Nothing succeeds at the Proms like excess. There was a point in the massive early-evening concert on Tuesday when two conductors were busy directing multiple orchestras, the choir was singing, an organ and two pianos were playing – and then over on the far side I suddenly spotted a lone woman twanging away on an instrument that could neither be seen nor heard. What was she doing? Had anybody else noticed?
The work was Ives’s Symphony No 4, a Proms spectacular if ever there were one, and it formed part of an ambitious programme also featuring a premiere by Sam Hayden and Bernstein’s Symphony No 2, “The Age of Anxiety”. Not content with that, the Proms offered a late-night concert afterwards with the first performance in modern times of a mass for 60 solo voices by Alessandro Striggio, a Renaissance equivalent of Ives’s early-20th-century overkill.
The Ives is not the rarity it used to be. Sakari Oramo did it as part of a complete Ives symphony cycle in Birmingham a couple of years ago with a brighter grip on its colours than we had here, but the BBC Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson created an almost spiritual effect in its final pages. The lone woman, incidentally, had been playing the theremin.
Bernstein’s Symphony No 2, a rarer bird these days that deserves wider recognition, was performed with understated eloquence by Robertson and the solo pianist Orli Shaham. The premiere of Hayden’s Substratum – or part of it, as the BBC shamefacedly announced that there had not been time to rehearse the entire piece – came across as a roughly hewn block of undifferentiated sound. The rest is promised “at the earliest opportunity”.
In the late-night Prom the new Striggio Mass proved a disappointment. No piling on of performers can make up for a lack of thematic and harmonic interest. What really impressed was the excellence of the Tallis Scholars and BBC Singers under conductors Peter Phillips and Davitt Moroney, especially in Tallis’s much-loved Spem in alium – only 40 solo voices, but even at the Proms that can be enough.
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