BBC Prom 33: Thea Musgrave & Brahms

Thea Musgrave: Phoenix Rising
Brahms: A German Requiem
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Richard Farnes
Royal Albert Hall, 7 August 2018

I was surprised to find that, despite being composed 21 years ago, this was the first time that Thea Musgrave’s Phoenix Rising (a BBC commission) had been performed at the Proms. It made for a fascinating pairing with Brahm’s German Requiem in this performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Richard Farnes, making his Proms debut. Phoenix Rising represents the conflict between the forces of evil and good, darkness and light. The title came during composition and is taken from a sign outside a coffee shop in Virginia. At its core, it is a double concerto for horn and timpani, set within a dramatic kaleidoscope of symphonic colour and texture. The horn player, Martin Owen, is supposed to be offstage, but at the Royal Albert Hall there is always the risk that he would never be seen again, and was therefore positioned high up on the far left of the stage, behind timpanist Antoine Bedewi, and in front of one of the four percussionists spread out across the rear stage.

Thea Musgrave.jpgThea Musgrave. © BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The six interconnected sections have simple descriptive titles, starting with Dramatic, violent, where the timpanist takes the lead whilst the cellos attempt to break through the aural and rhythmic turmoil against interruptions from most of the woodwind, brass and violinist Stephen Bryant. Desolate features a gentle cor anglais solo, beautifully played by Alison Teale, before the solo horn player starts to make his presence felt. The timpani immediately starts to do battle with the horn, as they both try to enlist the aid their fellow instrumentalists in a series of sections entitled Aggressive; Wild chaotic; and, finally, Confident, appearing. During this sequence, the horn moves down into the orchestra. Those that hadn’t read their programme notes would have been surprised to see the timpanist increasingly trying to get the attention of the orchestra, both aurally and visually, before walking off in a huff, with the encouragement of the principal horn who then joins his three companions.

The evocative Mysterious section opens with two harps, positioned opposite each other at the far front corners of the orchestra, before the tuned percussion herald the rising of the Phoenix. Peaceful and Warm, lyrical follow with cello (Susan Monks(, viola and violin solos before building to the Passionate climax of the piece. A Floating, luminous coda brings the piece to a gentle conclusion, with the distant sound of the offstage timpanist, having a final little sulk. Having been less than impressed by many of the six new compositions heard in the Brandenburg Project Proms concert (reviewed here), it was wonderful to hear a contemporary composer, albeit a generation or two older (she is 90 years old) and composed 20 years earlier, showing just how it should be done. There will be several celebrations of her 90th anniversary this year.

IMG_20180802_220214513_LL.jpgPhoto ABW

The Brahms German Requiem is one of three such pieces in this year’s Proms, acknowledging the anniversary of the end of the Great War. Unlike the traditional Requiem form, it makes approach death from a human, if not, perhaps, a 21st century Humanist point of view. This was a very impressive performance and a particularly fine Proms debut for conductor Richard Farnes. Like many conductors, he was an Oxbridge organ scholar, and I was particularly interested in the use of the Royal Albert Hall organ. It is marked as ad lib. in the score but is, I believe, essential, as this performance proved.  For much of the time, it is only the pedal that is used, giving a foundation to the rest of the orchestra. The balance here was such that its presence was felt, as much as specifically heard – but you would have certainly noticed if it suddenly stopped. It also joins in the fugue Der Gerechten Seelen sing in Gottes Hand, supporting the choir over one of the longest pedal points in the history of music, a low D, held throughout the entire fugue.

There was one moment when the organ really hinted at its power (at least in the hall – it is not so prominent on the TV broadcast), with a magnificent chord on the full principal chorus, (marked ff in the score, when all other instruments are pp) in the Denn wir haben movement, just before the choir enter sing ‘Death is swallowed up in victory / O death, where is thy sting’. A very apt moment where human endeavour, in the shape and sound of one of the most complex of human inventions, reveals its power, powering through the full choir and orchestra (all marked ff) at the end of that section. With limited rehearsal time possible in the Royal Albert Hall, the question of balance between organ and orchestra cannot have been given much consideration, but what was achieved was perfect.

The soloists were soprano Golda Schultz and baritone Johan Reuter, the former very effective in her delicate Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit. The whole Radio 3 performance can be heard as usual on BBC iPlayer, but I would encourage you to view the Musgrave, at least, on the later television broadcast, which can be found here.