Thea Musgrave’s Phoenix Rising swirls into life from the outset – it is almost as if the listener walks into a room where an argument has been raging for some while: a gust of emotion from the early restless melody in the strings competes with airy bassoons, trumpets and violent, hard-stick timps. It’s a joy of a piece that exemplifies the best of late-20th-century writing: outstanding use of orchestral colour (from the scoring of a keening cor anglais to the two harps in opposition and a twinkling, glittering coda full of tuned percussion and muted brass), a firm narrative, and a brilliant employment of counterpoint that shows the latter-day post-minimalists exactly how a piece’s trajectory can be managed.
There’s drama in there too – in the central ‘Aggressive’ section, a battle for supremacy rages between a solo horn (who moves ever closer to the conductor) and a showy timpanist flexing arms in a ‘strong-man’ attitude with each pedal-roll. The timpanist is finally shooed off the stage (only to return at the end with a final off-stage remark).
The BBC SO under Richard Farnes rose magnificently to the challenge, giving the piece a first Proms performance full of texture, élan and vibrancy that must surely assure future Proms outings.
Farnes’ approach to Brahms’ A German Requiem was clearly one of allowing volume only when necessary, and the first choral entry (after a warm, controlled string opening) was of a very special quietness; even the final staggered ‘… getröstet werden …’ of the movement barely touched mezzo forte, and the first louder dynamic was reserved for the big entry of ‘denn alles Fleisch’ in the second movement.
Indeed, flexibility of tempo and a sparing use of anything over forte (except in the tempestuous sixth movement) brought to this performance an inspired feeling of emotion held in check – foreshadowing Brahms’ future buttoned-up yearnings. And, by and large, Farnes got what he wanted. The orchestra responded magnificently, pulling back from louder dynamics as soon as they happened, and producing a soufflé of sound for the sprightlier tempi. Texture was also to the fore, drawing subtleties in Brahms’ writing to the listener’s attention: the orchestral fade into a solo clarinet in the fifth movement; the Wagnerian nature of the brass chorus in ‘ja, der Geist spricht’; the elegant punches on the notes of ‘mein Leib und Seele’. The organ part is marked ‘ad libitum’, and more than usual use was made of the instrument to add heft to the louder moments (although the huge chord put down before ‘Tod, wo ist dein Stachel’ seemed perhaps a little gauche).
The soloists (Golda Schultz and Johan Reuter) were also excellent. Reuter’s baritone delivered enough solidity to command in ‘…der Zeit der letzten Posaune…’, yet its cluster of top harmonics was able to lend a plaintive note to ‘…und ich davon muss…’. Schultz’s ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ was utterly heart-rending. If it were possible to use cream as a means of sounding a bell, this is how her voice comes over: tender, rich, sweet and pure, but with a solid lower register, and power where it’s needed.
The chorus generally responded well to Farnes’ requirements – there was some sterling work from the lower parts, and their responses to dynamic and speed were generally on-point. The heat, however, was clearly getting to them, as their precision on word-endings flagged towards the end, and the segue into the final movement seemed to take them a little by surprise. The sopranos, sadly, spent an evening reaching for quiet, high entries, and achieving them only half the time.