Prom 1: BBC SO / Norrington, Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 18 July 2005
Certainly not the swashbuckling Berlioz overture, The Corsair. Guest conductor Sir Roger Norrington drew from the BBC Symphony Orchestra some of the most vivid, fleet-footed playing that this often phlegmatic orchestra has produced in living memory. How Norrington does it is presumably down to rehearsal tricks, since his flamboyant gestures a legendary distraction.
The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto was equally lithe and exact, with an eager collaborator in the soloist Janine Jansen. The habit of dropping almost to silence, mesmerising the first time, gave her diminishing returns, but the transparency of the final movement, helped by imaginative attention to orchestral detail, was something to relish.
After this, the concert's character changed. Norrington spoke of the concert's dedication in memory to the London bomb victims with eloquence and wit. Elgar's overture Cockaigne, he said - "the land of the Cockney, not the land of cocaine" - seems to celebrate the sturdiness and tolerance of London. Fortunately the music needs no apology, though this performance was unexpectedly staid. Nothing understated about the Tippett. This complex, troubled and humane oratorio, sparked off when a young Jew assassinated a Nazi official, takes in abuse of power, revenge and reprisal, and a meditation on human fallibility that implores us to accept our own dark side in order to cope with anybody else's. Tippett's text is an honest British muddle, and the music follows suit - tracts of ingenious but nondescript grey, and sudden great bursts of light.
The first of these, an agonised tango-like lament for solo tenor, gave Ian Bostridge a lyrical if rather strait-laced chance to shine. Indra Thomas and Christine Rice sang warmly, but it took Sir Willard White's bass to add the necessary dimension of implacability. The biggest moments are inspirational settings of five spirituals, which the BBC Symphony Chorus delivered with a compelling single-mindedness.
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