The main theme at the BBC Proms this year is revisiting music the Proms have introduced – world premieres or first UK performances. Rather than digging out some of the hopefuls that promptly disappeared into oblivion, the focus is on works that went on to enjoy success, so this is really an exercise in the Proms patting themselves on the back.
Tuesday’s concert featured two of the successes. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem had its premiere in New York in 1941, but it was the Proms that introduced it to the UK a year later; and Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No.10 was given birth at the Proms in 1964, conducted by the composer Berthold Goldschmidt.
They go perfectly together. Britten composed the Sinfonia da Requiem in the US, where he had retreated during the second world war, and the mood of grim wartime events pressing on a sensitive man is palpable (Britten described the music as “like one of those awful dreams where one parades about the place naked”). The Mahler, sketched in 1910, similarly presents us with a world in decay, as emotional and political certainties disintegrate. (Mahler discovered while composing it that his wife, Alma, was having an affair.)
In the Britten, the conductor Gianandrea Noseda threw himself into the music, making wild, jabbing movements and leaping into the air. By and large the music leapt off the page with him in a rhythmically tense and driving performance, although the players of the BBC Philharmonic sounded tested to their limit.
Although Noseda always demands of his musicians utmost rhythmical exactness and rigour, the playing in the Mahler simply was not good enough to deliver the performance to which everybody aspired. The string sound was too thin, the brass too uncultured, the range of colours limited. Even if Cooke was responsible for most of the Tenth Symphony, it has passages as farsighted in their beauty as in any of the other nine. Even in this performance, the finale seemed the most heavenly movement that Mahler never wrote.
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