Classical: Sparkle and gloom

PROMS 9-12 ROYAL ALBERT HALL/RADIO 3 LONDON

THURSDAY'S PROM, exploring one of this season's themes, the French Connection, offered a spectacular contrast between Boulez's slippery and extravagantly scored Notations and the sublime certainties of Messiaen's final blockbuster, Eclairs sur l'au-dela... - 11 highly varied movements deploying an equally outsize orchestra from a more idiosyncratic viewpoint, rather like an organist selecting exotic solo stops and combinations, or revelling in sonorous choruses. There are sections, such as the opening wind chorale, where the composer recycles old ideas but fails to give them new life. Yet no one but Messiaen would have dared something as simple and true as the quiet chords of D major intoned by horns and flutes in the seventh movement. And the serene song for strings garnished with a subliminal triangle concluding the work is indeed a glimpse of heaven. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis excelled themselves both in committed ensemble and poised demeanour.

In the middle of the programme, the mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby was a warm and voluptuous soloist in Ravel's exquisite triptych Sheherazade, setting poems of languorous decadence against an iridescent orchestral panoply, which shimmered irresistibly in the Albert Hall's cavernous acoustic.

The hall was packed for Friday's programme, dominated by Russian gloom. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3 lit up the middle in a beautifully turned performance by Imogen Cooper. Her tone was moist yet limpid, her address spirited but clean. From my seat in the left-hand stalls it was hard to hear the substance of the string textures in the first movement, while woodwind solos stuck out a mile, but that's not to blame the London Philharmonic or the conductor Mark Elder.

Rachmaninov's cantata Spring made a distinctly crepuscular and melancholy impression, considering its subject is about the reawakening of life, though its morbid poem speaks of betrayal and murderous thoughts on the part of the baritone soloist Garry Magee on very good form. For all their large numbers, the London Philharmonic Choir and London Choral Society made a rather small sound and the audience appeared to be underwhelmed.

Yet they clapped heartily enough after Shostakovich's unendurable Tenth Symphony (was it relief?) - desperate music, this, with its dour, interminable first movement (25 minutes long), its dum-diddle scherzo like a brainless forced march, and its trite upbeat ending.

The first half of Saturday's Mozart-Haydn Prom given by Collegium Musicum 90 under Richard Hickox was blighted by a run-of-the-mill performance of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony. The Minuet was bouncy, but all the other movements were at stodgy tempi and lacked intensity. The soprano Nancy Argenta sang "Exsultate jubilate" brightly enough, though, and returned in a robust performance of Haydn's "Nelson" Mass after the interval. Haydn rose above the troubled times of the work's Latin title (Missa in angustiis) in a spirit of joyous defiance, and as in all Viennese Classical Masses, musical elan tosses the words aloft as if they bore little weight. At least Haydn's unshakeable optimism swept away the doldrums.

Adrian Jack

Thursday's, Friday's and Saturday's Proms will be rebroadcast on Radio 3 at 2pm today, tomorrow and Wednesday respectively. www.bbc.co.uk/proms

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