Entente cordiale on a massive scale

Proms 12 & 13 | Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio 3
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The Independent Culture

Prom planners opt for themes - this year Bach, Copland, Shostakovich, Sullivan, Weill, Youth, God and Music. But there's one that seems unacknowledged: "very large work", to which the Royal Albert Hall is ideally suited. Last week we heard Shostakovich with an orchestra fielding six flutes and nine horns, massive enough perhaps, but small beer beside Berlioz' monumental Grand messe des morts, which includes 20 kettledrums, four tam-tams, eight bassoons, 13 horns and four brass bands. Assembled on Sunday were 600 performers - 150 instrumentalists, 450 choristers and one solo tenor, Stuart Neill.

Prom planners opt for themes - this year Bach, Copland, Shostakovich, Sullivan, Weill, Youth, God and Music. But there's one that seems unacknowledged: "very large work", to which the Royal Albert Hall is ideally suited. Last week we heard Shostakovich with an orchestra fielding six flutes and nine horns, massive enough perhaps, but small beer beside Berlioz' monumental Grand messe des morts, which includes 20 kettledrums, four tam-tams, eight bassoons, 13 horns and four brass bands. Assembled on Sunday were 600 performers - 150 instrumentalists, 450 choristers and one solo tenor, Stuart Neill.

Such a work is almost impossible to perform without breaking several banks, and is thus rarely heard. But under the heading "Youth, God and Music", the planners spotted a winner. Sir Colin Davis has embarked on a year-long "Berlioz Odyssey" with the London Symphony Orchestra. But fully professional forces - charging fully professional fees - might, in the numbers required by Berlioz's Requiem, have begun to dent even the new government arts bounty. But Davis approached the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, who approached the Paris Conservatoire, and the two joined forces.

An "entente cordiale" of massive proportions was the result. On Sunday, for the first time ever, conservatoire orchestras appeared at the Proms. If the achievement was wholly magnificent, more importantly the occasion for these young performers will remain unforgettable, to realise one of the 19th century's most original works, conducted with cool authority by arguably the greatest Berlioz conductor of our time.

After Sunday's grandeur the concert on Monday came as a contrast; youth and unusualness remained, but the scale was reduced. In an elegantly planned programme, Arthur Sullivan was the central curio. The "serious" Sullivan has been completely eclipsed by "G&S", but in the two works aired, such neglect seems unwarranted. His Overture Macbeth was written for Henry Irving's lavish production of the play that ran for over 150 performances, and is stirring stuff. Sir Charles Mackerras who was conducting the BBC SO, is responsible for the reconstruction of Sullivan's Cello Concerto, an earlier work (1866) that was thought lost after a fire destroyed the score and parts in the Sixties. Scored for a small, classical orchestra, it's an attractive, lightweight piece in three movements, of barely 15 minutes' duration. The first movement conjures up Schumann, while the second resembles an Italianate aria for cello with delicate pizzicato accompaniment. It's only in the third that the cello has any real virtuoso demands, with almost continuous rapid passage work. The youthful Paul Watkins was an admirable soloist.

After Schubert (ballet music from Rosamunde) and more Shakespeare from Mendelssohn (the overture A Midsummer Night's Dream), Schumann's D minor Symphony ended the concert in an affectionate performance that was both finely paced and fleet of foot. Mackerras and players exuded enjoyment.

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