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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 1: BBC SO, Leonard Slatkin, Royal Albert Hall, Friday 16 July 2004 (AN)


J S Bach/Henry Wood, Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Edward Elgar, The Music Makers, Op.69 (1912)

Gustav Holst, The Planets, Op.32 (1914-17)


There was good and bad in all three pieces – nothing spectacular to herald the opening night of the 110th season of the Promenade Concerts.


Martin Neary would do well to stick to writing programme notes – he has a talent for it. His presentation of Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, however, leaves much to be desired. Re-enacting those inaugurating solo organ notes is not easily done on paper, but it will suffice to say that painful rhythmic distortions – rushed notes to accommodate awkward affected silences – made a mockery of Bach’s dignified musical conception. And even if one was persuaded by this unconventional slant on the Toccata, it was hard to forgive Neary in the Fugue proper where an excellent orchestral voice supported poorly articulated organ-fingerwork. In Neary’s defence, the occasion of a newly restored organ being presented to the public at one of the most prestigious musical events in the country cannot have been easy.


Sir Henry Wood’s take on Bach was followed by Elgar’s accompaniment to O’Shaughnessy’s poem Music Makers. Of all the wonderful pieces by Elgar, why this one? Music Makers is a patchwork conglomerate of quotations from the composer’s earlier musical successes (including his Violin Concerto, First Symphony and Enigma Variations) against an uninspired backdrop of musical meandering. Fortunately the combined efforts of Slatkin, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and the magisterial mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson pulled it off. Slatkin’s pre-emptive baton strikes helped negotiate accurate speed changes and colourful dynamics.


Sadly, this very conducting technique did nothing for the first of Holst’s planets: Mars. What set out to be the most exciting and terrifying movement failed to deliver when (after the first climax) brass and strings fell out of synch, dismantling the integral percussive impulse.


The most successful planets were, surprisingly, the least sensational. Jupiter was rushed and the well-loved ‘Hovis Bread’ moment, for all its glorious Britishness, did nothing for the patriotic heart-strings. Thank goodness for mysterious Saturn, enigmatic Uranus and enchanting Neptune, conjuring magic in the resonant glow of the Royal Albert Hall’s piercing blue and crimson red…


Aline Nassif


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