BBC Proms: Janáček – Glagolitic Mass

Prom 1. Janáček: Glagolitic Mass
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, BBC Singers
Karina Canellakis
Royal Albert Hall, 19 July 2019

The 125th season of the BBC Proms celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of their founder-conductor, Sir Henry Wood, whose bust looks down on the orchestras and Prommers throughout the season. One of the threads through the Proms are the ‘Novelties’, Wood’s own description of various UK and world premieres that he conducted. Another theme is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. This opening concert (from the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus and the BBC Singers, directed by Karina Canellakis) acknowledged both with a world premiere and one of Wood’s novelties together with a focus on Czech composers. As well as featuring a female composer, this was also the first time that a female conductor had opened the Proms, one of the seven women conductors this season. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and on BBC2 and BBC4, and is available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards.

They opened with the world premiere of Long Is the Journey – Short Is the Memory a new commission from Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landings. It is based on texts by Sappho (c570 BCE), Leopardi (1820) and the contemporary Chinese-British writer, Xiaolu Guo whose text refers to the Chinese legend of Chang’e, a Chinese Goddess of the Moon who also gave her name to Chang’e 4, the Chinese craft that recently explored the dark side of the Moon. That mission included growing cotton plants in a sealed biosphere – the first living matter to be grown on the Moon.

Photo: David AdamcykPhoto: David Adamcyk

An enormous kaleidoscope of orchestral and vocal colour created an evocative sonic vision of space, with pockets of text separated by orchestral interludes. The techniques of sound production were rich and varied. Many of which not immediately apparent, visually or aurally, to the audience, but are highlighted in the TV broadcasts. They included rubbing paper bags together, finger-clicking, tuning keys of harp strings, firing compressed air into a bottle, playing a bass drum with what looked like a scrubbing brush. and scraped tuning keys across harp strings. More conventional sounds came from multiple glissandi from all instruments, flutter-tonguing brass, and some telling oboe solos by John Roberts. The piece ended with a tinkly rattle of a tiny Hari-Krishna cymbal spinning on top of a timpani until helped to a stop to a plink from a triangle. Karina Canellakis timing was perfect.

Compositionally, Zosha Di Castri managed to avoid the usually musical cliches in depicting the void of space and, although some of the effects were rather too clever, none interfered with the notion of serious composition using the resources of the orchestra and voice. A jazz-inspired interlude after the first chorus perhaps continued a little too long, but otherwise, the structure of the piece unfolded well. Unfortunately, the words of the BBC Singers’ sung text were almost impossible to hear in the hall, although they are relatively clear on the TV broadcasts, helped by surtitles. There was some excellent solos, generally from one or more of the sopranos. The work lasted about 18 minutes, building to two principal climaxes on the word ‘Apollo!’ before subsiding. It was an impressive introduction to that many new compositions coming up in the season.

Antonín Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel came under the category of one of Henry Woods ‘novelties’, on the grounds that it was performed in one of his Queen’s Hall concerts in 1896. It received a particularly bad press at the time, and has, sensibly in my view, been more or less ignored ever since. I don’t know who decides such things, but I assume that, with these forces, it includes the powers that be in the BBC Music Department rather than being the choice of the conductor. Quite why it was revived on this occasion is beyond me. Based on an over-complicated and rather gruesome folk tale, it overstayed its rather shaky welcome. On the few occasions it has been performed, it is usually cut, but Karina Canellakis treated us to the whole lot.  She conducted it well, giving it space to unfold, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was excellent (as they were throughout). But frankly, I can think of better ways of spending half-an-hour.

Then came Leos Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, a very worthy piece for the First Night. It was performed in the usually accepted final version, starting with the Introduction Ùvodand finishing with the three added movements, including the massive organ solo and the concluding Intrada. Using an archaic, and curious version of Church Slavonic text, the ‘Glagolitic’ title refers to an early form of the Cyrillic alphabet used by the Byzantine theologians Cyril and Methodius in Moravia in the 9th century. It was composed, like the Dvořák Spinning Wheel towards the end of his life. Although an atheist, Janáček’s music often contained religious references, notably in his operas. That said, the Glagolitic Mass is usually seen as more of a celebration of Slavic culture than any religious purpose. Broady following the form of sections of the Catholic Mass, each with a Cyrillic title. 

Musically, Janáček builts up a musical structure based on the repetition of small motifs, and almost primordial sounds of ritual and power. Karina Canellakis gave a superbly controlled reading of the score, avoiding excess, but providing just enough power and drama and allowing the music to speak well into the vast acoustic. Her conducting is technically excellent, with an obvious devotion to the music rather than any sense of self-aggrandisement. It is worth watching the TV broadcasts just to see her style.

Karina Canellakis.jpg
Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Janáček’s earlier life as an organist, and founder of the Brno Organ School (now the Conservatory), is revealed in his strikingly original writing for the organ in the Mass. As well providing the usual, and occasional sonic background, there are two solo moments, one during the Credo 3rd movement, the other being a complete movement in its own right, just before the end of the piece. On this occasion, Karina Canellakis and organist Peter Holder contrived to give the organ two other moments of complete domination over the massed forces of choir and orchestra, at the ends of the third and fourth movements when the final chords have the Albert Hall organ lording it over everybody else – a magnificent sound. Peter Holder’s organ solos were a highlight, quite rightly gaining the most applause at the end.

Of the singers, it was soprano Asmik Grigorian and tenor Ladislav Elgr who dominated the proceedings, both outstanding in their projection and she mastery of the complex vocal writing. Bass Jan Martiník had less to do, but sounded good. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston had a minor role.

A warning for those watching the TV broadcasts. The second half (the Glagolitic Mass) starts with a lengthy introduction by the BBC’s go-to TV Proms introducer, the former ITV newsreader and, in my opinion, the oleaginously obsequious Katie Derham, who seems intent on telling us all how wonderful everything is with the sort of patronising look that would put anybody off classical music for life. She encouraged one of the look-at-me male ‘specialists’ to perform the embarrassingly silly dance that he had been so obviously desperate to do for his TV moment – apparently to demonstrate what a hemiola was. When not jumping to his feet for that awkward incident, he was leaning forward in his chair, blocking the view of the perfectly sensible woman next to him, desperate to get his word in like an eager-to-please schoolboy. I’ve no idea who he was, but do wonder where the BBC finds such people.

And as for Ms Derham, just for the record,  the huge round of applause that you said was for the chorus master was actually for the organist Peter Holder. He deserved better recognition from you.