Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea (1871) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Both works were composed during the 1890s. Debussy’s Nocturnes owe to Whistler (an American artist from Massachusetts who died in London). Sakari Oramo is a notable Ravelian, and, and is no less distinguished in Debussy. His conducting of the Nocturnes matched the accomplishment of the music, its subtlety and sophisticated description, every brushstroke painstakingly notated, whether the floating of ‘Nuages’ and the melancholy therein – lovely woodwind solos and exquisite pianissimos – the spectral brilliance and vital rhythms of ‘Fêtes’, articulated within an ideal (relatively moderate) tempo that allowed for a resplendent climax, starting from afar, and ‘Sirènes’, with the Ladies of the BBC Symphony Chorus vocalising in-tune with the Orchestra (not a given) and seductive – how could any sailor resist – with Oramo catching the music’s restlessness unerringly.

Oramo has previously conducted Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D in London and recorded it for Chandos, This dedicated Proms performance made a big impression, the piece itself intriguing, beginning as if Plainsong, and one might hear Brahms and Verdi in the opening movement, if overall the biggest inspiration could be Dvořák – so, this is music of its nearly-over century, contrasted here with Debussy looking to the next one – but whatever the influences Dame Ethel’s writing can be dramatic, thrilling, and also contemplative. It’s far from ‘spot the composer’, for Smyth treads her own path with skill and individuality, yet maybe Beethoven’s ‘Missa solemnis’ (his Mass in D) is also in the mix, particularly during the ‘Credo’, and there are English characteristics, too, reasonably enough, including the visiting Felix Mendelssohn – maybe that’s why Queen Victoria was so keen on this Smyth. Perhaps these stylistic discrepancies count against the Smyth, possibly this hour-long chorus-dominated Mass simply isn’t memorable enough (and the vocal writing, whether for the soloists or the choir, appears awkward, if superbly negotiated on this occasion), but it was good to hear this Smyth, and if it never shows again we at least have Chandos’s recording, the evening ending with the ‘Gloria’ (unusually, albeit as the composer requests), containing some of the work’s most engaging invention and with a barnstorming finish, needing an organ and with “Amen!” as the final word. Excellent broadcast sound.

Kyrie-Credo-Sanctus-Benedictus-Agnus Dei-Gloria

Nardus Williams (soprano)
Bethan Langford (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Božidar Smiljanić (bass-baritone)

BBC Proms 2022 – Prom 39: BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sakari Oramo. Mark-Anthony Turnage. Time Flies. Elgar’s First Symphony. Constantin Hartwig/Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto. Live BBC Radio 3 broadcast.