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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

 


 

Prom 32:  Julian ANDERSON, RAVEL; Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo soprano)  BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 6.8.06 (AO)

 

Julian Anderson has long been a Proms favourite, so it was entirely apposite that his new work, Heaven is Shy of the Earth, should be premiered in the Royal Albert Hall, an auditorium ideal for an ambitious piece with large chorus and orchestra.  The title is a quotation from a poem by Emily Dickinson. Anderson has combined it with the words of traditional Latin Mass to create, perhaps, the effect of heavenly choirs celebrating the wonders of nature.  Juxtaposing the choir with a lone soloist thus connects the individual poet and a wider, more ancient tradition. 

Many composers have used Masses in a non religious context, but there’s no way around the basic fact that Masses celebrate the spiritual, rather than the earthly.  It’s a brave concept then, to use the terminology for a different purpose: why would the Lamb of God “take away the sins of the earth”, if the earth were holy? This “Heaven” surely isn’t “shy”. It’s an uncomfortable disjunction, which might have been interesting to explore, but there’s no sense of contradiction in the music itself.  Listening without regard to text gets around the problem.  As an exercise in adapting Anderson’s characteristic rich textures to vocal music, it is far more successful.   Indeed, what struck me on first listening was how it reinvigorated the spirit of Ralph Vaughan Williams -of which more below.

Heaven is shy of the Earth starts with an Intrada, featuring a flugelhorn solo, played by Bill Houghton, soaring over violins played with impeccable pianissimo, enhanced by harp and flutes.  The mood was suddenly shattered by the choir entering forcefully Kyrie Eleison   But again, what does the Lord need to have mercy for ?  The Intrada was exquisite, a mood piece of great refinement and beauty.  It might have been better had this been abstract vocalise, for the choral writing here was lively. Angelika Kirchschlager was in wonderful form.  Although she was well amplified, hers is a voice which carries well, and isn’t dampened by the unsympathetic acoustic of this vast bowl of an auditorium.  Her resonant timbre gave dignified authority to the section Quam dilecta tabernacula tua. Yet, when singing of the sparrow making its nest, she softened her tone.  Again the flugelhorn returned, further colouring the vocal line.  But it was the final section, where the singer calls on God, that was most developed orchestrally.    In the Sanctus, Kirchschlager’s slightly accented English gave a delicate vulnerability to the text, which emphasises the fragility of Dickinson’s almost abstract poem. The choral writing here was particularly well written, voices layered carefully to spread the harmonic range.  All came together in the beautifully textured Agnus Dei. For more on Anderson’s style, please see this earlier review.

So much was made of the “nature worship” in Anderson’s piece in Proms commentary that it was interesting to hear it paired with Daphnis and Chloë.  Ravel uses Arcadian fantasy, and though it is essentially “indoor” music, written for the ballet, his music evokes the open vistas of 18th century landscape.  Ravel wrote this at about the same time as his pupil, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his Sea Symphony. Both have an inspired approach to orchestration and choral writing, which was refreshingly new at the time.  It struck me that Anderson was using similar forms, but reviving it in a singularly individual way.  While Ravel and Vaughan Williams write with great sweeps of sound, Anderson builds his material layer on layer.  The last time I heard Daphnis and Chloë live, it was conducted by Boulez, who made it uncommonly spacious and compelling. Sir Andrew Davis was more conventional and drew much less inspired playing from the same orchestra and chorus. 

 

Anne Ozorio

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)