All quiet on the Albert Hall front

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THE SILENCE lasted 18 seconds. That's a long time for the BBC, but it was still only just enough. Just enough to heave an enormous sigh. The Proms audience, given to drowning the last note of any performance with raucous cheers, was struck dumb by a pianissimo Amen. Even Brian Wright, the announcer, whose raison d'etre is sound-continuity, welcomed the silence.

Britten's War Requiem (R3) must always have that effect. My old recording of it is seldom played, for fear that it should become too familiar, that its impact should be diminished. In the Albert Hall last Sunday, even via the wobbly VHF signal which brings us R3, it was utterly, blindingly magnificent. Written 50 years after the outbreak of the First World War, this performance was given on the 56th anniversary of the declaration of the Second, in a summer given over to celebrating half a century of peace.

These figures add an ironic resonance to the already seismic irony of the piece. Its frame is the solemn architecture of the Latin Requiem Mass, with its dread of judgement, its supplication for mercy, its confidence that flights of angels will lead departed souls to paradise. Within the mysterious majesty of the Mass are settings of poems by Wilfred Owen, shot dead by a sniper a week before the Armistice. The tension of Owen's poetry, strung taut between rigour of form and the impassioned intensity of grief, is redoubled by Britten's music. The Latin rang out ancient, cold and bright from the boys of St Paul's Cathedral choir; the shrill, demented strings whined above the embattled brass and stuttering timpani of the RPO; the titanic nightmare of "Strange Meeting" was sung, as is traditional, by soloists from once-warring nations. Andreas Schmidt and John Mark Ainsley gave it, you felt, all they'd got. In charge of everything, keeping the tempi dynamic and the dynamics shattering, presenting extremes of emotion while side-stepping emotionalism, Jane Glover was in complete control. Which is more than you could say for me.

Another anniversary, another poet, another composer. This time it was the first performance of a cantata written in Northern Ireland in 1921, just after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and discovered only now, having been lost for decades, in the week that saw the first birthday of the current cease-fire, amid renewed anxieties about a permanent peace. Norman Hay was a country boy, taking lessons in composing by post from Huddersfield, but The Wind Among the Reeds (R3), his setting of Yeats's poems, is superb, way ahead of his time, with echoes of Butterworth in its lyricism and percussive suggestions of Britten in the orchestration. The best piece was a setting of "Had I the World's Embroidered Cloth". The Ulster Orchestra is performing magnificently, as I was lucky enough to hear at the King's Lynn festival earlier this year. As Stephen Roberts sang the last marvellous words, their leader, Anna Colman, took her violin soaring up to almost inaudible heights. Anyone who heard it will always think of that melody when they hear "tread softly, because you tread upon my dreams".

Norman Hay was once allowed to conduct his music at a Prom, long ago. Perhaps things were easier then. Nigel Wilkinson's A Day at the Proms (R3), eavesdropped on the business of producing just one concert in the world's largest music festival, one Thursday in July. The whole day was bedevilled by a little "problemette" with the piano. The temperamental pianist Grigory Sokolov was not happy with it. "He threw a bit of a wobbly," we heard. "Well, a mini one, and he's stormed off and says he's not coming back." You'd hate to be around when he threw a major one. Meanwhile, the hall was filling up. Would Sokolov appear? We agonised until the last few moments, when Rachmaninov's splendid third concerto came thundering through. The piano sounded fine to me.

Martin Buckley offered us advice this week on How to Get to Heaven (WS), which he called a scouting mission for the greater journey ahead. He discovered, encouragingly, that the major religions agree that "the outline of a reverent and blissful heaven can be traced upon our earthly lives". A Hindu summed it up: be good, do good. A Sufi said that the fewer needs you have, the nearer you come to God, while a good Buddhist asks himself, endearingly, how can I help?

Had you wanted to speed up the journey, you could have visited Banff in 1980, when the town was terrorised by a huge and murderous grizzly bear. But anyone meeting a bear and wanting to survive should ignore suggestions that he Run Up a Tree, and Other Bad Advice (R4). A black bear would follow him up, but a grizzly would simply bend the tree and harvest him. Noah Richler's gripping account could be summarised by the advice: if in doubt, run like hell.

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