Chineke! Voices and Orchestra at the Proms

Very much a concert of two (unequal) halves, I am afraid.  The first Proms performance of George Walker’s 1995 Lilacs promised and delivered much.  However, the following performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, though loudly acclaimed by much of the audience, exposed yet another contemporary conductor’s inability or unwillingness to do much more than skate over and harry this unluckiest of scores.

Walker’s piece, for voice (Nicole Cabell) and orchestra offered many connections, even correspondences, with other music.  What music, after all, does not?  It could never, however, be reduced to those correspondences, speaking very much with its own voice and in its own way: direct yet rich, purposeful, yet (unlike poor Beethoven) with plenty of space. The opening horn solo and uneasy, gorgeous post-Romantic harmonies brought Henze to my mind.  Certainly, when the voice entered in the first of the four movements, each setting a stanza from Walt Whitman, it was a post-Bergian world the grateful vocal line announced.  Well-shaped, alluring, satisfyingly coherent: one might say the same for work as for performance, and for each of those four movements.  Each was characterised by an arresting opening, low angular brass answered by strings at the outset of the second; a wandering flute line, then oboe, preparing the way for the voice in the third; and a clockwork, ghost-in-the-machine introduction announcing the fourth, answered by exultant vocal freedom from Cabell. ‘Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird…’.  The lingering postlude found the Chineke! Orchestra, as elsewhere, very much in its element, sensitively directed by Kevin John Edusei.

I shall try not to linger describing the Ninth.  I desperately wanted to like, to respond positively to a performance of such enthusiasm from the young players.  Edusei’s conception, conducted from memory, seemed to me so perverse, though, that I can only wish I had left at the interval.  The first movement I have never heard taken at such a speed; not only that, but its short-breathed quality (repeated, alas, throughout the symphony) robbed it of line, consequence, more or less any possibility of musical meaning.  Such hyper-urgency worked a little better in the development, but what should have been the wildness of the return sounded far too controlled to register for much. The coda had a little more fire, yet was so brittle it might have snapped.  Edusei’s approach was more suited to the scherzo, and there was no gainsaying the admirable clarity of the orchestral playing. The trio was similarly athletic, not relaxing a jot. The Adagio flowed, as they say; it was at first amiable enough.  We can talk all we like about how constructed German ideas of musical ‘depth’ may be; of course, they are.  But really, was that it?  Apparently so.

As for the finale, that must have been the most underwhelming I have heard its opening.  It went on its way, finely articulated, something akin perhaps to ‘designer Beethoven’.  Matters picked up with the advent of the voice, Ryan Speedo Green truly using words and music to communicate Schiller as well as Beethoven.  The chorus and other soloists responded in lively fashion.  It was all extremely regimented. Without space to breathe or anything much in the sense of harmonic development, though, this came across more as a musical patchwork, with various incidental pleasures to be heard in the quality of singing and playing.  I could not help but think of Daniel Barenboim conducting this same work here with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra ten years earlier.  That, for me, had been air from another planet, but I should repeat that many in the hall appeared to respond with similar enthusiasm here.  

Mark Berry

Prom 61: George WalkerLilacs; BeethovenSymphony No.9 in D minor Op.125

Nicole Cabell (soprano), Raehann Bryce-Davis (mezzo-soprano), Zwakele Tshabalala (tenor), Ryan Speedo Green (baritone), Chineke! Voices (chorus master: Simon Halsey), Chineke! Orchestra, Kevin John Edusei (conductor).

Royal Albert Hall, London; 2nd September 2022.

ABOVE: Nicole Cabell (soprano), Raehann Bryce-Davis (mezzo-soprano), Chineke! Orchestra conducted by Kevin John Edusei (c) BBC / Mark Allan