Proms: Britten weekend

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Heralded as one of Europe's finest chamber orchestras and certainly a popular favourite with the Proms audience, to judge by a Royal Albert Hall filled to capacity on Saturday evening, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, under their director Iona Brown, took some time to warm to their task in a programme of classic repertory items. Opening with Schubert's Fifth Symphony, they did not immediately achieve the rhythmic point and transparency of texture that has always been their director's principal aim. The bass lines seemed a little heavy in their marking and the wind section needed a more rounded sonority; at the same time there were ragged moments in the rhythmic ensemble. The expression was vigorous but a classical balance and precision were missing.

This Prom was the first of four over the weekend that amounted to a mini-festival of the music of Benjamin Britten, and we heard next the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Casually rated by the composer at the time of its composition (1943), it nevertheless remains one of the undoubted masterpieces of 20th-century music, and on this occasion benefited from the splendid singing of Ian Bostridge. Here was a lyric sensitivity to words that could be amplified into the most dramatic sense of atmosphere. One rarely hears such a gripping delivery of the highly testing "Dirge", while the virtuoso coloratura of "Queen and Huntress Chaste and Fair" was delivered brightly and without precariousness. Timothy Brown's horn obbligato was not perhaps typical of that outstanding artist's best playing, but yielded moments of fine poetic resonance.

Wagner and Mendelssohn make uneasy bed fellows on the socio-political front, but musically the Siegfried Idyll and Italian Symphony created an excellent structured second half. The lazy magic of Wagner's present for his wife and child, symphonically yet improvisatorily extended in endlessly fascinating thought and after-thought, led inevitably to Mendelssohn's electrifying celebration of the Mediterranean spirit. What could the composer possibly have found in need of revision in this dazzlingly textured and tumultuously innovative masterpiece, something which prevented him from ever publishing a work of apparently exemplary perfection?

Wagner's inspirational way of ruminating over his material - now lingering in some delightful harmonic or melodic sidepath, now impulsively moving on - requires a flexibility of thought and of tempo that was not always present in Iona Brown's reading, and the music's progress was sometimes rather plainly charted. There were pleasant moments, but the links in Wagner's structural chain were too stiffly forged.

There was better to come, however, in what was to prove the evening's best performance: Mendelssohn's Italian roused us brilliantly from Wagner's trance-like vision. Tempos in the outer movements were brisk and uninhibitedly sustained, while Mendelssohn's crackling orchestral polyphony leapt from the page.

Concert repeated on Thursday at 2pm on BBC Radio 3

With not much by way of a guiding context to Sunday's portion of the Britten weekend, you ended up making one up for yourself - and no bad thing at that. There was, after all, a sense of alpha and omega to the day's two Proms, with the assured and touching Hymn to the Virgin, written when Britten was 16 (and sung at his funeral), balancing his magnum opus in the choral line, the War Requiem of 1962. A Ceremony of Carols and Rejoice in the Lamb, given with the Hymn at an afternoon concert by the Westminster Abbey Choir under Martin Neary, neatly summed up the more popular Britten (though carols did seem odd in the sweltering summer heat), while Nicholas Daniel played a flawless account of the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe, showing Britten at the height of his powers as a master of the sensuous melodic line.

Before the evening concert, Proms lecturer Philip Brett delivered the latest report from his ongoing research on the theme of Britten the outsider and his emblematic role within 20th-century society. As for the War Requiem itself, it's a work that, like a select band of others on the subject of war and oppression, can claim in its own way to have altered 20th-century attitudes - an uncomfortable presence that perhaps in part explains why, for many, it is the pariah of Britten's output. It may no longer be true that you are either, literally, a little liberal or a little conservative in your reaction to the piece, but it can still arouse heated feelings. If, for some, the tweeness of the Ceremony of Carols or St Nicolas remains the hardest pill to swallow, the War Requiem, thanks to its very success, remains the litmus test of Brittenism.

In swinging the result to the positive, a good performance is, of course, a crucial factor. Sunday's, though not quite sounding the very depths of despair and reconciliation, was powerful by way of detail, both from its trio of soloists (soprano Eva Urbanova, tenor Hans Peter Blochwitz, baritone Thomas Hampson) and from the massed forces of the Westminster Abbey choristers, the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and the BBC Symphony Chorus, partnered by an orchestra fairly lean in ranks yet still sounding well. Conductor Andrew Davis took a broad yet cogent view of the work, leading his forces via a somewhat provisional opening and placid "Dies Irae" to lyrical radiance in the "Offertorium" and "Sanctus".

Individual moments stood out prominently, perhaps, because the epic view seemed harder to grasp in the Albert Hall sauna. The "Recordare" for chorus and Urbanova's account of the the "Lacrimosa" distilled two of several Faure-like moments in the piece. Blochwitz, light-voiced and theatrical, was ideal in "Move him into the sun", and an excellent foil for Hampson's vocal robustness in the final exchanges of "Let us sleep now". Through their joint artistry, the youthful anger of Wilfred Owen's verse and its sardonic rendering of Christian myth were strongly conveyed. Britten, after all, was expressing in this work not one but two artistic visions. It's not the least of the War Requiem's awkward virtues that, by and large, he managed so successfully.

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