Fantastic to hear live large scale choral music once more with all the clarity and dynamics thrill you still only get with being in the same space where the musicians are playing. Tonight’s programme featured two large scale orchestral works with undercurrents of death and disaster.
Mark Elder’s conducting of the Rachmaninov was precise yet supple, bringing out the melancholy menace in The Bells, including the huge dissonances between the words and the music. The saddest wedding bells you have ever heard and the most shrieking alarm bells, but overall the bells are the Ghouls. Rachmaninov is almost never literal to Edgar Allan Poe’s text with his orchestrations corresponding to bells but the impression in the music is unmistakable and communicates the chilling malevolence he and the poet see in the iron bells.
From the opening chant sung fortissimo by the choirs, a musical surprise and thrilling in its volume heard live and unmoderated by the BBC’s systems, the soloists and chorus were impeccably balanced for where I was sitting far away from the promenaders’ crowd barrier. I counted more than two hundred up there in the choir; their voices sail over the orchestra, even the brass, to me in the stalls. Tonight’s soloists (two Ukrainians and one Armenian) sung in balance but powerful and sweet.
A memorable performance, topical programming with its transition from joyful sleigh bells to the tolling of iron funeral bells, whether you think of the halcyon days of a decade or so ago or the current war in Ukraine. The sort of music performance where the Albert Hall excels as a venue.
After the interval, Mark Elder and the Hallé gave us a gloriously detailed performance of the first two movements of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. This is not Shostakovich’s last but, like Rachmaninov’s The Bells, it marks a transition towards the lurking darkness of death.
The performance captured the cross rhythms and almost jazzy style then the stunning fugato that sounds like a fugue but is anything but a formal fugue. Maybe not as much swagger as we hear in the classic recordings by Russian orchestras but the detail and clarity of the reading was a valid alternative. A memorable growling bear where the left hand of the piano and the string basses take the spotlight.
Tonight’s performance played the third movement similarly strictly but also super quiet. This didn’t work for me, it wasn’t steelily icily scary as a softening up for the final movement. The Proms audience went with it but there wasn’t huge tension. The final movement was also played very straight, very British. I could have done with a lot more detail in the overall interpretation of this movement, with more rhythmic latitude for each of the soloists. But there was a resounding finale with the orchestra deafeningly together, impressive and of course a crowd-pleaser.
My photo is a wide shot of tonight’s performers taking the applause. Amazingly there are now people in the audience attempting to record the music in video: distracting for the rest of us and surely the results are awful.
Rachmaninov - The Bells
Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 in D minor
Mané Galoyan - soprano
Dmytro Popov - tenor
Andrei Kymach - baritone
BBC Symphony Chorus
Sir Mark Elder - conductor