Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Royal Albert Hall
Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem
Fiorenza Cedolins (soprano), Carolyn Sebron (mezzo), Vincenzo La Scola (tenor), Roberto Scandiuzzi (bass)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Coro del Teatro Communale di Bologna, London Voices
Daniele Gatti (conductor)
Giuseppe Verdi: La forza del destino -- Overture, Nabucco -- 'Va, pensiero'
Gerald Finzi: The Fall of the Leaf
Joseph Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne -- selection
Johann Sebastian Bach, orch. Respighi: Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor
John Adams: Tromba lontana
Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings
Michael Tippett: A Child of Our Time -- Four Negro Spirituals
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, 'Choral' -- Finale
Hubert Parry: Jerusalem
Janice Watson (soprano), Alice Coote (mezzo), Ann Murray (mezzo), Kim Begley (tenor), Timothy Robinson (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers
Leonard Slatkin (conductor)
Verdi's Requiem, scheduled as the big choral work of the penultimate night of the Proms, went ahead as planned on Friday. It fulfilled Verdi's intended purpose, a communal humanist memorial, in circumstances almost unimaginable when he completed it in 1874, though perhaps not quite: although skyscrapers and heavier-than-air flight were, just, in the future, Jules Verne's fiction had already speculated on the effects of war and modernity combined; and the recent wars in Europe made urban destruction a vivid reality for many of the original audience. Yet when Daniele Gatti spoke, briefly, powerfully, and nearly choked, to introduce the performance, he reflected sympathy and pain that was incomparably more immediate. Many in the hall, performers and audience, knew someone bereaved three days ago, and almost everyone must have felt the shock in the hours after the disaster through news broadcasts. There was no time or space for profound emotion recalled in tranquillity, just a hopeful openness to the ability of music to heal.
The performance turned out to be well rehearsed, which provided a solid foundation for feeling. The Italy-based soloists, the Italian-English chorus and the English orchestra, Gatti's own, came together in an Italianate style that was free of any hint of triviality. Sections like the hair-trigger brass exchanges in the Dies irae that invite showing off were utterly serious, and genuinely terrifying. Even the massive bass drum, normally the focus of a slightly amusing spectacle, was the knock of doom.
Of course, while the performers were visibly moved and their commitment was unquestionable, the effect of the performance was also created by the receptivity of the audience, as always. There was a moment of friction when someone started to applaud on the last note of the Libera me, though Gatti still had his baton raised. What must have felt to the person responsible like a cold blast of disapproval swept through the hall, and there was silence again until the echo of the music had died away.
At the end of a serious piece, there is a consensus that you wait for the conductor to lower the baton, and anyone who knows the music well enough to know when the last note is should do that, though less experienced concert-goers can usually be forgiven (as they are at the Proms for clapping between movements). Enforced correct behaviour was, though, always going to be more of an issue on the last night, where a tradition of mild hooliganism has for years been a source of irritation to the BBC, who would like something more genteel.
The changes to the programme after the horrors of 11 September assumed that very conventional solemnity was the order of the day, and that everyone would see things in exactly the same way. In the event, personal sympathy for Leonard Slatkin, whose other orchestra is based at the Kennedy Center, a few yards from the Pentagon, prevailed in most cases, and there was only one attempt at inane shouting, possibly an infantile reaction to Nicholas Kenyon's headmasterly request off-air for decorum. But a fair proportion of the audience didn't quite buy in to the compulsory solemnity. There were some, though fewer, flags, and perhaps two out of three Union flags, plus the odd saltire and St David's cross, were paired with American flags. Flag waving was confined to the first verses of the Star-Spangled Banner and God Save the Queen, sung at the beginning, and to Jerusalem, which survived at the end.
The revised programme was lacklustre, but moving simply because of its context. The preserved Verdi selections became, as with the Requiem, particularly appropriate, especially Va, pensiero for Americans still stuck in a briefer but no less agonizing exile. Finzi's The fall of the leaf, also as originally programmed, was suitably gently elegiac, while Songs of the Auvergne, substituting for Shéhérezade, was decorous in Ann Murray's hands. (Frederica von Stade, the scheduled singer, couldn't be guaranteed to arrive from the United States.) Respighi's orchestration of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue for organ was a backhanded tribute to the resilience of Bach's music, which survived Brahmsian flying buttresses and near-mechanisation.
John Adams' fanfare Tromba lontana opened the second half, a genuinely bright spot in the evening, though still comparatively gentle. It replaced its sibling work Short ride in a fast machine, whose title, probably intended to evoke a teenage romp (though already calling to mind James Dean), proved too close to home. It was pulled from the last night 1997 after the death of Diana, for the same reason. Modernity has suddenly (how else?) become horribly dangerous. (Verdi's Requiem was also programmed for the penultimate night in 1997, when it became a memorial to Diana, but also more relevantly to its intended conductor that night, George Solti. It would be a shame if either work becomes taboo for the Proms from now on.)
Slatkin described Barber's Adagio for strings as the American equivalent of Nimrod, and it clearly worked for many of the audience, although a few managed to ignore his request for no applause. Tippett's spirituals from A Child of Our Time, shorn of their strange and difficult context, probably worked similarly for a different subset of the audience. The last movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony seemed a more debatable choice as the final piece before Jerusalem. Heard less than a week ago, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, it then had more than a hint of the bacchanal that Beethoven excised from the text but left in the music. Presumably included tonight because of the line Alle Menschen werden Brüder, it couldn't quite shake off the overtones of goose-steps and, with more historical justification, Enlightenment triumphalism. At least the concert ended with the words of the weird and peaceable William Blake in Parry's uplifting and utterly singable setting. The text may refer to England, but Blake and Parry both appeal to a shared humanity beyond conventional divisions, which, in the end, is what we have.