Last night’s Free Prom – featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Choir, the BBC Symphony Chorus and Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs under Keith Lockhart – was a journey into the profane, beginning with Saint-Saëns’ graveyard revelry Danse Macabre, and ending with Orff’s Carmina Burana. Sandwiched between these was a Proms commission: The Lanterne of Light, a jazz-influenced trumpet concerto by Guy Barker which is a musical interpretation of the eponymous 15th-century tract listing the demons associated with the seven deadly sins.
Danse Macabre was given an unremarkable performance; it was technically fine (except for a couple of uncoordinated moments between wind and strings), but there was nothing exciting about it. Charles Mutter, the orchestra’s leader, stood to give the violin solo, but, continuing a common theme for violinists in this year’s Proms, chose to direct his attention to the printed music, or stood in polite abstraction, rather than engage with his audience. What was wanted was a Mephistophelean enticement for the listener to join the ranks of Hell; what was offered was the threat of too much paperwork to sign.
Guy Barker’s work is a small masterpiece – a concerto for a post-modern age, interpreted brilliantly by Alison Balsom. Its narrative was beautifully nuanced by the orchestra and soloist: the pride of Lucifer was heard in the shiny-but-rotten opening theme – a kind of cut-price Starlight Ballroom – as was the enervated sloth of the pit of Abaddon in the orchestral growlings of the second movement. Greed and envy came wrapped in a chilling tango that carried overtones of the themes to 1960s TV crime series. The amplified-trumpet sections of the fourth movement, dedicated to lust and gluttony, involved the sounds of fluttered valves and heavy breathing down the instrument, and suggested a tacky neon-lit house of ‘pleasure’. The final duet between the trumpet and loud brass represented anger, out of which Lucifer’s theme rose again, twisted and triumphant.
Carmina Burana is very much a piece for chorus, and praise must go to the two adult choirs for a perfect performance. The entries were spot-on and the diction was perfectly synchronised – from the sibilant unease of the first movement to the abandon of ‘io’ in the tavern. The Southend choirs added the right degree of youthful vigour (when done with cathedral choirs, this can sound far too polite), although it spilled into untidiness at times – and a hundred-plus singers seemed a little profligate for their small role. In general the orchestra played well, although they sometimes seemed not as sharp at entries as the choirs, and there were a couple of uncoordinated bars in Ecce gratum. The percussionists (on whom so much of the atmosphere of the piece rests) excelled themselves, and special mention must go to the timpanist, who added just the right degree of drama to his playing for a popular-piece audience.
The male soloists gave good accounts too – Benjamin Appl’s baritone was perhaps a little light for the drunken abbot’s role, but his gestured performance made up for this; his alternating falsetto and forced dark bass gave a perfect impression of gawky adolescent vocal unexpectedness in Dies, nox et omnia. It was good to have a tenor sing Olim lacus; some performances opt for a counter-tenor, but Thomas Walker’s stretched top notes were perfect for the spitted swan. Olena Tokar’s voice was winsome and sweet, which worked well with Stetit puella and In trutina, but it turned Dulcissime into the acceptance of a shy kiss rather than a full-on invitation to carnality.