BBC Proms #44 – Soloists, BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Ethel Smyth ‘Mass’ & Debussy ‘Nocturnes’

Prom 44 – Nardus Williams (soprano), Bethan Langford (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Božidar Smiljanić (bass), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Debussy Nocturnes (1897-9)
Smyth Mass in D (1891, rev. 1924) [Proms premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London

Saturday 20 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Chris Christodoulou

His third Prom this season found Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an unlikely yet, in the event, thought provoking double-bill of pieces composed at either end of the same decade and which duly played to the strengths of all those who were taking part.

The music of Ethel Smyth has been a prominent feature of this season and while her Mass in D comes too early in her career to be considered ‘mature’, it does evince many of those traits as defined the operas that followed. Written during a brief flush of adherence to Anglicanism, this is demonstrably a concert rather than liturgical setting (which makes its apparent status as the first Mass heard publicly in England for almost 300 years the more ironic) and, moreover, one of a ‘symphonic’ rather than ‘solemn’ conception despite the audible debt to Beethoven.

Smyth reinforces this aspect by placing the Gloria at the close – thereby making it the finale of a sequence in which the Kyrie, building gradually to a baleful climax before returning to its initial sombreness, becomes an extended introduction to the Credo whose numerous sub-sections facilitate a sonata-form design of no mean formal cohesion and expressive breadth. For their part, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei function as extended slow movement whose (for the most part) emotional restraint enables the soloists to come to the fore – after which, the Gloria takes its place as a finale not least in terms of drawing on previous themes and motifs through to the forceful though never merely bathetic culmination. That Smythe did not essay a symphony given her evident structural command seems the more surprising.

Tonight’s performance was no less assured than that which Oramo gave at the Barbican (and subsequently recorded, albeit with different soloists) three seasons ago. The soloists made the most of their contributions – Nardus Williams bringing a plaintiveness and elegance that was ideally complemented with Bethan Langford’s warmth and understated fervency, and though Robert Murray’s ardency showed signs of strain, he was no less ‘inside’ his part than Božidar Smiljanić, whose solo was more affecting for its burnished eloquence. The BBC Symphony Chorus responded as one to the full-on contrapuntal writing of those main movements, while Richard Pearce ensured the (too?) extensive organ part did not muddy the orchestral textures. Oramo directed with clear enjoyment a work that, for the most part, justified its 62 minutes.

In the first half, Oramo presided over a searching account of Debussy’s Nocturnes – its three movements still sometimes encountered separately but far more effective heard as a complete entity. Not its least impressive aspect was the ease with which these followed on from each other with a cumulative inevitability – the fugitive shading of Nuages (melting cor anglais playing by Helen Vigurs) leading to the half-lit activity of Fêtes, with its darting gestures and a central march-past of vivid understatement, then on to the sensuous allure of Sirènes.

As enticing as the women’s voices of the BBCSC sounded in this closing movement, it was the fervency with which Oramo infused its recalcitrant content such as made it the natural culmination of the sequence – the final bars dying away with a tangible sense of fulfillment.

Click on the artist names for more information on Nardus Williams, Bethan Langford, Robert Murray, Božidar Smiljanić and Sakari Oramo and for more information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra head to their website. For more on composer Dame Ethel Smyth, click here

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