I would say a little over three quarters of the seats in the Royal Albert Hall were full for Prom 33, featuring Juanjo Mena, the BBC Philharmonic and several northern choirs, and that whilst I’ve seen the arena busier than it was, it was still fairly tightly packed. The haunting opening solo line of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde crept into our consciousness out of the silence with its instinctively straight quality and it stayed in that timbre until the cellos’ theme opened up into a warmer vibrato. Juanjo Mena did not make a big deal of the famous Tristan chord: just about everyone in the room knew it was coming, so he didn’t patronise us by having it stick out in the ungainly way I have heard it in the past. The elegant simplicity of Mena’s baton projected itself into the orchestra’s portrayal of this extreme of Romanticism: it resisted the temptation of overdoing itself and becoming a parody without losing emotion. There was, though, a moment in the oboe solo, just as the music normally begins to morph into the first act, where the ensemble wobbled before it launched into Wagner’s concert ending.
This was followed by James MacMillan’s new work Credo, a concert setting of the Nicene Creed split into three movements: “Pater”, “Filius” and “Spiritus Sanctus”. It starts in a way not dissimilar to the Wagner, a solitary alto line creeping out from the minutest of string sounds singing the word “credo”: I believe. From this arose the grandiose “Patrem omnipotentem”. Credo is a work rich in contrast and word-painting, and of great power which provoked a stillness at the end of the first movement like I’ve never experienced in a concert hall before. The characteristic Gaelic ornamentation of MacMillan’s choral work was for the most part deftly handled by the Manchester Chamber Choir, the Rushley Singers and the Northern Sinfonia Chorus. The fastest runs were less well executed by the men than they might have been, but these ensembles nonetheless handled the tricky lines of MacMillan’s work impressively. The sopranos sounded less secure only when their line was high and quiet, and occasionally in their onsets.
In this piece, MacMillan, a firm Catholic, has given voice to a resurgent Gaelic Catholicism influenced by a genuine orthodoxy and a lively culture. I felt like I was watching a prayer, rather than a mere concert performance. Whatever the individual religious convictions and nationalities of the performers, for the time they were playing, they were Catholics and Scots.
After a brief interval, we were treated to Bruckner’s Symphony no. 6. In this piece Mena seemed more comfortable revelling in the emotion, which equalled that of the Wagner or the MacMillan. He gave so much more than a beat, conveying his very personal take on this colossus of a symphony with clarity. Mena handled the broad brushstrokes of Bruckner’s film score-like textures with plenty of wide, round gestures, which fired the BBC Philharmonic to new heights, particularly the 14-piece brass section, which has so much to do to create the atmosphere. In the second movement, Bruckner demonstrates his peculiar skill, shared by Barber in his Adagio, of having his most tear-jerking moments in major chords, low and quiet in the treble register, like guttural stifled sobs. There is an unneutralised emotion in these passages that refuses to dissipate until the music starts gaining its momentum again. This momentum, though, is short-lived as it slips away in such a way that one is unaware of it until it is gone. It gains intensity but there is no more rage in the second movement, only anguish.
There is a pause. Then we are suddenly back. I do not think it was an accident that I found myself characterising the third movement, a scherzo, in nautical terms. Behind the orchestra was a still projection of a dark water pattern, and suddenly I was conjuring up images of 1920s ocean liners skipping across waves with a ball going on somewhere amidst the tempest. Perhaps there is a weakness in Bruckner’s work that affects the last movement: after the drama of the penultimate movement there was not much further the orchestra could go. It was still dramatic, but it lacked by comparison.
For me, the real stand-out piece of the evening was the MacMillan. I’ve heard the other two before and they’re wonderful, but the excitement of hearing a piece as powerful as Credo for the first time really made my evening. There were moments of technical weakness from the choir but they detracted little from MacMillan’s creation, the vision of Juanjo Mena and the dexterity of the BBC Philharmonic.
offering his acclaimed reading of a sonorous yet
dangerously eruptive Bruckner symphony. First
though, there’s the emblematic love of Tristan and
Isolde, expressed through music dark in sound and
revolutionary in harmony. James MacMillan’s works
have enjoyed regular success at the Proms since the
first performance of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
was given here in 1990. As with Bruckner, MacMillan’s
communicative power is often associated with
expressions of faith, and the unveiling of Credo,
has been keenly awaited.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP