sat 06/06/2020

BBC Proms: Clein, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Singers, Hill | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Clein, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Singers, Hill

BBC Proms: Clein, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Singers, Hill

This final Proms Saturday Matinee left us with a musical meditation on faith

Festivals across the world have taken the opportunity of her 80th birthday to celebrate the music of Sofia Gubaidulina. Taught by Shostakovich, who encouraged the young composer’s iconoclastic progress along what he perceived as her “mistaken path”, Gubaidulina’s musical modernism is rife with symbols and tropes born of her Russian Orthodox beliefs – a natural counterpart to Sir John Tavener’s more approachable spirituality.


The Canticle of the Sun, composed originally for Rostropovich, was performed here by Natalie Clein, surely one of the most mature and assertive talents to emerge from the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year competition. Set against the pointillist choral textures of the BBC Singers and the otherworldly interjections of two percussionists and celesta, the solo cello must make something meaningful and coherent of its own fragmented part if we are not to lose faith during this protracted spiritual concerto.

nataliekleinPersuading us of her narrative, even when cello was swapped for eerie flexatone and gong, Clein (pictured right) carried her listeners through Gubaidulina’s sound-forest, offering us beauty and controlled ugliness that flowered in the ears like the sound from the percussionists’ wine glasses, played magician-like with circling fingers. Catching echoes from the percussion, the BBC Singers offered glimpses of St Francis of Assisi’s text, bright through the darker colours of cello and percussion.

You know you’re looking at a Tavener score when markings like “shining with rapture and abounding in bliss” and “flowering like a lotus” pepper the score. In an echo of Graham Fitkin’s Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, premiered just a few days ago, Sir John Tavener’s new Popule meus for cello and chamber orchestra eschews solo virtuosity in favour of a much more colouristic purity of line. Setting the cello (“the All-Compassionate One”) against the timpani (“man in his vain and pointless rejection”) the orchestra is torn between the two, catching the melodic qualities of each as the work progresses.

Coming from the same sound-world as The Protecting Veil, Tavener exploits the vocal quality of the cello, and Clein offered us sighing, singing, lamenting and prayerful exhortation in the charged legato of her lines. While four main themes circulate through the work, it is two – one Western, a bittersweet romantic nod to Howells or even Finzi, the other an Eastern-inflected coil of microtones and guttural voice-breaks – that linger longest, and will doubtless ensure the work’s success with audiences.

preview singersYet in the face of Gubaidulina’s dense, lived-in symbolism, the easy oppositions of Popule meus felt just a little too pat, too pre-packaged, despite Clein and the Britten Sinfonia’s best attempts to humanise and rough them up a bit.

The concert opened with the rather more grounded spirituality of Tippett, in two choral works – The Windhover and Plebs angelica. While the Neo-Renaissance pastichery of the latter is deeply attractive, and drew a surprising purity from the BBC Singers (pictured left), it was Hopkins’s sprung rhythm (what composer would so eloquently relish “daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”) that fizzed and convulsed with life, matched for quality of sound-energy by the Britten Sinfonia’s exuberant rendition of Tippett’s Little Music for Strings.

The risks and exploratory journeys of this year’s Proms Matinees have been a reminder of the scope of this biggest of classical music festivals. A more user-friendly counterpart to the Late-Night Proms (that while unfailingly atmospheric often don’t quite fit into working life), these weekly concerts at Cadogan Hall deserve a bigger audience than they get, offering an intensity so suited to these spiritual works that can rarely be achieved in the echo-chamber of the Royal Albert Hall.

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