A disappointing Prom from Nathalie Stutzmann and BBCNOW

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

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

product_title=Prom 26: Nathalie Stutzmann conducts the BBC National Chorus and National Orchestra of Wales
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Fatma Said (soprano), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Sunnyboy Dladla (tenor) and David Shipley (bass)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou