Nights of poise and Passion

Proms 48 & 49 | Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Leonard Slatkin becomes Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in October, so this time next year he'll be preparing for the Last Night of the Proms. He got some handy training last Monday, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in a rip-roaring performance of Aaron Copland's Third Symphony - his last concert as the Philharmonia's Principal Guest Conductor.

Leonard Slatkin becomes Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in October, so this time next year he'll be preparing for the Last Night of the Proms. He got some handy training last Monday, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in a rip-roaring performance of Aaron Copland's Third Symphony - his last concert as the Philharmonia's Principal Guest Conductor.

The symphony, first performed in 1946, embodies the era's surging optimism. This is Copland in Big Country, rhetorical panache occasionally shading into bombast. His Fanfare for the Common Man is incorporated into the final movement, and as the piece opens its huge vistas suggest a soundtrack for a John Ford Western. Even moments of fragile melancholy seem on the verge of a grand gesture.

It's stirring stuff, and Slatkin and his orchestra did not hold back. Nothing crass, of course; Slatkin is something of an aristocrat, and these are refined players. Yet, as the symphony galloped towards its climax, the percussionists battered merry hell out of their instruments, and the whole orchestra and audience strained for release. It duly came, and Slatkin's exhaustion mingled with exhilaration spoke for us all. He'll do fine at the Last Night.

Earlier, he'd conducted a poised performance of Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto. This is not your typical battle between soloist and orchestra; rather, the orchestra seems to vibrate in sympathy with the violin's outpouring. Soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann lacks nothing in virtuosity, intellect and feeling - he got the music's lyricism while also suggesting something troubled under the warmth.

The previous evening's Prom was a sparsely attended blockbuster, probably only the second performance in Britain of Franz Schmidt's oratorio The Book with Seven Seals. Before the first note sounded, the air coursing the mighty Albert Hall organ pipes issued a warning of thunder to come. Yet although Schmidt assembled his text from The Book of Revelation, the piece radiates optimism rather than terror. It was first performed in Vienna in 1938, only weeks after the Nazi Anschluss, and Schmidt seems not to have been dismayed at what the future held.

Franz Welser-Most, a consistent champion of Schmidt's music, secured a performance that was operatically gripping throughout its two-hours. Proceedings are narrated by St John, a part so demanding that tenor Stig Andersen required four bottles of water to sustain him. He performed with heroic passion and finesse, matched by Timothy Bond's improvisatory freedom at the organ, while Laszlo Polgar was a Voice of God straight from central casting; stern, sonorous and authoritative. The BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus sang as if the Devil was at their heels, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra played with such authority that it might have performed the piece a dozen times before.

Radio 3 will rebroadcast Prom 48 (Schmidt) next Monday 2pm; and Prom 49 (Copland) next Tuesday, 2pm

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