mission clearly being to give the shortest ever performance of the work. The third movement was allowed a little space to breathe, and contained some delicate pull-ups, but everything else was taken at a decidedly brisk pace. The second movement could best be described as ‘inexorable’ – apart from the required pauses after the timpani flourishes and a brief rallentando at the end of the vivace section, the driving, no-nonsense pace continued throughout. The orchestra responded well, however, and managed a considerable amount of light and shade in spite of the tempi. The last movement teetered on the edge of chaos – Simon O’Neill, for example, was clearly not expecting his ‘Froh …’ passage to be quite so sprightly – but it was saved by the consummate professionalism of all the performers. Erin Wall, Sonia Prina, Simon O’Neill and Alexander Vinogradov provided a solid and well-blended quartet, but the biggest plaudits must go to the CBSO Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales: every word was as clear as a bell, and they were in complete synchronicity with the conductor – an excellent lesson in why singing without the score always improves performance.

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