Prom 41: BBCSO/Wigglesworth – review

Royal Albert Hall, London

In 1963, Benjamin Britten marked his impending 50th birthday by conducting a Prom of three of his own most substantial orchestral and choral works. This year, the BBC Proms director Roger Wright decided to recreate the same programme, for no better reason, as far as one could see, than for the sheer interest of doing so.

In 1963, Britten kicked things off with his own arrangement of Purcell's short, sombre and dignified Chacony. This year, in the only twist to the original programme, Joby Talbot provided his own version of the Purcell, a more daring and astringent orchestration than Britten's, but an instantly effective and haunting piece of writing, dominated by the soft resonance of bells, a very Britten-like touch.

Apart from Britten himself, the central figure of the evening was Mark Wigglesworth, deputising for an indisposed Jiří Bělohlávek, and proving once again what a very special conductor he is. Wigglesworth's exposition and shaping of the three diverse Britten pieces was extremely fine, starting with the quiet unfolding of the restrained Cantata Misericordium, written for the centenary of the Red Cross, with a Latin text based on the Good Samaritan story. The much earlier Sinfonia da Requiem was no less effective, though in a wholly different way, all tension and drive, appropriate to a work from a less settled part of Britten's evolution.

Wigglesworth's culminating achievement, though, was his compelling grasp of Britten's problematic Spring Symphony of 1949, with its 12 vocal settings, three choirs and soloists (of whom tenor Alan Oke was specially effective in the Peter Pears solos) and, in a place of honour beneath the Albert Hall organ, the last movement's cow horn. Britten's symphony needs to be heard live to be convincing, preferably in a venue such as the Albert Hall, and Wigglesworth supplied a control, conviction and coherence that surpassed any previous rendering of the piece in my experience.

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Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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