Prom 21: An underwhelming performance of MacMillan and Beethoven

The noble themes of hope, freedom and brotherhood figured prominently in a performance which featured Sir James MacMillan’s new choral work A European Requiem – a plea for unity in a troubled world – alongside Beethoven’s magnificent “Choral” Symphony. Beethoven’s great masterpiece required no introduction, having appeared in every single Proms season for nigh on 90 years, barring that of the 1982 Proms. MacMillan’s new work, however, was something less familiar to all but his most dedicated followers, tonight given its European première by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Originally commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival and clocking in at just over 43 minutes, this is a predictably dour, funereal and gloomy work which deals with weighty issues and a sense of wistfulness at the perceived passing of deep cultural resonances. Somewhat unexpectedly for a work written in the 21st century, MacMillan decided to set his texts in Latin. According to the composer himself this may seem counter-cultural to many, but to him, it represents the ideal rediscovery of our common heritage.

Opening the work is a very sudden and loud strike of the percussion – enough perhaps to resurrect the aforementioned dead language? The choral writing that followed was relatively straightforward and unadventurous, the bulk of the work’s dramatic flourishes manifesting in violent battles between accented timpani and orchestral accents. Xian Zhang conducted with her customary energy and vigour, driving through the work somewhat swiftly to its conclusion.

The applause was polite and considered, reflecting a clear split among those audience members who enjoy a modern-day requiem and those who were really there for the much anticipated Beethoven work which followed. This is where things really started to fall apart in the opinion of this reviewer: the tempo employed from the outset was far too quick to allow any clarity around the message that Beethoven wanted to convey. The first movement is stormy, raging and all about the struggle against fate, yet on this performance it felt like nothing more than a superficial skim through the manuscript, akin to an insignificant run through. How one longed for a more serious and mature interpretation of this profound music à la von Karajan or perhaps Barenboim. Alas, onwards we whisked with no opportunity for the music to breathe, let alone make the statements that demand space and time for phrasing. In truth, it was hard not to feel exasperated at times.

Occasional flickers of redemption made irregular appearances – the timpanist at least seemed to understand the passion required and performed admirably throughout, albeit in consideration of the constraints he was under. Leading up to the funeral march that precedes the close of the first movement, one wanted to call out “slow down!” as the final, tragic D minor statement is made. Again, despite accents in the right places, it was dispatched with little gravitas and was subsequently somewhat spoiled.

The Scherzo was made more enjoyable given that the expected tempo is already brisk: energetic, purposeful and lively. This was an improvement in interpretation, even if only by a small margin. As the 2nd movement progressed, one couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was missing – as if the overarching message had been misconstrued completely. Where the composer asks for the orchestra to dwell, there was no adherence to the great master’s wishes in this performance. The wonderful quality of this music was being suppressed, the genius not being allowed to shine through. From there, on we galloped into the Adagio, played here at a much brisker speed than it should have been. Consequently, it became ever more challenging to warm to Zhang’s speedy interpretation.

Thankfully, there was a saving grace which finally appeared in the 4th and final movement. This came in the form of the 4 lead vocalists. The powerful “O Freunde” entry was delivered with excellent projection and power by Alexander Vinogradov – the forthcoming entry of backing vocals proving surprisingly impressive and adding a punch that had been sadly lacking.

The Turkish military march was underwhelming, failing to conjure any victorious army, while the subsequent fugue – like much of the rest of the work – was taken far too quickly. It started to feel as though the army of massed singers had taken up a revolt against the poorly judged musical direction and were trying their best to atone with gusto and sheer belligerence. Though they tried, they didn’t fully succeed and as the piece romped to a Presto conclusion the audience seemed appreciative. One couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they were in fact signalling their admiration for the work’s creator, rather than celebrating this disappointing interpretation.