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Reviews

09 Aug 2019

A disappointing Prom from Nathalie Stutzmann and BBCNOW

Nathalie Stutzmann really is an impressive conductor. The sheer elegance she brings to her formidable technique, the effortless drive towards making much of the music she conducts sound so passionate and the ability to shock us into hearing something quite new in music we think we know is really rather refreshing. Why then did this Prom sometimes feel weary, even disappointing at times?

Prom 26: Nathalie Stutzmann conducts the BBC National Chorus and National Orchestra of Wales

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Fatma Said (soprano), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Sunnyboy Dladla (tenor) and David Shipley (bass)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

The key to this came early in Brahms’s Tragic Overture. Stutzmann is disinclined to take a grand, even Romantic, view of what she conducts - tempi start out with such visceral, blazing fire to them they quickly become extinguished. A Stutzmann performance is often in reverse intensity - a quite odd experience, which even over quite short works causes the mind to wander. It’s certainly true that the opening to this overture had energy, almost too much of it - but the impact of the first subject didn’t feel compellingly dramatic because of that. The development, if beautifully shaped, just felt like burning embers and there was really nothing left to ignite a coda that limped towards an undramatic end.

The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde fared somewhat better, though I had completely forgotten this piece was on the program so memories of Sir Colin Davis and the LSO in their Philips recording (even if we try to erase Jessye Norman) were still fresh in my mind from the previous day. Stutzmann doesn’t linger in this music - at all. Bar rests are very brief, almost as if they are non-existent. But on the upside, she whips up a storm of passion which is very powerful. She is riveting to watch, however. Her baton hand exerts formidable control over the orchestra; and yet her left hand literally pulls the sound out of the players. One could quibble with a few things in this performance: The cellos didn’t really sound haunting enough (despite a lot of vibrato to suggest otherwise) and some of the woodwind felt a little lacklustre. But the climax was mighty, built up with extraordinary skill with a lovely glow to the basses that resonated (they very often don’t). I’m not sure the Liebestod itself matched the intensity of the Prelude; those incredible waves of sound that should be there sounded a little short on height, and low on shattering power.

Mozart’s Requiem, which ended this concert, proved most controversial of all. The last two performances of this work I have heard - one in Tokyo (given two weeks after Fukushima), the other in London - have been given for non-secular reasons, and they proved to be overwhelming musical experiences. In every sense, Stutzmann led a performance of the Requiem which felt every inch as if it was a concert. But it was worse than that: It sounded experimental in form and structure, it was often sung poorly and it really didn’t feel much like a requiem at all.

Despite the orchestration of this work, this did not come across as a particularly dark performance. The orchestra, which had given quite beautiful tonal weight in the Brahms and Wagner, here sounded undernourished. But what orchestra could ever find any blend or depth of sound when its conductor takes the opening of the ‘Dies irae’ at such a blistering speed? I’m not sure I have ever heard it taken this fast; the ‘Confutatis’ would suffer a similar fate. Quite what Stutzmann was aiming for here left me genuinely perplexed. The sense it might be the horror, fear or sheer dread of death itself felt distinctly unconvincing especially when more conventionally driven performances of this work convey it so much more powerfully at more metrically precise tempi. But any hope she might draw some radiance or light in the more sepulchral sections of the requiem proved wishful thinking. ‘Lacrimosa’ simply underwhelmed.

As did much of the singing. Given Stutzmann’s own background as a contralto one might have expected a little more attention to the vocal detail; but apparently not. Balance between orchestra and chorus was largely skilfully done. I was less certain placing the soloists behind the orchestra was a benefit, especially since their projection seemed over-amplified. If the singing of the BBC National Chorus of Wales was either coherent or precise one really struggled to tell; pronunciation often came across as opaque, and you rarely got a sense of the voices fusing well. The quartet of soloists were very uneven. The tenor, Sunnyboy Dladla, has the most penetrating upper register - and not in the best way. I really found his upper range difficult to tolerate for any stretch of time; too often his high notes just fractured like broken glass. Oddly, the lower range of his voice is quite beautiful - but it’s just such an uneven tenor. David Shipley’s bass is overly monochromatic for my tastes, and rather unbalanced with it. I didn’t particularly notice much in the way of dynamic nuances in much of what he sang - it all sounded at one level. Fatma Said’s soprano, if rather on the small side, is exquisite, firm at the top and rich in the middle. Kathryn Rudge sometimes struggled to power her mezzo-soprano sufficiently but when she did the richness of her sound is compelling to hear.

Not the most overwhelming of Proms, I’m afraid.

Marc Bridle

This Prom will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 11th August at 7pm. It is also available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Fatma Said - soprano, Kathryn Rudge - mezzo-soprano, Sunnyboy Dladla - tenor, David Shipley - bass, Nathalie Stutzmann - conductor, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Royal Albert Hall, London 7th August 2019

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