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  PROM 8 - Vaughan Williams, Ryan Wigglesworth, Stanford, Jonathan Harvey, Judith Weir, Saint-Saëns: Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Thomas Trotter (organ), Choirs of King's, St John's, Clare, Gonville and Caius, and Trinity Colleges, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, Stephen Cleobury and Andrew Nethsingha – Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.7.2009 (BBr)

Vaughan Williams:
The Wasps - Overture (1909)
Ryan Wigglesworth: The Genesis of Secrecy (2009) (BBC commission: world première)
Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical Songs (1911)
Stanford: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in A major, op.12 (1880)
Jonathan Harvey: Come, Holy Ghost (1984)
Judith Weir: Ascending into Heaven (1983)
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No.3 in C minor, Organ, op.78 (1886)

This was a suitably jubilant show to celebrate 800 years of Cambridge University where music has played a big part of its activities, from the awarding of the first Bachelor of Music Degree, to one Henry Abyngdon, in 1464, through to the present day with its symphony orchestras, choirs and the commissioning of new works.

Sir Andrew got things off to a rip-roaring start with a cracking performance of Overture to the incidental music for  The Wasps which Vaughan Williams wrote in 1909. This was a no nonsense reading, full of bluff humour but with a beautifully understated middle section. Sheer delight. The Five Mystical Songs, settings of George Herbert, were very well done with Simon Keenlyside a fresh voiced and well disciplined soloist. These songs are difficult to bring off successfully for they move from one emotion to another in the twinkling of an eye and if Sir Andrew wasn’t quite alert to every single change he is to be commended for what he achieved – there was a slight lack of wide–eyed awe in Easter, the first song, and the passion of the outburst Truth Lord, but I have marred them in Love bade me welcome (the third song) was glossed over, but these are small points. With the massed choirs – which could make the most meltingly gorgeous pianissimo to a raucous fortissimo – this was a performance to relish. We don’t hear this piece too often, and one wonders why, for it’s short and compact and has bags of energy and is great fun too!

Between these two works there was the world première of The Genesis of Secrecy by Ryan Wigglesworth. This was my first encounter with Wigglesworth’s music and I was impressed. After an uncompromising opening a long breathed theme on cor anglais grew from the texture and there was much sumptuous string writing. A macabre scherzo–like middle section provided contrast and the ending was questioning, leaving us suspended in the air. The orchestration was assured and very complex and if I have one criticism it was an overuse of the lashings of percussion the composer had allowed himself. I found much of the percussion writing unnecessary and it simply got in the way of the musical argument; Wigglesworth was at his best when using a delicate stroke of the gong or a roll on the suspended cymbal to highlight, and heighten, a phrase rather than the all out assault he occasionally let loose. But whatever my reservations this was an impressive piece of work and it bodes well for Wigglesworth’s future development as a composer, and even better, he supplied a succinct note in the programme book.

After the interval, Stanford’s early (opus 12) setting of the Evening Canticles was given with full orchestra and it sounded as fresh as ever with some excellent choral singing. Sir Andrew is never happier, I feel, than when directing this kind of English music – and it was followed by Andrew Nethsingha and Stephen Cleobury  respectively, directing the Choirs of King's and St John's Colleges in Harvey’s ethereal Come, Holy Ghost and Judith Weir’s more complex and demanding Ascending into Heaven – which obviously isn’t an easy journey. The sound of the boys' voices in the big acoustic of the Albert Hall was quite magical.

To end, Sir Andrew directed a very enjoyable performance of Saint-Saëns’s 3rdSymphony with Thomas Trotter at the organ. This is a fabulous piece and in the right hands, as tonight, it makes a big impression. The first movement was full of expectation, the climaxes built steadily and never allowed to become overblown. The slow movement was full of love and devotion, was never allowed to lapse into sentimentality and there was some very subtle playing from Trotter. The scherzo was all forward momentum, and quite dark too, with a suitably lighter trio section. Only in the finale was there a miscalculation where Trotter went all out, seeming to have literally pulled out all the stops, and at times he overwhelmed the orchestral sound – I listened to the recording on the BBC iPlayer when I got home and found the balance slightly better but nowhere near as good as it should have been:Sir Andrew should have been more forthright and demanded some restraint. But overall this was as good as it gets and it was most pleasurable and the massive climax at the end brought the house down. It was good to hear this old friend being treated to such an exuberant performance.

Bob Briggs


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