Proms 39/40: BBCSO/Brabbins/BBCSSO/Volkov, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Father-and-son Apollo and Orpheus wove their way through everything in Proms 39 and 40, barring a pleasant but unremarkable exercise in string textures by Radiohead star Johnny Greenwood.

The string textures of Stravinsky’s ‘Apollo’, with which the BBC Symphony Orchestra continued their concert under Martyn Brabbins’ direction, were as intimate and tender as could be wished, if somewhat lacking in precision. But the pulse so strong that one could easily imagine the dances this neo-classical masterpiece was conceived to accompany.

But this wasn’t why the hall had such a buzz: Harrison Birtwistle’s seldom-performed but subterraneanly omnipresent opera ‘The Mask of Orpheus’ was what had drawn the crowd, even if all they would hear was Act 2. ‘The Arches’ was its title, indicating an imaginary aqueduct spanning scenes from Orpheus’s voyage to the underworld in search of Euridice. The instruments on stage would be enhanced by electronic effects created three decades ago at the IRCAM studios in Paris; there would also be a second conductor.

And if the sight that greeted us - percussion in spades - suggested volume, that was what we got: I have never known the Albert Hall resound so powerfully, and to so huge a range of effects, including those of sampled harps. When Hell opened and the Furies sang, electronic and acoustic percussion ripped through the air; when the hero hanged himself, the drums and tam-tams seemed to roll for ever round the hall, forcing us to listen ever more closely as they went.

And that was only the instruments. The human voices, necessarily amplified, became a constantly-changing stream: Claron McFadden’s bat-out-of-hell Hecate, Andrew Slater’s Charon out-booming the brass, and the alternating singers for each principal role were beyond praise. One didn’t feel any need for staging, because this work is so profoundly about singers and musicians. As for what it all ‘meant’, I’m not sure Peter Zinovieff’s opaque libretto was much of a guide, nor even the programme-note which modishly suggested that this Orpheus was ‘an eloquent spokesman for our alienated, late-modern selves’. Who cares? That it should be an extraordinary piece of music was justification enough.

If Brabbins’s Stravinsky was less than ideal, Ivan Volkov’s on the following night was woeful. ‘Orpheus’ is a miraculously subtle work whose drama lies in its fine detail, but Volkov limply let it all drift by, as he did too much of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, plus four fine soloists, saving the day).