Nathalie Stutzmann’s shift of the focus of her work from singing to directing has been subtle yet well-managed, and her excellent rapport with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales was evident in Wednesday’s Prom.
Brahms’ Tragic Overture was given a treatment full of dynamic and timbral nuance from the opening theatrical timpani work and some splendidly brassy horn choruses to lush string passages whose rubato provided interest without over-sentimentality. The bleak middle section of the overture came across well, the underlying march trudging on through the wintry orchestral landscape; the final fat brass chorus was magical.
Orchestral versions of Wagner’s works often feel incomplete without a voice, and so it was with Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod. Again, both were full of nuance and control (the opening cellos of the Prelude were as quiet as they could be, introducing the mysteriousness of the Tristan chord in the woodwind), and Stutzmann and the orchestra ensured that we firmly believed in Wagner’s chromatic almost-resolutions, but the Prelude fared better, as it has always been an orchestral work. Liebestod, even with the big horn presence, some beautifully measured clarinet playing, and the overall adroit control of the lengthy crescendo (with all of its internal swells and decays), was still simply not as full of raw sexuality as it is with a big voice in front of it. To compensate for this Stutzmann, mayhap, could have allowed some of the subtlety to go hang for the final build-up and release, but, sadly, she retained iron control, and the earth moved only a little.
Stutzmann’s approach to Mozart’s Requiem was peculiarly chimaeric. Her experience in the field of Classical works has steeped her in historically informed performance practice, but faced with the massive late-19th-century forces of the orchestra and chorus (the latter at 150-strong), she seemed to reach some compromises that were lovely to listen to, but arguably at odds with what audiences these days are used to. Most of the instruments were modern (albeit that the timpani were played with hard sticks), and yet a pair of natural trumpets were deployed.
Dynamic shading was the order of the day, and the piece was punctuated with almost-Elgarian crescendo-diminuendo pairings, which both chorus and orchestra delivered with impressive synchronicity. Plenty of phrases (for example, the opening ‘et lux perpetua’) were sung with precisely controlled detached syllables, and there was some clever joining of movements together (‘Dies irae’ came straight out of ‘Kyrie’, and ‘Lacrimosa’ followed hot on the heels of ‘Confutatis’). Impressively, both chorus and soloists sang without scores, and this told in the excellent delivery, with word endings perfectly lined up.
The four soloists were well-chosen. Fatma Said has a clear Mozartian soprano voice; Kathryn Rudge’s mezzo is contrastingly rich and creamy. Sunnyboy Dladla has a tenor voice of delicious clarity that cut across the orchestral texture without ever getting too ‘Helden’; David Shipley’s sonorous-yet-edgy bass was the clearest of all, and, when accompanied by Donal Bannister’s superbly nuanced trombone solo, made for an excellent ‘Tuba mirum’.
Stagecraft is just as important as musicianship for a concert, and placing the soloists at the back of the orchestra resulted in an overall loss of clarity and volume; the men’s voices had the solidity to overcome this best, but Kathryn Rudge’s low entries were almost inaudible. The choir’s sits and stands were clearly under-rehearsed: a rise seconds before singing may be dramatic, but unless it is co-ordinated, it results in the shambolic Mexican wave that happened several times. In the case of ‘Confutatis’ this affected the punch and dynamic of the entry.