Fresh from the rather disappointing performance at the rather special Bayreuth Festspielhaus, it was back into Proms season and a run of tremendous performances in the dismal Royal Albert Hall… it would seem that the Albert Hall has a message for Bayreuth: you can have a special and well-designed theatre, but it ain’t much use if what you put on isn’t up to scratch. It goes without saying that all of these performances would have been that much more special in a better acoustic, but they still achieved rare levels of intensity in Kensington’s cavernous barn.
First up was Nina Stemme’s Salome, accompanied by a tremendous cast and Donald Runnicles’ Deutsche Oper forces. It was an extraordinary performance, surely about as close to the ideal as it is possible to be: a voice of Isolde scale deployed with artistry that can still communicate the sinuous, insidious undercurrents that power the role so effectively. Stemme’s radiant portrayal gave passion and petulance to the anti-heroine, gloriously macabre in her final scene. She was surrounded by the required gallery of grotesques, notably a twitchy Herod from Burkhard Ulrich and sensationally scenery-chewing Herodias from Doris Soffel (her short, coiffed blond hair lending her a demonic Christine Lagarde appearance). Samuel Youn lacked the declamation for Jokanaan’s rather wearying condemnations of everyone and everything. Runnicles like his dynamics, notably in the Dance of the Seven Veils, where things started out with phrase-caressing slowness, and accelerated to a whirlwind close, and throughout the score had a wonderful transparency. The Deutsche Oper orchestra played gorgeously – as one might expect from an orchestra so steeped in Strauss.
Then it was Strauss again, this time Elektra‘s world of violence, hatred and subconscious torment. Semyon Bychkov led the BBC Symphony Orchestra: the climaxes were suitably thunderous, but what truly came alive were the more touching moments of the Recognition scene. The interlude that introduced it came alive as Strauss the tone-poet, whereas the rare tenderness of the dialogue following their recognition brought forth delicate string themes such as are familiar from Der Rosenkavalier. It was a wonderful account of the score.
The performance was elevated to the absolute top rank by another performance of astonishing intensity, and once again a breathtaking power and stamina deployed with great intelligence. When Christine Goerke performed Elektra at the ROH, I was distracted too much by audience members to be able to properly connect with the performance. No such problem here, for once. Goerke was wonderfully lyrical in conveying Elektra’s distress and restless energy for revenge. No sign of flagging at the end, her tone rock-solid throughout, and gleaming without tipping over into the excessively hard-edged. Her final dance culminated in a dramatic collapse on the Albert Hall stage, bringing to a close a performance of great power and drama. Accompanying her was the Chrysothemis of Gun-Brit Barkmin, a name new to me, but singing with a pleasingly clean, crisp sound that made her ‘little sister’ register well alongside this formidable Elektra. Every bit a match for Goerke was the experienced and utterly absorbing Klytemnestra of Dame Felicity Palmer: a haunted but vicious creation, so totally able to project the internal struggles and psychodramas of the tortured mother. For the men, Robert Künzli was the sappy Aegisthus, and Johan Reuter an urgent Orest.
Away from the Albert Hall for a chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall, and Dame Felicity Palmer was joined by Ian Bostridge and John Wilson leading the Nash Ensemble in a performance of William Walton and Edith Sitwell’s rather dotty Façade. That dramatic sense was evident in spades, with a rather more ‘inflected’ performance than I recall hearing before: lovely accents and comic round-offs! Bostridge got his chops around the twisting words, even though the amplification had him a bit too loud to be as clearly discernible, but he didn’t seem to have so much fun with it. The Nash Ensemble played beautifully: crisp articulation and lots of fun with the shifting sound world.
And back again to the Albert Hall, for the penultimate Prom: Beethoven’s 9th in a performance by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under an indefatigable Alan Gilbert, replacing Riccardo Chailly who was presumably at home nursing his broken wrist. Gilbert was a joy to watch, active in shaping orchestral dynamics and with great interaction across the orchestral sections. The symphony followed a short première: Friedrich Cerha’s Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a short and noisy piece which barely hinted at the open falling phrases of Beethoven’s work, other than to repeat them on various percussion instruments, including tubular bells, which led to an unfortunate desire to shout ‘will someone answer that door?’ When it came, however, the symphony was, for much of the time, a delicate affair, and in the third movement it suggested a performance that would perhaps have been more at home in the Queen Elizabeth Hall than the open expanses of the Albert Hall. The contrast with the finale was tremendous, when all of life seemed to come flooding into the party. The massed forces of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir, Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir, the London Symphony Chorus and Members of the Leipzig Opera Chorus gave an emotionally overwhelming affirmation of joy. Soloists were Christina Landshamer, Gerhild Romberger (notable for an evident rich mezzo-soprano sound), Steve Davislim and Dmitry Belosselskiy. “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!“, indeed.
And then there was the Last Night of the Proms… more of which, anon…