Concert Review: The London Proms

Octogenarian Sir Colin Davis was in complete control of The London Symphony Orchestra, in a glorious rendition of the 'Missa Solemnis.'

London Proms 311 (photo credit: Irving Spitz)
London Proms 311
(photo credit: Irving Spitz)
Prom is an abbreviation for promenade. During this annual festival, 900 Prommers stand in the central arena of the vast Royal Albert Hall, with a further 500 in the gallery. The rest of the audience is accommodated in seats in the tiered arches.
The current two-month festival comprised 74 concerts. I heard Sir Colin Davis conducting The London Symphony Orchestra in a glorious performance of Beethoven’s masterpiece, the Missa Solemnis with the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Symphony Chorus. From a seated position, the octogenarian Colin Davis was in absolute control. He conducted the work at a slow, measured pace and despite his minimum of gestures, the orchestra responded to his every motion.
Without question, the most successful of the vocal soloists was Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano). Her contributions to the Sanctus and Agnes Dei were particularly noteworthy. Helena Juntunen (soprano) and Matthew Rose (bass) were both effective although the former was too dramatic and the latter took some time to settle in. Paul Groves is a light lyrical tenor and it was often difficult to hear him above the orchestra.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the performance was the violin obbligato played by orchestra leader Gordan Nikolitch accompanying the soloists in the Benedictus. The huge choral forces added much drama to this overwhelming and inspiring performance. Catherine Edward’s playing of the Albert Hall organ was noteworthy.
The other concert featured the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under its Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck. Although not a member of the so called “Big Five,” their playing was very proficient. As a short curtain- raiser, they played three extracts from a piece entitled the Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz by the relatively unknown German composer, Walter Braunfels. His music was popular in Germany and even internationally in the 1920 and early 1930’s. This late romantic work highlighted the proficiency of the brass and woodwind section of this technically impressive orchestra.
A performance of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto with the French pianist Hélène Grimaud followed. No one could argue with Ms Grimaud’s formidable piano technique as shown by her exemplary rendering of the first movement cadenza. She has a wonderful, light touch and her fortissimo passages were also outstanding.
The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. There was some beautiful playing, notably the mournful clarinets at the beginning of the first movement and the horn in the second.
However there was too much accentuation of the brass and I missed the grand romantic sweep and emotional intensity associated with this work. The performance was somewhat uninspiring and one could not escape the conclusion that Honeck was most interested in showing off the prowess of the strings, brass and woodwinds and percussion of this fine ensemble.