The First Night of the Proms review – moments of beauty amid the fury

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The Guardian

The new Proms season opened with Verdi’s Requiem, with Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the combined forces of the BBC Symphony and Crouch End Festival Choruses. The choice of work was significant. Large-scale choral and orchestral music is notably prominent this year after the constraints and restrictions of the previous two seasons, and future concerts include such varied repertory as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D Major and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. The contrast between last year’s Last Night, with its socially distant chorus of just 37, and the massed choirs now assembled on the platform could not have been more pronounced.

The choral singing was unquestionably the thrilling centre of a sombre interpretation very much focused on humanity’s confrontation with the awesome majesty of an inscrutable God. Oramo powered his way through it all with considerable ferocity, for the most part swift in speed, urgent in mood, and notably extreme in dynamics, from the hushed opening string phrases, which seemed to slide imperceptibly out of silence into sound, to the fanfares and terrifying convulsions of the Dies Irae.

Just occasionally, perhaps, he pushed too hard: the elation of the Sanctus, for instance, wasn’t always matched by ideal clarity of counterpoint. Elsewhere, there were moments of notable beauty amid the fury of it all, above all in the Recordare, when the speeds slowed and time briefly stood still. The playing was often tremendous, the choral singing superb in its precision and detail, with the choirs marvellously alert throughout to Oramo’s sense of drama and dread.

The Proms may be back to strength but Covid is, of course, very much still with us, and the day before the concert, the scheduled tenor soloist, Freddie de Tommaso, tested positive and had to withdraw. His replacement was David Junghoon Kim, warm of tone and appealingly elegant: his soft singing in both Ingemisco and Hostias was particularly fine.

The bass-baritone Kihwan Sim sounded sonorously hieratic, his lofty detachment contrasting with mezzo Jennifer Johnston’s declamatory intensity, sometimes achieved at the price of some forcing in her lower register and the occasional moment of effort at the top of her voice.

The soprano, meanwhile, was the wonderful Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. This is an exceptional voice, sumptuously in tone, marvellously controlled throughout its range. Her singing combined beauty with great depth of feeling and was outstanding throughout – a great artist.

July 16, 2022 at 03:58AM Tim Ashley

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