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PROMS 2002

PROM 11: Walton/Palmer & Dvorak, Janice Watson (sop), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo), Paul Charles Clarke (ten), John Tomlinson (bass), BBC National Chorus of Wales, London Symphony Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Richard Hickox, RAH, 27th July 2002 (MB)


"If all the inhabitants of Kladno were to visit that enormous hall where I conducted my Stabat Mater, there would still be plenty of room – for that is how huge the Albert Hall is." So wrote Dvorak to his father after he conducted the Stabat Mater in London in March 1884; 118 years later it received its first Proms performance (a scandalous omission) under Richard Hickox.

The work, one of the composer’s masterpieces, has recently undergone something of a revival, this being its second concert outing in London this year. Yet, how conductors approach the work is not at all clear-cut. Some, such as Giuseppe Sinopoli, brought an overpoweringly operatic scale to the piece, others, such as Rafael Kubelik a more oratorio-like feel to the work’s tragic dimensions. Either way is valid, but Richard Hickox’ failing was to fall between two stools. He transposed vast choral forces against a quartet of soloists who, with the exception of John Tomlinson, treated the work in a much more reductive manner. Paul Charles Clarke, for example, has too bright a tenor’s voice for his part and too often his tone simply wasn’t dark or sombre enough. Janice Watson found it difficult to project satisfactorily and the breadth of her register simply lay outside the span of the notes, so much so that she smothered her bottom notes and her notes above the stave were barely articulated. At moments, such as the close of the ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’, she was just overwhelmed by the chorus. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was richer of tone, beautifully so at the opening of the quartet, yet it was John Tomlinson who impressed most with a deeply sonorous bass which scaled the monumental heights of the work’s tragedy.

Richard Hickox’ conducting was often deliberate and the performance hang fire far too often for it to be an arresting experience. Those terrifying F sharp octaves which open the first movement should above all be evocative but here they were underplayed, not helped by a less than trenchant string tone. Some sour brass and woodwind playing brought an earthiness to a movement which above all else should mirror the image of the virgin looking up at the cross. Poor brass intonation also marred the bass’ solo, ‘Fac, ut ardeat cor meum’. Making the most lasting impression was the choral contribution – incisive, often moving and in its solo chordal passage in the ‘Quando corpus morietur’ simply coruscating.

The sense of epic tragedy in this work might have been more heart-felt had the Stabat Mater been the only work programmed. Inexplicably, the concert began with Christopher Palmer’s arrangement of Walton’s Christopher Colombus Suite. A coarse, cliché-riven work, with artificial, sprayed on Spanish colouring, its anodyne scoring does little to warrant its inclusion in any Prom, let alone one containing one of the most sublime choral works of the nineteenth century. Such programming is little short of objectionable.

Marc Bridle

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