BBC Proms reviews

Prom Saturday Matinee 4: Orchestra of St John’s – Lubbock/Wallfisch: Mozart and Wallfisch @ Cadogan Hall, London

2 September 2006

Mozart’s incidental music for Thamos, King of Egypt was a revelation in the BBC Proms fourth and final Saturday Matinee at Cadogan Hall. This little-known work was performed alongside two of Mozart’s most popular pieces and the world premiere of a short composition by young composer Benjamin Wallfisch.

The concert began with an energetic rendition of the Magic Flute overture and then an equally lively performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, with the delicate Trio a particular delight. John Lubbock led the Orchestra of St John’s in the Mozart with Wallfisch, the orchestra’s Associate Composer, taking over the podium to conduct his own Escape Velocity. The title refers to the initial energy that is required to send an object beyond the earth’s gravitational pull, a concept which yields rich musical possibilities.

The orchestration has an attractive line-up of instruments including piano, waterphone, watergong and two scaffolding poles (pitched differently and slightly dampened with cloth, played with heavy metal hammers). A solo violin serves as the gravity-defying “object” and during the seven minute piece the waves of energy rise exponentially to propel it into orbit. Escape Velocity is impressive with some strong percussive effects, and is among the better new works I’ve heard this Proms season.

I wonder if the 27 year old composer was at all nervous to have this premiere sandwiched between works by arguably the greatest composer who ever lived. Mind you, Wallfisch is something of a wunderkind himself, with a growing body of work as both composer and conductor and it will be interesting to watch his progress in the future.

If the first half of the concert was a pleasant enough way to spend a Saturday afternoon, the remainder was rather astonishing. When one hears of music by a composer of this magnitude that is rarely performed, it’s easy to assume that it’s because it’s not very good. Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives comes to mind. It’s certainly not the case with Thamos, King of Egypt K345, the only theatre music Mozart wrote outside of opera.

Written for a play by Tobias von Gebler in 1774 (with some later revisions), it consists of three large choral sections and five orchestral interludes, which were played at the end of each of the play’s acts. The third of these has a lovely oboe solo with pizzicato accompaniment which was a highlight of the performance but there is much inspired writing and inventiveness throughout the work.

There are some obvious similarities with The Magic Flute, both musically and textually, with masonic overtones, high priests and the triumph of good over evil. What it lacks in coherent structure, as a result of extracting the music from the play, it makes up for with a magnificent score, all the more attractive because it brought back the pleasure of hearing Mozart for the first time.

The OSJ Voices, under chorus-master Jeremy Jackman, were outstanding in the sympathetic acoustic of the Cadogan Hall. The rather under-used soloists were Fflr Wyn (soprano), Christine Cairns (mezzo), Christopher Lemmings (tenor) and Stephan Loges (bass).

Surprisingly, this was the first time I had seen the OSJ, the orchestra founded by John Lubbock in 1967, and I was impressed with the sound they made. At the curtain call, many of the musicians looked a bit glum. I don’t know why that was but they had no need to. This was an excellent performance and was as enjoyable as any Mozart I have heard during this commemorative year.

The very-reasonably-priced Saturday Matinees, new this year, are also a welcome addition to the Proms programme.

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Prom Saturday Matinee 4: Orchestra of St John’s – Lubbock/Wallfisch: Mozart and Wallfisch @ Cadogan Hall, London