The Organ

2004 Proms

Royal Albert Hall, London

The First Night of the 2004 Henry Wood Promenade Concerts - to give them their correct title - was given over almost entirely to British music, though both Bach and the revivified organ sneaked in at the start in the guise of the Toccata from the familiar D minor Toccata and Fugue. Martin Neary was at the helm and I have to admit that the instrument sounded far more exciting than it had done three weeks earlier at the celebratory events for the re-inauguration of the Willis - no let us be honest - Harrision organ. Perhaps that is part of the trouble. It really isn't a Willis these days. The sounds - and there are many superb, not to say sublime, registers now wonderfully re-minted - for all their power and edge are essentially Harrison. There is little of note that can really be put down to Willis in the overall impact of the organ. Maybe a soloist will prove me wrong one day but for the moment it has the many virtues and just a few of the vices of a fine Harrison.

Loud it certainly is and while the Bach Toccata had power the occasional use during the rest of the evening fully demonstrated just how necessary that power is if it is to overcome the weight of a full symphony orchestra. In Holst's The Planets not only did it add body and texture but shear physical bulk to his orchestration. The zip towards the end of Uranus was exhilarating as it should be, and the pedal was frequently felt as much as heard.

If it seems odd that I have only talked about the Bach Toccata this was because Martin Neary's slightly jumpy reading was followed by the Fugue in Henry Wood's orchestration. If anything this was the more interesting of the two sections with its unexpected use of harp and glockenspiel. The organ can not really compete with this and it was almost unfair to put the two together in this way. Thankfully Martin Neary's place at the console proved intensely important both as indicated above in The Planets and also in the main work of the evening, Elgar's The Music Makers. This was a strange work for a first night as for all its tunefulness and wispy memories it is a deeply pessimistic offering, leaving the listener unsettled and uncomfortable. Even the velvet tones of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson could do little to offset the brooding impact of Elgar's depressive state.

Leonard Slatkin is no stranger to English music having conducted a large amount while in charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He certainly had the measure of the Elgar, with fine orchestral detail and lush choral singing. The Holst got better as it went on but there were moments in Mars when it was all rather too loud. There really is something here to be said for gut-strings and smaller bore brass!

The profound, awed silence which greeted the War Requiem on 1 August was a mark of the magnificence of Sir Colin Davis' achievement. There was no need for him to try - as many conductors do these days - to maintain the stillness at the end, it was more that nobody wanted to break the spell. I can't recall any performance, even those under the composer, which was as moving or beautiful as this, nor where the text has felt so poignantly immediate. Ian Bostridge could have been born for the tenor lead. His looks alone unite him with the young men who died in such numbers in the First World War and he uses the text with a musicality and intelligence second to none. One ever hangs was heart rending. Simon Keenlyside uses his warm baritone with great subtlety, pointing the sarcasm of Owen's verse as well as its humanity. Susan B Anthony may not have Heather Harper's steely top notes but she rides the ensemble with ease and the Libera me was intense and compelling.

Timothy Bond was at the organ and for once we have the part as Britten intended, with a range of sound and impact far removed from the more conventional use of a chamber organ. It was particularly effective with the children's choir in Hostias and shattering in the climax to Libera me.

Finchley Children's Music Group were crisp and clear, the mixed voices preferably to a boys only chorus. The London Symphony Chorus was in stunning form, the beauty of line a constant delight and the attack overwhelming. The London Symphony Orchestra responded with all the panache of their professionalism and the chamber ensemble drawn from their forces was splendidly balanced. I can't think I shall hear a better performance again.

Before it began we heard the world premiere of Britten's Voluntary on "Tallis' Lamentation". The work had been hidden away in the United States, having been written while Britten was there during the war. The received opinion that Britten had little interest in or understanding of the organ is amply supported by this somewhat dire contribution. Though Timothy Bond used it as a reasonable excuse to demonstrate some of the organ's quieter stops the work itself has little to offer and should be allowed to slip back into the void from which it came.

Four years ago for the Bach anniversary Roger Norrington gave us a magnificent B minor Mass and on the 15th of August this year we experienced an equally impressive if very different reading under John Eliot Gardiner. He seemed to deliberately highlight the more intimate character of the work - the almost chamber music like scoring and the marvels of orchestral and vocal detail. This was about as far from the monumental as it is possible to get, yet every note could be heard and every line had crystal clarity. The English Baroque Soloists, while demonstrating their individual prowess, were at their most compelling in ensemble. Trumpets, which blazed where necessary, were often gently underpinning the line. Harpsichord and organ were used almost throughout but again the blend of sound was such that, though one could isolate the instrument if one wanted too, neither drew attention to itself. Consequently the overall musical line rather than a set of solos moved the work forward.

John Eliot Gardiner sees the work as a unity and gives his audience little time to fidget between movements. Performed without an interval there was a sense of urgency throughout even though the tempi at the start were slow. Magnificent attention to detail made many moments ravishingly beautiful but never simple for the sake of being beautiful. The detailed rhythms with the Sanctus were astonishingly clear. The soloists were at one with the conductor's reading, slipping into and out of position with ease and always at the service of the music. The Monteverdi Choir changed positions frequently to better shape individual choruses and their attack and diction was exemplary throughout.

Glyndebourne's annual visit brought their new double bill of Rachmaninov and Puccini on the 26th of August. I had been somewhat confused by Rachmaninov's The Miserly Knight in Sussex but following the score in the RAH - even without a translation - helped to clarify the musical structure and the complexity of the composer's writing. Accepting that he had little real sense of theatre, the shift from action in the first scene to total passivity in the second is less obvious in the score than on stage. It also helped that this second time round I was prepared for the alarming change of gear. That said there was a great deal to enjoy, particularly Sergei Leiferkus' masterly assumption of the Baron and the increasing subtlety of his characterisation. Updating the action makes for some startling parallels but alters the impact of the conclusion.

How do you write about perfection? Annabel Arden's production of Gianni Schicchi is as close, surely, as one could ever hope to get to ideal. Characters are individualised, realistic and totally credible. Humour rises with consummate ease from the situations - it is never tacked on for effect. Done like this, Gianni Schicchi is the most life-affirming of all operas.

At its heart Alessandro Corbelli's working class hero wraps the nouveau-riche around his little finger. Sally Matthews' Lauretta is cast in the same vein. She knows how to use O mio babbino caro to her own ends - both for her father and the audience! I always feel sorry for the tenor - splendidly sung by Massimo Giordano, with a voice to easily fill the hall - that Puccini follows through at the end of his great Florentine outpouring and thus robs him of his applause. He deserved it on both occasions I heard him. The rest of the cast were equally strong including a cheeky Gherardino from Christopher Waite.

Orchestral detail shone from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski seems to go from strength to strength in his undemonstrative handling of his forces. Let us hope this double-bill returns at an early date.

Robert King's approach to Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is essentially small scale though the range of sounds he produces is marvellously rich. On the 31st of August we heard three Chitarrones and two organs, with 9 strings, 2 recorders, 3 cornetts and 4 sackbutts. By contrast the 34 strong Choir of the King's Consort plus three soloists seemed almost over opulent but the forces are rarely used together. Only at key moments are the choral and instrumental forces combined "to sing and play loudly" as Monteverdi indicated. For most of the evening we heard solo voices or part singing with a small continuo force. This was remarkably effective even within the vast spaces of the RAH. I again felt that the refurbishment has improved the acoustic as I really don't recall forces of this size making an impact on previous occasions. Robert King encourages his soloists to indulge themselves in ornamentation, often to highly sensuous effect. The overlap with Monteverdi's operas overtly apparent in the solo tenor aria Nigra sum and the heady arrangement of Pulchra est for two sopranos and three chatterboxes. The wind forces came into their own in Nisi dominus and for the ritornelli in Ave maris stella. Unfortunately the programme notes had obviously been based on a different edition as they often pointed us to effects which did not happen, but this was a very minor problem for a fine evening.

My final Prom of the season was not quite as wonderful as I had expected it to be. Some years ago Ton Koopman - whom I greatly admire - came unstuck with his own realisation of Bach's St Mark Passion. The same applied to William Christie on the 9th of September with his reconstruction of Charpentier's Grand office des morts, drawing together items written across a number of years and not necessarily intended to be performed together and certainly not outside their liturgical context. No matter how magnificent the musicianship the overall effect was - put politely - dull. It was also unhelpful to witness the vocalist constantly shuffling around on the platform - am I just old-fashioned or is this really necessary?

Maybe the audience knew something I didn't for it was surprisingly empty for a performance by Les Arts Florissants. The second half perked up a bit with the delights of the familiar Te Deum but by then the damage had been done and it was more a case of damage limitation.

A pity to end on a downward note after such a splendid season. Ah well - come next summer!