You really had to be there...

Proms 46 & 47 | Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio 3
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The Independent Culture

It's a commonplace of Proms criticism that, if you want to hear the music, you listen on the radio. No complaints about the sound on Radio 3 for last Thursday's Prom, but in the London Philharmonic's performance of Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, something was lost in not being able to see the orchestra, divided into eight groups strung out across the platform. You don't have to see the unusual layout, but seeing it does clarify the music's melancholy progress.

It's a commonplace of Proms criticism that, if you want to hear the music, you listen on the radio. No complaints about the sound on Radio 3 for last Thursday's Prom, but in the London Philharmonic's performance of Pierre Boulez's Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, something was lost in not being able to see the orchestra, divided into eight groups strung out across the platform. You don't have to see the unusual layout, but seeing it does clarify the music's melancholy progress.

Nevertheless, conductor Mark Wigglesworth and his players got the right sense of inexorable motion within a seemingly static structure. The performance was minutes longer than Boulez's recording, but the stateliness felt, precisely, ritualistic rather than laboured.

Mahler's Fourth Symphony followed, in a reading that avoided the exaggeration the piece invites; but lack of exaggeration does not mean lack of character. In the finale, soprano Janice Watson was not the usual otherworldly infant, but a serious and mature woman, albeit one with occasional breathing problems.

That evening's late-night Prom had the BBC Singers in an all-American choral programme notable for William Billings' Lamentation over Boston, written while that city was under siege during the War of Independence, but sounding oddly modern.

Aaron Copland's In the Beginning seemed deceptively, ingratiatingly simple, and, during Creation's Seventh Day, appropriately languorous. Sarah Connolly was the authoritative soloist. The programme closed with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, showbiz exuberance and pious devotion in equal measure.

The Albert Hall was the place to be for Friday's Prom. I can't imagine that the audience's bated breath made itself felt on the radio. The attraction was Maxim Vengerov, not only playing the violin but also directing the English Chamber Orchestra.

Significantly, the loudest ovation was for a solo showpiece, Paganini's " South Bank Show" Caprice. So outrageous was Vengerov's prestidigitation that rapturous applause erupted halfway through the piece. Then he put his instrument aside to conduct Mozart's Symphony No 29.

I found his podium manner distracting, his beat unclear and his gestures exaggerated. The performance, though, was light, bright modern-instrument Mozart, so the players had no such problems, although the ECO can probably play the piece at the drop of a hat, celebrity conductor or no.

On Saturday, the European Union Youth Orchestra filled the platform, the young men conventionally dressed, the young women decked out in the blue of the European Union flag. It looked ghastly, but the playing was not affected.

Baritone Dietrich Henschel was totally captivating in early Mahler songs. A beanpole of a man, he has a naturally dramatic delivery, better at dark and intense than at jovial, but always involving.

The concert began and ended in orchestral overdrive: Strauss's Don Juan and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Predictable perhaps, but no doubt chosen by conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy for the solo showcases they contained. Clarinet and oboe in particular made the most of their moments in the spotlight. Ashkenazy clearly adored his players, and they responded in kind.

Radio 3 will rebroadcast Prom 46 (Vengerov) on Thursday at 2pm, and Prom 47 (Ashkenazy) on Friday at 2pm

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