Prom 8: 800 Years of Cambridge University

Keenlyside, Trotter, Cambridge choirs, BBC SO/Davis

Royal Albert Hall, 25 July 2009 4 stars

Andrew DavisThe 800th anniversary of Cambridge University was celebrated in Prom 8. The programme was filled with composers associated with the university, such as old alumni Vaughan Williams, Charles Stanford, and Jonathan Harvey. The musicians on the night were drawn equally from that same source; Cambridge's remarkable choral tradition was represented by the presence of a number of its choirs, whilst conductor and soloists Andrew Davis, Simon Keenlyside and Thomas Trotter, are all former students.

The presence of Prince Charles added to the pageantry of the whole occasion (and seemed to gratify some members of the crowd), though the more progressively inclined members of the audience would probably have gladly foregone both the headache-inducing queues and the painful romantic jingoism of the stout singing of the British National Anthem (albeit given a booming new arrangement by David Willcocks) that his attendance imposed upon them.

Vaughan William's Overture to The Wasps dispelled some of this discomfiture from the Hall, with its clever and expressive melding of French harmonic and colouristic touches to a pleasing folksy joviality. The same composer's Five Mystical Songs, with a reliably sturdy (though as ever with a vocal soloist somewhat singing into the wind in the Hall's draughty excesses) Simon Keenlyside alternately searching and intimate, like his accompanists, came later. It is another pastorally-inclined work that yet burrows deep into little nooks and crannies of harmony and texture, to irrigate Herbert's rich poetic texts with a sort of majestic bearing, an enriched perspective. The chorus, comprised of singers from across the various colleges for this cycle, gave firm and impressively secure support throughout.

Ryan Wigglesworth's The Genesis of Secrecy was given its world premiere in between the two RVW works. It is a confident and expressively-scored piece that has echoes of Magnus Lindberg in the orchestration and design, with older composers such as Sibelius and Debussy clearly inspiring some of the tonal and textural gestures. It was performed with some grace, particularly in the sensitivity to string colour and the vivid cor anglais solos, though it all felt a little tentative. The conclusion, particularly, after the return of the velvety string music, felt totally misjudged by Davis. In his eagerness to draw out the composer's limpid formal design, the conductor did not attend adequately to the languid phrasing and the cadential stresses required.

Davis was strapping in Stanford's Magnificat and Nunc dimittis after the break. The work is full of heft and vigour, and the careful design played out well in this reading. The choirs, again from combined colleges, proved dynamic and capable once again. Two more recent works followed the Stanford. Jonathan Harvey's setting of the famous chant Veni Creator Spiritus, entitled Come, Holy Ghost, is both clear-sighted and enigmatic. Over four clear sections, he employs simple games of counterpoint and texture, aligned to a cunning retooling of simple modal design, to conjure a psychedelic sound full of misty harmonies and hallucinatory gestures. The piece remembers the chant just as it is forgetting it. It is revenant and newborn, haunted but alive. The King's and St. John's College Choirs provided the young ensemble of singers. They struggled gamely with the vaporised textures, sometimes losing sight of each other, but always pristine in tone and capable with even the most hushed dynamics (helped along by conductor Andrew Nethsingha).

Judith Weir's Ascending into Heaven was equally impressive, though its wonderfully naÔve use of bare octatonic contours and charming trochaic comportment produced a very different impression in sound than the Harvey. Thomas Trotter on organ and Stephen Cleobury on the podium gently danced around the young singers' accomplished efforts. Camille Saint-SaŽns' Organ Symphony, with Trotter again on organ and Davis back as conductor, rounded out the programme. The piece is, of course, as thrilling in colour and energy as it is clever in design. Davis and the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who had been on confident form all evening, dispatched every twist and turn with aplomb. The opening sounded prone, the scherzo almost burst over every bar line with the thrill of the chase, and the finale mesmerically rocked and swayed in and out of flickering pulses and jostling thematic working. A sprawling climax, huge and rousing as it should be, brought another motley evening at the Proms to a close.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Andrew Davis

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