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

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

Morison returned after the interval for the world premiere of Errollyn
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

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 Schmuˇle’.

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.

product_title=Prom 39: BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Errollyn Wallen, Catriona Morison and Elim Chan

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou