Music: Porgy and Bess get Marshalled

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GEORGE GERSHWIN's Porgy and Bess is always likely to pull crowds, and at the Albert Hall last Saturday the queues stretched round several blocks. Small wonder, for this concert-performance Prom featured a line- up virtually identical to that of the hugely popular 1986 Glyndebourne production. With Willard White and Cynthia Haymon as Porgy and Bess and Cynthia Clarey as Serena, it seemed as if the only person missing was Sir Simon Rattle.

In his place was Wayne Marshall, who sang Jasbo Brown in Rattle's EMI recording, a role which he also took at the Albert Hall, deftly stepping down from the podium to rattle off some virtuosic blues on an indistinct honky-tonk piano. At the start of the evening, Marshall was presented with the BBC Music Magazine 1998 Artist of the Year Award. The ensuing performance showed why. With the soloists front-of-stage (behind Marshall) and the orchestra and 150-strong Bournemouth Symphony Chorus further back, the ensemble could easily have become ragged, but Marshall effortlessly held these forces together, jiving on the podium and constantly changing pace between interludes and songs. His task was doubtless made easier by an extremely well-trained chorus, who sang with enthusiasm, exuberance and fine articulation, and an orchestra and cast who have this music in their blood. At the same time, Marshall gave the soloists real freedom and the show almost felt as if it were being improvised before our eyes.

Though a concert performance, David Edwards's skilled direction enabled much of the drama to come through, and the familiar numbers never failed to please. It seems unfair to single anyone out from a peerless cast, but that's what the audience did: Cynthia Clarey gave such an impassioned rendition of Serena's "Ole Man Sorrow", hitting the nerve of human tragedy which pervades so much of the score, that she brought the house down.

Daniele Gatti and Osmo Vanska are already familiar to Prom audiences, but this year they came to the podium with reputations enhanced by releases - of, respectively, recordings of Mahler and Sibelius - that rank among the finest available. Both concerts were reminders of the quiet revolution a truly "resident" conductor can achieve.

The Royal Philharmonic seemed a little ill-at-ease at the start of Stravinsky's Jeu de Cartes, with some imprecise entries and ensemble, but Gatti quickly asserted his authority and the performance culminated in a scintillating close. Next came the London premiere of Britten's newly discovered Double Concerto (1932). With the eloquent advocates of Tamsin Little (violin) and Lars Anders Tomter (viola), its case was firmly made. This three- movement work, whose first draft Britten completed just weeks before his Op 1 Sinfonietta, reveals much of the influences of his teachers, John Ireland and Frank Bridge: a rich post-romantic idiom combines with the 19-year-old Britten's intimacy of style and his ear for string sonorities. There is little true concerto writing here. The soloists participated in a chamber-music dialogue which found them intuitively together both with each other and with the orchestra, who revelled in pianissimo string textures of the utmost delicacy.

There was further evidence of the remarkable renaissance of this orchestra in an assured performance of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. Gatti's Mahlerian credentials were again on show in the Scherzo, which he rendered with impeccable accuracy and articulation; while throughout he reined in the tempo, refused to rush to the climaxes, and maintained an uncompromisingly bleak and merciless atmosphere that finally imploded in the coda of the finale.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under their chief conductor, Osmo Vanska, received similarly enthusiastic ovations for their performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. The introduction to the first movement seemed perfunctory at first, but this soon revealed itself to be a characteristic of Vanska's interpretation, in which a broad symphonic sweep was brought about through brisk tempi and a complete lack of self-indulgence. While the grandeur of the first movement and the pathos of the Allegretto were clearly communicated, the Scherzo and Finale seemed too fast. The orchestra responded magnificently, with clean articulation and clear phrasing despite the muddy acoustic; but some flexibility of tempo was still needed to allow the music to breathe.

Such freedom had been evident in the first half, with Sibelius's impressionistic tone poem The Oceanides shaped phrase by phrase, building powerfully to its climax. More impressive still was the London premiere of Thea Musgrave's Songs for a Winter's Evening (1995), and one wondered why Vanska chose to finish with Elgar's charming but ineffectual The Wand of Youth - Suite No 2. Composed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Robert Burns's death, Musgrave's careful selection of seven of Burns's poems provides a clear narrative thread, charting the sexual awakening of a young girl. The incorporation of the melodies to which Burns wrote his poems, whether in the foreground or embedded in the texture, gave a loose tonal framework which Musgrave was able to exploit in depicting the emotional voyage. The BBC SSO again exhibited versatility and virtuosity in a highly exposed score, while Lisa Milne, the soprano, responded with increasing maturity and a rich variety of colour, from the Straussian warmth of the second song, though the bleak pessimism of "Ca' the yowes" and "Ye banks and braes", to the final mystical apotheosis.

In a late Prom, the King's Consort and Choir, directed by Robert King, presented Lo Spozalizio, a reconstruction of the Venetian secular and sacred music that might have accompanied the lavish ceremonies of the annual "marriage" of the city to the Adriatic. Vocal and instrumental dexterity abounded in a concert that brought together many of the masterpieces of the Venetian High Renaissance. And even if much of the programming was the result of scholarly conjecture, the contextualisation proved

evocative, with performances of huge aplomb and finesse.

Michael White is away.

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