One of Roger Wrights innovations as Director of the BBC Proms has been to institute recreations of historical Proms last years schedule included a Last Night 1910, for example and that was the basis of tonights concert, albeit with a slight tweak.
On September 12th 1963, Benjamin Britten conducted a performance at the Proms of his Cantata misericordium, Sinfonia da Requiem and Spring Symphony, and prefaced them with his own arrangement for string orchestra of Henry Purcells Chacony in G minor. In place of the last-mentioned item, the BBC commissioned a new arrangement of the Purcell from the young composer Jody Talbot.
Talbot wrote in the programme notes of his trepidation at taking on a task already successfully done by Britten, and of his choice to search for a more antiquated sound-world in contrast to Brittens more modernised one. Perhaps this decision was the largest factor in the feeling (also expressed by others in the audience around me) that Talbots arrangement didnt really say very much about Purcell (or Talbot, for that matter), or reveal the beautiful treasures that Talbot finds hidden within.
There were interesting sonorities on display in particular, the use of tubular bells and musical saw, as well as some dazzling brass writing and the way Talbot uses the orchestra is extremely impressive. However, I would say that the greatest influence on the piece still remained Britten he surely would have smiled at the A Midsummer Nights Dream-like textures.
The concert had already been put slightly onto the back foot by the last-minute replacement of three of the major performers: namely, tenor and baritone soloists and conductor. Fortunately, first-class replacements had been found, in Alan Oke, Leigh Melrose and Mark Wigglesworth, respectively. All three were at the forefront in Cantata misericordium, a retelling of the story of the Good Samaritan commissioned to mark the 100th anniversary of the Red Cross in 1963, and this was a faultless performance, led by Wigglesworth and the leaders of the orchestras string sections, whose music signifies the passing of time between the events of the story.
I grant that its no real comment to say that such-and-such a tenor singing Brittens music sounds just like Peter Pears, although its certainly meant as a compliment when it comes from me, but that was what struck me instantly with Alan Oke followed a split second later by just how majestically he made the small part of the Samaritan his own. Leigh Melrose, if perhaps his baritone was just a little too light for the hall, gave an impassioned performance as the beleaguered traveller.
The climax of the concert came in the second half with the Spring Symphony, Brittens celebration of that season in English verse. Its easy to forget, when listening to recordings of the work, quite how large-scale it is: three vocal soloists, boys choir, chorus and full orchestra. Brittens touch is incredibly dainty at times, while still demanding much of his performers. For the only time all night, Oke was rather ragged in the long runs of When will May come?, although completely at ease in the languid Waters above! Amanda Roocroft and Christine Rice, presumably having had a great deal longer to prepare for the concert, were delightfully coy and charming on the one hand, dark and steely on the other. Wigglesworth was superb in marshalling his forces, and the Trinity Boys Choir were on particularly good form.
Most satisfying of all in the concert, however, had been the Sinfonia da Requiem, which closed the first half. Intended as an anti-war piece, its heaving and menacing turmoil reflects both the composers memory of his parents and as it was written during Brittens war-time stay in the USA the turbulent state of the world at the time, with repeated themes and harmonies struggling to develop but ultimately being swamped by subsequent ideas. This was a spell-binding performance, and was a timely reminder of just how excellent a conductor Wigglesworth is if anyone had been missing Jiř Bělohlávek on the podium, this surely would have dismissed those longings.