The first half of Tuesday evening’s Prom consisted of pieces written by composers who had turned to religion for solace on the death of friends – Poulenc’s Concerto for organ, strings and timpani, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms – although, arguably, the other link between the pieces was J. S. Bach. The Organ Concerto’s paraphrasing of Bach’s large organ toccatas is evident from the outset, and the central movement of Stravinsky’s choral work is a 20th-century take on the double fugue of which Bach was a master.
Under Thomas Søndergård, the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales and soloist James O’Donnell gave us a measured performance of the Poulenc in which the Albert Hall organ was allowed full rein, from the thinnest string tone to the familiar mighty bellow. The orchestra and timpani were masterfully controlled, but one felt, occasionally, that the organ was too obtrusive. Although the composer wrote that “…this is not the amusing Poulenc”, it nonetheless has its playful side, and the last rapid section of a rising-four-note theme needs to offer a lightening of mood; Tuesday’s performance, however, remained steadfastly earthbound. What was also missing was a distinctly French organ sound: for all its excellence, the Albert Hall organ is a stolid English instrument, and cannot produce that edgy tone from the reeds that instantly marks out French grandes orgues.
The Symphony of Psalms is a neo-classical setting of three psalms for choir and an unusual ensemble that contains two pianos and no upper strings. Unlike Walton with Belshazzar’s Feast, Stravinsky resists word-painting, and in his setting of Psalm 150 where trumpets, cymbals, organs – among other instruments – are named, he resolutely refuses to underscore the words with their appropriate instrument, the choir instead chanting them to a slow throbbing accompaniment. The piece is, nonetheless full of variety, and the performance – perfectly handled by chorus and orchestra – brought this out, allowing Stravinsky’s unique scoring to shine, from the powerful homophony of the opening passage, through the prickly contrapuntal woodwind writing in the second movement, to the military-style fanfares and Alleluias in the final movement.
Haydn’s Te Deum is a brief, cheerful choral work commissioned for a liturgical occasion; its performance on Tuesday, while exhilarating, was nonetheless somewhat overblown. Although the work is scored for three trumpets, the presence of an additional three trombones (as well as the usual complement of horns and woodwind) produced a sound one would expect of a much larger work, and the grand scale felt disproportionate. Precise ensemble work and sensitive attention to dynamic ensured that the choral sound never got close to Verdi, but the line-up of over one hundred singers and around fifty instrumentalists left one wondering why the BBC had bothered to provide a small chamber organ for continuo; there was simply nothing left to fill in.
In their presentation of Mozart’s 41st (‘Jupiter’) symphony Søndergård and the orchestra really came into their own. It was a beautifully balanced performance, demonstrating peerless string intonation, and allowing – Mozart’s exquisite woodwind writing to stand out. Although the orchestra were playing largely on modern instruments, the addition of a pair of natural trumpets provided just the right degree of raw 18th-century edge to the sound.
Overall, although the pieces worked well together, the programming felt slightly bumpy; a more satisfactory emotional trajectory would probably have been achieved by performing the whole concert in reverse order, leaving the audience with the last mighty chord of the Poulenc ringing in their ears.
Full details of upcoming BBC Proms can be found here: bbc.co.uk/proms