Proms 13 & 14 –Verdi: Requiem | Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Soloists and Choirs; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bychkov | Stuttgart RSO (SW)/Norrington

Royal Albert Hall, 27 July 2011 4 stars3 stars

Marina PoplavskayaThese two Proms both featured one great work, each delivered in a concentrated interval-less span. However, while the massed forces assembled for Verdi's Requiem were marshalled by Semyon Bychkov to shattering effect, Roger Norrington's unapologetically Spartan approach to Mahler's symphonic swan song remained an intriguing but, to my ears, disappointingly dry affair.

Verdi's great choral masterpiece is the sort of work on which the Proms thrives, and here the programmers had brought together three choirs – the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir – alongside an extremely fine quartet of soloists. These forces at full throttle, as, of course, in the 'Dies Irae', produced an irresistible power, even if in the choral writing of the 'Sanctus' it felt like Bychkov was at the helm of an oil tanker. The conductor's control was never in doubt, though, and he maintained an enviable balance between detail and scale, whilst unerringly tapping into an underlying flow beneath the surface.

He also managed to galvanise his soloists into an impressive unit, bounded by genuinely moving emotional involvement that made them each convincing protagonists in the Requiem's often very human drama. Soprano Marina Poplavskaya led from the front with an often astonishing performance. Sometimes prone to a certain hauteur on the opera stage, she here performed with powerful emotional commitment, soaring to the heights with ease, filling the Albert Hall with impressively rounded tone. Intonation problems crept in towards the final stages of the evening, particularly in the taxing 'Libera Me', but this was still an impressive performance.

She was well matched by Mariana Pentcheva's powerful mezzo-soprano (a late replacement for Sonia Ganassi) and veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto's anguished, lived-in account of the bass's music. Joseph Calleja, meanwhile, further cemented his credentials as the tenor soloist, producing an endless supply of honeyed, perfectly controlled tone. With fine playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it all added up to a moving performance.

If only the same could be said for Norrington's Mahler. The conductor's no stranger to controversy, of course, and is famous for creating a vibrato-free zone with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR). This season sees the end of his directorship with that orchestra, and I couldn't help wondering, as the string players enthusiastically tapped their stands in appreciation at the end of this concert, whether any of them weren't secretly looking forward to re-introducing a bit of left hand wobble when Stéphane Denève takes over in the Autumn.

In a programme interview Norrington re-characterizes the whole of Mahler's Ninth as less serious, less morbid than we are usually led to believe. Central to this approach seems to be the discovery that Mahler quoted Johann Strauss II's waltz, 'Freut euch des Lebens' in the opening movement. It's not all doom and gloom, then: this symphony has a lighter side. And Norrington even turned to the audience with a trademark wink at the end of the Ländler second movement to make sure we got the message.  

Vibrato, he further argues, was a cheap effect for 'low' music that had no place in the 'noble' symphony. And for all Norrington's revolutionary fervour, this seems a decidedly reactionary stance, reasserting the virginal sanctity of a score that should be saved from 'cheap' emotion – as Richard Taruskin has argued for a couple of decades now, such arguments tend to reveal a great deal more about the ideology of those making them then the time they claim to recreate. I suppose, though, it's an approach that finds strength from undoing everything that brought about the original Mahler revival in the first place: the idea that here was a composer who captured all the neuroses, emotions and complexity of modern human life.

But what of the effect in concert? First, it should be noted that it's not just about vibrato, and the whole symphony was also much faster than we're used to (the finale came in around 20 minutes, rather than the more normal 25 minutes plus). The effect does admittedly bring to mind all the usual period practice rhetoric: we hear it anew; it's a classic scrubbed clean of unthinking tradition; it's revelatory.

However, I remained deeply unconvinced. And whole stretches, particularly in the inner movements, felt long, lacking in variety and colour, tootling along rather too pleasantly. There were new sounds to be heard, but I was left largely unmoved. Norrington's approach did indeed bring a nobility to certain passages – the final pages, for example – but I missed the necessary contrast with full-blooded emotion elsewhere.

I was left wanting more; so, apparently, was Norrington, who gave us a touchingly done Elgar 'Elegy' as an encore.   

By Hugo Shirley