Proms: Redemption day

CBSO, BBC NATIONAL CHORUS OF WALES, BBC NATIONAL ORCHESTRA OF WALES MAHLER/MESSIAEN ROYAL ALBERT HALL
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The Independent Culture
NOT SO much a prayer, more a cry from the depths, souls in purgatory: two bass tubas and trombone in solemn penitence. The call to judgement comes quickly in the mighty roar of the tam-tam, like some cosmic Concorde; a massed chorus of woodwinds carry the word of God in the song of the Amazonian uirapura bird; and Resurrection rejoices in the beating of many gongs and a dazzling panoply of brass. The here and hereafter according to Olivier Messiaen. His Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum was the begin ning, not the end of Wednesday's Prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth. And a telling counterpart it made to Mahler's alternative view of life and afterlife in his more painterly "Resurrection" Symphony. That's a lot of redemption for one evening, but the packed hall showed it's still a message we want - and need - to hear.

Both works need the Albert Hall; rejoice in it. Wigglesworth's somewhat vain attempt to observe silence as part of the music between the five movements of the Messiaen was met with the usual influx of latecomers and coughers. Audiences still cannot conceive of silence as an active part of the musical process. Silence is uncomfortable, silence is nothingness, a break in the process, a cue to move, cough, talk, regardless of the necessity, or otherwise, so to do. Silence is not golden. But it is, it is. Silence is everything in Messiaen's great scheme of things. The great resonances of his gongs and brasses bleed, and die, into silence. The aforementioned roar of the tam-tam - a simple, but mighty, crescendo (and a throwback to Mahler's finale) - is only effective because of what happens to the sound after the player has ceased contact with the instrument. The ear is led to an altogether higher plain. The sound vanishes, but the music goes on, and on. Wigglesworth, if not all of his audience, appreciated that.

Mahler admittedly makes it easier for us. His silences are part of a more recognisable theatricality. It's easy to forget, and hard to believe, that the Second Symphony is a 19th-century piece (just), so radical are its sonic and spiritual advances. And yet conductors - including Mark Wigglesworth - are still inclined, perhaps unwittingly, to homogenize his music, to minimise his tactical shocks, to paper over some of the cracks, to make more comfortable, more accessible, that which is not. You take Mahler at his word or not at all. Isn't the momentous climax of the first movement more terrifying if you don't make a ritardando (none is marked) into the battering chord sequence which marks out its moment of truth? Isn't it a fact that Mahler deliberately doesn't make a comfortable transition from one tempo extreme to the next? This moment should feel like a chasm suddenly opening up beneath your feet. Wigglesworth, like so many (they should all listen to Bernstein's recording), missed the point.

And yet the beauty of his performance (and that of his orchestra) cannot be denied. Sensitive phrasing, magical pianissimi , a pizzicato variant in the second movement so airy as to be almost intangible, a trio of close harmony trumpets rosily bucolic in the third (again too rosily bucolic, you might argue - this is rustic music, coarse and slightly vulgar). Mezzo soprano Jard van Nes was deeply disappointing in the Urlicht, the still, small voice of faith failing to materialise from her poorly sustained, uneven production (far too many breaths), but "Judgement Day", if not exactly apocalyptic (the march of the undead needs more trenchancy), was impressively staged with horns and trumpets sounding across the upper galleries and an offstage band that really did get closer. And besides, from the moment the chorus enters, on a breath and a prayer, right through to the overwhelming peroration, nothing much matters but that you are there, and grateful.

Edward Seckerson

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