Prom 61/Prom 57, Royal Albert Hall, London

Sometimes you have to leave a place to see it properly
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't privately indulged in compiling their own Desert Island Discs. It's an endlessly diverting pastime, not least because narrowing down a lifetime's favourites to only eight is virtually impossible. Brahms, Beethoven, Sarah Vaughan, Sainte-Colombe, Bach, Purcell, Schumann, Buxtehude, Wagner, Schütz, Puccini, Charpentier, Joni Mitchell, Handel, Couperin... See the problem? And I haven't even got to Berg or The B52s. So how to choose a handful from 100? For former performers - professional or amateur - the obvious temptation is to leave out the music you know like the back of your hand. Which is why Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers did not, until Prom 61, feature on my list. I thought I knew it too intimately to need any record but memory. Actually, I'd never heard it before.

I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't privately indulged in compiling their own Desert Island Discs. It's an endlessly diverting pastime, not least because narrowing down a lifetime's favourites to only eight is virtually impossible. Brahms, Beethoven, Sarah Vaughan, Sainte-Colombe, Bach, Purcell, Schumann, Buxtehude, Wagner, Schütz, Puccini, Charpentier, Joni Mitchell, Handel, Couperin... See the problem? And I haven't even got to Berg or The B52s. So how to choose a handful from 100? For former performers - professional or amateur - the obvious temptation is to leave out the music you know like the back of your hand. Which is why Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers did not, until Prom 61, feature on my list. I thought I knew it too intimately to need any record but memory. Actually, I'd never heard it before.

Though certain idiosyncrasies in Robert King's interpretation chafed - a tendency to tendentious rallentandi in Dixit Dominus and Laetatus sum, some unusual calls on tutti versus ripieni in Laudate Pueri, and a peculiar doubling of altos and sopranos for Lauda Jerusalem - The King's Consort's Vespers was, for me, one of the two highlights of this year's Proms; the other being Das Rheingold. After an inauspicious start that saw the instrumental fanfares of Domine ad adjuvandum disappear in the klieg-light dazzle of a 40-strong choir, and a somewhat tentative opening to Dixit Dominus, soprano soloists Carolyn Sampson and Rebecca Outram set a level of clarity, incision and artful nuance in Virgam virtuti that was to colour the remainder of the performance. In ideal circumstances, I'd favour smaller forces than these but entries such as "Omnes" - in Audi Coelum - had an impact and vibrancy that a smaller group of singers would be unlikely to achieve in the Royal Albert Hall.

So, is bigger always better at the Proms? Maybe not. The most intriguing aspect of Prom 61 was how incredibly flattering this normally callous acoustic was of the more private moments in the Vespers: Charles Humphries' verse (sung from the gallery) in Ave Maris Stella, Charles Daniels' exquisite shaping of "clamabant, clamabant, clamabant" in Duo Seraphim, Sampson and Outram's pin-pricked diminuendo on "averte oculos tuos" in Pulchra Es, and the soft, dying falls of "Benedicta es Virgo Maria". Details from the three chitarrones were crystal clear even in the intoxicating tapestry of the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, and the ravishing duets for violins, sackbuts, recorders and cornetts in the pastoral idyll of the Magnificat had an immediacy and seductiveness that belied the vast spaces they were having to project across. Hence the first 16 Indian summer bars of Deposuit potentes de sede - sublimely played by cornettists Bruce Dickey and Jamie Savan - brought tears to my eyes for reasons beyond nostalgia. Sometimes you have to leave a place to see it properly, and I realise that familiarity had made me take for granted the complexity and variety and sheer beauty of this work. Calling card or no calling card, Monteverdi did not have to lavish so much invention on a Vespers setting. That he did, and that we were able to hear so much of that invention in this performance, is a truly wonderful thing.

"Isn't this horrid?" hissed the woman next to me; snapping open her paperback and beginning to read after barely 10 seconds of the Orchestre de Paris's performance of Stanze (Prom 57) under Christoph Eschenbach. No! Now, I'm happy to admit that my tastes are atypical but I can't help feeling that my neighbour missed out by not listening just a little harder to Berio's cartoon collage of verismo, jazz and locomotive sound before dismissing it; however faint and wheezy the delivery of baritone soloist Andreas Schmidt and however cautious the orchestra's negotiation of its myriad and gleaming strata. (No London Sinfonietta, they.) Still, at least she bothered to turn up - unlike the several hundred others conspicuous by their absence until the start of Das Lied von der Erde. Perhaps they'd anticipated the extraordinary, velvet assurance of mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef's Der Abschied and the bright yearning of tenor Anthony Dean Griffey's Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde? Perhaps they knew that Eschenbach is a Mahlerian of significant potential and did not wish to dilute the experience? Or perhaps they just couldn't face the Berio? Either way, this was an orchestra - and audience - transformed by repertoire; with glorious playing from the two clarinettists, a deliciously framed string sound and a blend between woodwind and brass of exceptionally high quality. Not horrid at all.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

Comments