Prom 50/ Prom 49/ Proms 47 & 48, Royal Albert Hall, London

How to shrink the Albert Hall
Click to follow

In Wednesday's Prom 50 with conductor Mark Wigglesworth and the London Philharmonic Orchestra - a team who, courtesy of Glyndebourne's Bohème and Figaro revivals, have spent most of this summer together - Christine Brewer again demonstrated the qualities that made her Isolde with Donald Runnicles and the BBC Symphony Orchestra one of those performances where the listener feels truly honoured to have been there. With the possible exception of Jessye Norman (but minus Norman's idiosyncrasies of temperament), Brewer is the only female singer capable of making the Royal Albert Hall seem as intimate a space as the Wigmore Hall, and certainly the only soprano who can make Berg's 1928 orchestration of the Seven Early Songs feel as direct, innocent and private as his earlier version for voice and piano.

With any orchestral song cycle the danger is that a singer will instead deliver a series of quasi-operatic arias. This was not the case here. Having spent some time trying to sift through the many qualities that make Brewer's artistry so special - the Shaker elegance of her legato, the honesty of her tone, the acute textual awareness - the two crucial elements seem to be these: in the first instance there is her diction; the precision, clarity and absolute unfussiness of which are beyond compare. In the second, her ability to remain comfortable and focused and, therefore, to make her audience comfortable and focused too. Make no mistake, power and heft are there should Brewer need them. Point is, it's lieder and she doesn't. The angularities of Berg's post-Romantic vocal lines - so often presented as an arch display of faux-intellectualism on the part of the performer - were properly sensuous and organic; his subtle cadential tributes to Brahms beautifully underlined. And at no point in the songs did it seem that Brewer was singing at full tilt. Her high As in Die Nachtigall were sung with the relaxed, nourished ease of a singer at mezzo forte. Her sotto voce cries of "Gib acht! Gib acht!" seemed to coax the walls of the auditorium inwardslike a mother's arms around a child; the cabaret quirks of Berg's post-Wozzeck percussion shuddering outwards from her tone.

Should Wigglesworth conduct Wozzeck, I'd be first in the queue for tickets. But Brahms? I think not. Wigglesworth's reading of the First Symphony suffered badly from his miscalculated decision to apply the same, expansive gestures he employed so successfully in the Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser - complete with a signal lack of subdivisions - and displayed none of the latter's sensitive balancing of the inner voices. This was Brahms delivered as a fat, texture-less slab of sound; badly balanced, under-articulated, under-argued and bearing all the marks of a piece too rapidly dusted-off from the LPO's standard repertoire shelf. Suffice to say there was none of the precision, character and delicacy orchestra and conductor gave to Berg or Wagner, and what with sour tuning from the clarinets, too much timp and a general tattiness of attack from the upper strings - which can't make sense of this symphony's dialogue unless placed on opposite sides of the platform - the ravishing tone of the LPO's flutes was the only enjoyable aspect of their blunt, bargain-basement Brahms.

So from ravishing flutes to a ravishing oboe; in this case the principal oboist of the European Union Youth Orchestra in Prom 49. Sadly the programme for their performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony under Sir Bernard Haitink listed each section alphabetically so I don't know whether the soloist in the scherzo was Roberto Baltar Gordon, Adrian Wilson or Hans Wolters. Whoever it was, he was utterly fantastic - musically mature, subtle, sweet and open of sound - and a player that any grown-up orchestra would be very lucky to get. But this is the point of the EUYO. Like their criminally underfunded yet sensational gut-strings counterparts, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, they are drawn from a pool of impossibly good prodigies from 15 countries; not least their charismatic British leader, Clare Duckworth. Does this make for a sensational performance? Actually, no. (Even allowing for EUYO's luxurious rehearsal periods, the rapid turnover of players forbids that unanimity of approach and musical identity that the great orchestras build up over years of working together.) It makes for an exciting performance, well-managed by Haitink - whose job it was to build a cohesive narrative structure from players visibly high on the sheer thrill of separate blocks of suspensions - if short on profundity. Inspiring? In terms of the future of Europe's orchestras - sadly still 99.9 per cent white, if EUYO is anything to go by, but at least 50 per cent female - and the impact that this generation of players will inevitably have on institutions like the Vienna Philharmonic, most definitely.

Unsurprisingly it fell to Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra to show how even a capricious, pot-bellied acoustic like that of the Royal Albert Hall can be bent to delicious transparency, twice over. In Monday's faultless, exhilarating, intensely intelligent and dynamically daring double-Prom 47 and 48 performance of Berlioz's Les Troyens, with a chorus on top Francophone form and an excellent cast who were largely reprising their Barbican performances of two years ago, Davis and the LSO showed just how potent cheap music - yes, still only £4 for the Prommers, though in this case £8 - can be, and, perhaps, that some operas are simply better heard in concert. Superb.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

Comments