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S & H Prom Review

PROM 2:‘The Nation’s Favourite Prom’ Royal Albert Hall, Saturday July 19th (ME)

Now, which ‘Nation’ would this be, exactly? The one that, in the vast majority, does not have a clue about classical music and regards ‘The Three Tenors’ as the acme of elitist art? Or are we really looking at a dying vestige of the revoltingly insulting concept of ‘Cool Britannia’ which so exactly defined this government’s attitude to ‘Culchur?’ Search me, but one thing I do know, and that is that if you’re going to engage in exercises like the one whereby listeners were invited to vote for their favourites from a selection of arias, you need to do some proper, well informed research in terms of matching all the ‘choices’ on offer with the singers who are actually going to perform them, and I’m afraid whichever 21 year old was given this little task goofed up in a big way.

If you’re going to invite audiences to vote to hear ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ or ‘Voi che sapete’ (and, of course, they will, since most of them have never heard of stuff like ‘Where e’er you walk’) then you need a Pavarotti and a Bartoli or their ilk, to sing them. If you’re going to invite singers like John Mark Ainsley and Rosemary Joshua (equally eminent in their own fields as the aforementioned) then you need to have the grace – better still, the simple nous – to give audiences a list of aria choices which will suit them. Of course, this simple task apparently proved impossible, so we got the unhappy spectacle of arguably the world’s leading Handel tenor and soprano performing repertoire suited mainly to belters and Kiri Te Kanawa.

To have Ainsley singing ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ is just about as appropriate as having Pavarotti performing ‘On Wenlock Edge.’ Ainsley’s is a stunning voice, and he is an unusually gifted stage actor and a wonderful Lieder singer: but despite his honeyed tone he is not a Donizetti tenor, and his agile phrasing and delicate timbre suit neither this music nor this hall, unless of course they are used in the repertoire in which he excels – which is about three-quarters of it, and ought to be enough for anyone. I would have loved to hear him sing ‘Where’er you walk’ as much as I would have loved to hear him and Rosemary Joshua perform, say, ‘As Steals the Morn,’ so I’m not criticizing the choice of singers, just the inept matching of singer to song. Nor am I saying that singers can’t step out of their Handel boxes – I’ve admired both in all sorts of music, but in such a ‘showcase’ arena as the Proms, it did neither any service to be displayed as they were. Of course, John Mark did everything he could with the aria, turning the trills exquisitely and presenting as convincing a portrait of the haplessly love-lorn Nemorino as anyone I’ve ever come across, but he just does not have the beef in the tone which audiences have come to expect in this music, and I doubt if anyone seated higher than the lower boxes, took much notice of most of what he was singing.

I would have loved to have heard Rosemary Joshua sing, say, ‘Myself I shall Adore’ which is, after all, only the several-hundred-years earlier and miles better original of ‘I Feel Pretty’ – ‘If I persist in gazing, myself I shall adore!’ (Handel) – ‘Who’s that pretty girl in that mirror there?’ (Bernstein) which latter she did, unfortunately, sing, or rather something which seemed to contain the words ‘Ey feale prittee, eau seau prittee, eau seau prittie ehnd wittie ehnd brite.’ Loved the dress, though. Previously on the show, Rosemary had given a creditable account of ‘Voi che sapete’ considering that she is a light lyric soprano and not a mezzo, and that she simply does not have the necessary for phrases like ‘L’alma avvampar’ – however, she did all she could to present Cherubino’s character.

The pair also ‘duetted’ – what a ghastly word, but it seems the right one here – in ‘Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein’ from ‘Fidelio.’ I cannot imagine what induced anyone to vote for this, since taken out of context there’s really very little to it: perhaps they thought they were voting for ‘O Namenlose Freude’ although for Joshua and Ainsley to sing that would be about as appropriate as for them to launch into, say, ‘Heil dir, Sonne.’ Most of the audience didn’t have a clue as to what was going on here, and all Ainsley’s determined grimacing and Joshua’s coquettish pouting were in vain – the piece was very nicely sung, however, by both of them – but then it would be, considering the fact that the roles of Marzelline and Jaquino are actually suitable for their voices.

Moving on, as they say… Ainsley also sang four Britten folk songs, beautifully of course, especially ‘The Salley Gardens’ which he shaped with the kind of loving intimacy with this music which is his forte (or one of them, anyway) and ‘O Waly Waly’ which could hardly have been better performed to reveal its melancholy sweetness: singing of English music that was neither wincingly precious nor annoyingly hearty – precisely what I admire most about this tenor, and a great joy to hear – but suitable for this vast hall? I don’t think so.

Why have I not mentioned the backing group, the BBC Concert Orchestra (careful, now, not the BBC Symphony) led by Barry Wordsworth? Probably because backing is about all that’s needed in this context, although to be fair there was much pleasure to be gained from some of the delicately scaled-down playing in the Britten. They had plenty of chances to display their prowess in the Hungarian March from ‘La Damnation de Faust’ although the first part was taken rather reticently, and there was some fine brass playing to be heard here. The players also provided some delightful support in ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ narrated rather blandly by David Attenborough – the main pleasure of this was the nicely characterized flute birdsong and the music illustrative of nonchalant skipping at ‘Boys like him are not afraid of wolves!’

The second half began with bits of Walton’s ‘Façade,’ a work I can’t see the point of unless it’s performed with its intended declamations, and it ended with Khatchaturian’s Suite no. 2 from ‘Spartacus,’ a work I can’t see the point of at all, although since this was ‘the nation’s favourite Prom’ it must be beloved of some thousands (?) but not, obviously, the many who could not last the course & had to walk out before the end. Much as I’d like to attribute this to the sheer drivel that is the music, I’m afraid I have to say that the cause was the heat – it must have been like a sauna up in the gods, and I cannot understand why the new air conditioning system was not fully operational. I’ve said before that the British love to suffer and maybe that’s especially so at this most self-consciously British of all our festivals, but this was going too far.

The highlight of this concert was a sublime performance of Vaughan Williams’ glorious ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Janine Jansen: this young lady is one of those about whom one can truly say that the Gods were in a good mood when they made her, since she has the most wonderfully secure technique, the most sensitive and poetic interpretative style and she’s so fabulous looking that you just can’t take your eyes off her – hacks are always saying that Miss so-and-so ‘plays as good as she looks’ but in this case it’s true, and she also has the impeccable taste to play a Cremona Stradivarius of 1727, and the talent to have been awarded the right to do so. This violin’s rich tone has much to do with the effect Jansen achieves, but the tender delicacy with which she evokes the Lark’s flight in those astonishingly tremulous passages which begin and end the piece are all due to her own sure technique and sensitivity to this lovely but under-performed music. Meredith’s poem may be a poor shadow of Shelley’s ‘original,’ but Vaughan Williams’ re-creation of the ‘silver chain of sound… ever winging up’ is one of the most purely beautiful pieces of music written in the 20th century, and Jansen, beautifully supported by Barry Wordsworth’s direction of the orchestra, gave it all the intensity it needs and deserves. This was the perfect marriage of artist and work, unlike some of what had gone before.

Melanie Eskenazi



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