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17 Aug 2019

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

Prom 39: BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Errollyn Wallen, Catriona Morison and Elim Chan

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou


This was a neatly devised programme, and it was conducted with meticulous care and attentiveness to coloristic detail by Elim Chan, making her Proms debut, though the music was sometimes lacking in the freedom and flexibility which is inherent in the broad-breathed sweep of its melodic and formal structures.

Morison, also making her Proms debut, has a dignity and composure on stage which confirms that her relative youth in no way hinders the impression communicated to the (on this occasion, near capacity) audience that this is a ‘star singer’ before them. She took her time to appreciate and acknowledge the warm, extended applause which greeted her arrival on the Royal Albert Hall stage and was evidently both delighted and grateful to be performing with her fellow musicians in the Hall.

Morison’s performance of Elgar’s Sea Pictures was characterised by a certain reserve and perhaps even understatement at times, the lyricism and feeling being conveyed more by clarity of conception and precision of delivery than by emotive effort. She has a wonderfully even and steady voice, which stretches down and upwards with equal ease and smoothness: Morison did not recourse to the ‘alternative’, higher, vocal line that Elgar occasionally offers the non-contralto singer, but exhibited a strong lower register as the sea ‘murmurs her slumber song on the shadowy sand’ (Sea Slumber-Song). However, the RAH is not kind to solo vocalists, and despite Chan’s best efforts the balance was not ideal, with Morison’s mezzo sometimes seeming embedded within the orchestral texture. I’d have liked more sense of the ‘pull’ of the tide, too, from the BBCNOW. The string tenutos in the Tranquillo section of ‘Sea Slumber-Song’ heaved and laboured rather than ebbed and flowed. Morison’s excellent diction countered the RAH’s challenging acoustic though, and there was a magical quality about the repeated ‘good nights’ that rove through hinterland harmonies before finding a comforting resolution.

‘In Haven’ had a beguiling lilt, and Chan exploited the delicate tenderness of Elgar’s orchestration, though perhaps Morison’s approach was a little too forthright, lacking in nostalgic dreaminess. ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ had an engaging intensity, with Chan providing a volatile instrumental backdrop, now gentle, now grandiose, with celli and basses evoking the sea’s deep and undeniable strength with urgency and ominous intimation. But, the vocal rise of the final stanza gave us the first real opportunity to relish Morison’s focused and luxuriant upper register, which she used to communicate the ecstasy of the text: “And, on that sea commixed with fire,/ Oft drop their eyelids raised too long/To the full Godhead’s burning!”

‘Where Corals Lie’ was sinuous and permitted flashes of shine and sparkle, with Chan once again creating a transparent instrumental texture, and following the vocal rubatos assiduously. ‘The Swimmer’ evoked both the thrill and the danger of the ocean, pressing forward, the orchestral crests surging ebulliently, the frequent stepwise bass lines brisk and light. The lustre of Morison’s final phrases won deserved cheers from the Prommers’, for this was a performance of considerable control and equanimity.

Morison returned after the interval for the world premiere of Errollyn Wallen’s THIS FRAME IS PART OF THE PAINTING, a BBC commission which was composed specifically for the Scottish mezzo-soprano. Wallen’s career to date has been both eclectic and illustrious: her prolific output includes seventeen operas and she has been the recipient of, among other accolades, the Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music and a British Composer Award. The inspiration for THIS FRAME IS PART OF THE PAINTING is the work of Howard Hodgkin, whose paintings left Wallen (in her own words) “knocked sideways by their emotional force” and intensely moved by their “superior technical mastery of colour, shape and form”. Wallen explains that initially she intended to set poems that were “beloved by Hodgkin. He particularly admired the works of Stevie Smith and James Fenton and his paintings quote their titles”, but in the event “found that my own scribbled words most aptly expressed what I needed for the text”, and used these alongside “a few phrases from Howard Hodgkin himself” and “the tiniest snippets of music he was listening to while painting”.

There’s a lot ‘going on’ in this work, perhaps too much: birth, death, sunrise, sunset; the counterpoint of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices and strains of Raga Ramkali. As for the text, I think I’d have preferred Stevie Smith to assorted fragments, such as (in the second section ‘Solitude’) “Clock/clock ticks/clock ticks/Solitude/Alone/Clock ticks … ticks … Oh time … Note to self … Note to self- … don’t be lazy”, or (in the section titled ‘Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music’) “Oh ‘with/maximum feeling’/‘with maximum feeling’/‘with maximum feeling’/‘with maximum feeling’”. Wallen is either being mystical or insouciant, ‘meaningful’ or ironic, perhaps all of these things: I wasn’t sure.

With the concluding ‘Sunrise Over Hopkins’, the text turns to matters painterly: “Permanent Green Light/Cadmium Yellow Deep/Permanent Sap Green/Bright Green Lake.” “These are paintings that move and dance with life,” Wallen says, and her own composition does no less, constantly shifting, evolving and burgeoning through myriad colours and textures. Listening to the explosion of energy at start of central movement, ‘Certainty’, I was reminded of Wallen’s dance training by the Stravinskian cross-rhythms, syncopations and driving ostinato fragments, and by the athletic strength of the vocal line which meanders, then, leaps, pushing ever higher: “I fly.” Wallen has articulated the movement and form that is generated by Hodgkin’s colours, and the power of the artist’s palette is translated into a kinetic soundscape.

At the opening of ‘Innocence’, the first of five movements which form a continuous whole, mutating gestures suggest the dipping of a painter’s brush into a swirling pool of colour: harp ripples, woodwind undulations, swelling horns and the constant string flow suggest discovery, a Ravel-like enchantment. The ‘magic’ is enhanced by the melismatic entry of the voice, an extended, ecstatic ‘Ah’ which finds form in the first textual phrase, “A little child”. Morison sang with immense tenderness and poise, “I wish I could sing like my mother’s does”; then the lullaby lilt rocked with increasing passion, before bursting into silence. THIS FRAME IS PART OF THE PAINTING is never still, even in the silences, though there is a notable spaciousness for the voice, aiding the clarity of diction and giving time for Morison to establish a particular sensibility through the weight and colour of her mezzo-soprano. At times, though, I felt almost overwhelmed by the plethora of ideas and moods: thick brass dissonances and hefty percussion evoked a philosophical aura at the start of ‘Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music’, but this was immediately swept aside by Morison’s simply, direct address: “Let me tell you a story.” The ‘interruption’ of Byrd’s Mass at the opening of ‘Sunrise over Hopkins’ was similarly disconcerting: the brass counterpoint was taken up by the woodwind, the strings deepened the texture, then harp, organ, thundering percussion were added, building to a fiery orchestral climax which exploded to leave Morison’s soaring “Love” alone, shimmering around the vast auditorium. Impressive stuff, but quite exhausting too.

Elim Chan, who was the first woman to win the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, in 2014, dispensed with a baton in the two vocal works, using expressive hand gestures to sculpt the orchestral sound, responding sensitively to Morison’s vocal phrasing. Chan’s technique in the opening work, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, was by contrast taut and detailed. This was a restrained performance: the tempo was steady and the shadows deep - this sea was swathed in mist, so much so that I struggled to feel the tilt of the waves, the rocking of the wind. Similarly, the sun which warmed the water during the easeful second theme of the cellos and bassoons was a weak light. I felt that there was a loss of tension in the development section and though Chan kept an iron grip on the rhythm arguments this imposed a ‘Classicism’ on music that felt as if it wanted to slip its leash and run headlong into Romantic freedom: where was the driving wind and the lashing spray? Where was the exhilaration, the adventure?

Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition (as arranged for orchestra by Ravel) completed the programme. The tempo of the opening ‘Promenade’ was stately, the theme noble, a little pompous perhaps. Again, I missed the flexibility - even imbalance - that is inherent in Mussorgsky’s metrical juxtapositions. ‘Gnomus’, which was inspired by a drawing of a deformed gnome, was threatening, but almost too precise to suggest the restless nerviness of the midget with malformed legs. Beautiful saxophone, horn, bassoon and oboes solos in ‘Il Vecchio Castello’, captured the soulfulness of troubadour’s unrequited love, but the pizzicatos and spiccatos of ‘Tuileries’, though deft, were not particularly spiteful, and the ‘Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells’ was frenetic rather than flighty. The ‘lumbering ox’ in ‘Bydlo’ - a fine tuba solo - seemed to be striding forth rather than staggering, while the strings did seem as if they might fall over their own feet in the unison episode at the start of ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle’.

The BBCNOW did conjure a fitting edgy liveliness in ‘Marketplace at Limoges’, threatening to erupt into chaos until rudely interrupted by terrifically menacing brass chords at the start of ‘Catacombs’, the eeriness of which Chan transformed into melancholia in the following ‘Cum mortuis in lingua mortua’. By turns fierce and gruesome, ‘Baba Yaga’ was followed by the concluding ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, which was grandiose rather than glorious or triumphant. Fortunately, we had had Catriona Morison - and Elgar and Wallen - to guide us to emotional and expressive heights.

Claire Seymour

BBC Prom 39: Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano), Elim Chan (conductor), BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Mendelssohn - Overture, ‘The Hebrides’ (‘Fingal’s Cave’); Elgar - Sea Pictures Op.37; Errollyn Wallen - THIS FRAME IS PART OF THE PAINTING (BBC commission, world premiere); Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

Royal Albert Hall, London; Thursday 15th August 2019.

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