The week in classical: BBC Proms 13, 15 & 17; Cadogan Hall Prom 2; Nabucco; War and Peace – review

Royal Albert Hall; Cadogan Hall, London; Dorset Opera, Blandford Forum; Royal Opera House, London
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra give a masterclass in firepower and finesse

Up on high, hands thumping in unison, the tympanist attacked his kettledrums with a series of emphatic blows, as if bent on bursting their very membranes. The bass drum, at his side, joined in for the final, pulverising thuds. A split second, then the capacity audience erupted in cheers. So ended Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 (1937), performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the first of two Proms. Never has that gaudy, major key finale, supposedly a sop to Soviet officials, seemed more menacing or subversive: a sonic wrecking ball to reduce the Stalinist threat, in the composer’s brave imagination anyway, to rubble.

You may think high summer is the time musicians head for the hills. The week could scarcely have been busier, or richer in reward and contrast. This overwhelming performance, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin – why use a baton when you can employ your entire agile body? – demonstrated more clearly than ever that Shostakovich, walking a political tightrope, pandered to no one. The Fifth Symphony ambiguous? No way. His message, a year after Pravda’s attacks on his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, after friends and family were arrested, shot or disappeared, could hardly be clearer. This Prom (15) was a change of programme. We were supposed to hear Shostakovich’s 10th, conducted by Mariss Jansons, absent for health reasons. That would have been a season highlight, but so too was this.

The Canadian Nézet-Séguin, now music director of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, clearly has a glorious rapport with this orchestra, one of the world’s best. The Shostakovich was a challenge to stamina, volume, scale and, especially in the sorrowful, expansive slow movement, poetic variety. In Beethoven’s Symphony No 2 (1801), the orchestra’s technical virtuosity, its swift response to shifts in light and shade, its fine-tuned articulation, its dexterity in the fastest, busiest passages, all revealed an ensemble capable of the highest level of finesse and musical intelligence. Their wistful encore, Dawn on the Moscow River from Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, paid homage to Shostakovich by using his own arrangement.

The Munich players’ second Prom (17) included Sibelius’s Symphony No 1, refined but elusive, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 2 (with Gil Shaham stepping in late as able soloist) and music by their own local hero, Richard Strauss: the suite from his opera Der Rosenkavalier (arr. Artur Rodziński). This delicious waltz cocktail – sentiment, schmaltz, salt and heart – drew playing of unbuttoned pleasure and wit. At the end the orchestra was clapping as furiously as the audience. Nézet-Séguin beamed shyly. Their encore was Sibelius’s Valse triste, a hushed, impeccably played choice to send us softly into the night.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Prom 15.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin at Prom 15. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

On Sunday, quite hot enough already, the Albert Hall became the deserts of Arizona and Utah, sand storms whipping across the arena in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s musical recreation of a landscape Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) fell in love with after visiting Bryce Canyon in 1972 (Prom 13). The result was Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the canyons to the stars…), one of four major orchestral works written in praise of the New World.

Sakari Oramo conducted three of the BBCSO’s own principals, now up front as terrific soloists – Martin Owen, horn, David Hockings, xylorimba, Alex Neal, glockenspiel – together with the formidable pianist Nicolas Hodges and reduced orchestral forces: fewer strings but plenty of low woodwind, brass and percussion to conjure Messiaen’s earthly, unearthly, avian and celestial sounds. Owen’s incantatory horn calls, Hodges’s expansive, rhythmically complex pianistic flourishes, the glistens, gleams and flutters of xylorimba and glockenspiel transported us to the US through the ears of a devout Frenchman with a passion for birds: oriole, American robin, Steller’s jay and more, each makes an appearance. This was an instance when programme notes were an essential field guide, expertly provided by Paul Griffiths. An hour and a half sped by.

In her 400th anniversary year, Barbara Strozzi (1619-77), the Venetian composer, poet and singer was the focus of a Cadogan Hall Prom, performed by the Argentinian soprano Mariana Flores and Cappella Mediterranea, directed from organ and harpsichord by Leonardo García Alarcón. Flores’s voice is light but steely and sensuous, inside the drama rather than imposing herself on it. Four laments by Strozzi were Interspersed with attractive works by Antonia Bembo (c1640-1720) and an explosive operatic scena by Strozzi’s mentor, Cavalli. Her own Sino alla morte (Until I die), the bass line falling in piteous tread to mirror the lover’s desperate, repeated cry, seduces with tears, chromaticism and song. These musicians, conveying the heady Venetian collision of east and west, sacred and profane, Renaissance and baroque encapsulated in such music, were ideal interpreters.

Mark S Doss and Claire Rutter in Nabucco.
Mark S Doss and Claire Rutter in Dorset Opera’s Nabucco. Photograph: Fritz Curzon

Two late-season operas deserve mention. Dorset Opera festival runs as a hard-working, highly professional summer camp, culminating in two operas, this year Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Verdi’s Nabucco. It has an enthusiastic atmosphere, and a can-do attitude, thanks in part to its artistic director, former international bass Roderick Kennedy. With a 70-strong chorus and an orchestra that negotiated solo string and woodwind passages admirably, the company’s Nabucco reached high musical standards.

If the staging didn’t entirely match up – recreating the Hanging Gardens of Babylon against the clock and on a tight budget is never easy – this was a welcome chance to hear the work that launched Verdi’s career. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves may be well known, rousingly sung here with some well-drilled pianissimo, yet the work is not so often staged. The challenging role of Abigaille was sung with sterling top notes, dignity and vigour by Claire Rutter. Mark S Doss (Nabucco), Carolyn Dobbin (Fenena), Adriano Graziani (Ismaele) and Andrei Valentiy (Zaccaria) led an assured cast, idiomatically conducted by Jeremy Carnall.

Welsh National Opera had a two-night residency at London’s Royal Opera House with Prokofiev’s sprawling War and Peace

, in David Pountney’s staging conducted by Tomáš Hanus first seen in Cardiff last year. Somehow, in an inevitably short rehearsal period, the company once again marshalled the large cast and excellent chorus into exuberant life: 63 named characters played by 22 singers, led by Mark Le Brocq as Pierre and Lauren Michelle as Natasha.

Prokofiev, like Shostakovich, had to avoid Stalin’s displeasure, and rewrote the opera over several years. Lopsided and particular in its narrative, it’s a far cry from the novel. Yet just as you begin to feel restless and impatient, a moment of intimate melancholy or a chorus glorifying Russian valour demand your attention. WNO the best possible argument for Prokofiev’s contradictory piece. Written out of love for Russia’s literary master, it only serves to make Tolstoy’s feat all the more astonishing.

Star ratings (out of five)
Proms 13, 15 & 17 ★★★★
A Celebration of Barbara Strozzi ★★★★
Nabucco ★★★★
War and Peace ★★★★

• Prom 17 will be broadcast on BBC Four on Friday 30 August. All Proms can be heard on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until 14 September


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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