The advantage of hearing the work at 4am (and the only one, when considered against the penalty of not having been there!) is that itís now just gone midday, and that has allowed me to spend a lot more time writing a good first impression, rather than having to try to fall asleep after a long evening of demanding music. After a comfortable intermission Iíve heard the work again complete (only the low-bandwidth stream, but this is still very impressive work from the sound engineers to push out live without modification), and listening to spots here and there to confirm my thoughts. The first listening had to be conducted in accordance with respect for the neighboursí slumber in the wee hours, through headphones; at 9am, the loudspeakers were pressed into service with very satisfying results (where the low end of organ tone and associated contrabass instruments could speak more freely).
The very start of the piece sounded almost clinically precise, perhaps worryingly so: Iíve typeset the first ten or so pages of the work, and know the density of the polyphony very well, so that being able to hear individual lines almost as though they had brackets drawn around them made me worry that some of the parts were being left out, their microphones not yet switched on! And the woodwind tuning at the very start (as early as bar 9, the squeaky little E flat clarinet is horribly exposed at the top of its range) sounded probably a lot more critical into the microphones than in the hall, however bad the infamous Royal Albert Hall acoustic.
Part One is there of course to warm up the orchestra, and the first movement is probably the weakest of the six: the initial harsh tuning of the woodwinds came good with the less extreme second-subject movement that begins after the concertmasterís almost pentatonic solo; the last pages introducing the full organ capping the movement grandly is always effective.
After the required break to accomodate the members of the audience suffering from consumption or emphysema (no attacca!), the Lento was measured in its march, the climaxes being given great weighty breadth. The pronounced staccato brass against sustained woodwind (which were not audible on the stream) after figure 40 puzzled me Ė but thatís how itís marked in the score, so itís the conductorís job to work out how to resolve these textural issues; it may have worked better live.
The Vivace scherzo always seems the most compelling section of the first part, from the timpani and string ostinato and the horn calls onwards, and so it proved in Brabbinís hands, I think; the unleashing of chaos at the con fuoco passage heralded by duelling timpani was wonderfully handled as the virtuoso orchestration demands. The tubas and string basses perhaps struggled to project their complicated galumphing runs as well as the woodwinds supported by the whirling xylophone. (Curiously, the balances kept readjusting themselves to keep a constant dynamic level, which was highlighting the sustained textures Ė particularly string harmonics Ė in a very odd way. I suspect if it is released on disc as a recording, the wider dynamic range will allow this section to sound more naturally balanced.) Only the Grandioso C minor climax of the march felt a little too rushed and impulsive, before the decisive switch by way of a distant modulation to F# and back to the original D minor: the contribution of both bass drums were heard, and almost felt!
The opening choruses of the Te Deum probably have never been sung better, both in the opening passage for children, womenís voices and the soloists, as well as the incredibly detailed motif-working for full chorus, with textures striking in their clear articulation through the ensemble. The pacing of the choral sections Ė which can come off disjointed was logical and assured, though I quite like the a cappella music to be even a touch slower. The choruses are not easy; and it seems unfair to criticise the chorus for pitch discrepancies, but unfortunately, the first re-entry of the orchestra (figure 76) was marred for a number of bars by the flattened entry of the basses which carried most of the choir with it. The final pages with its bold harmonic shifts that lever the Gothic up into the new elevated plane of E major which will predominate over the remainder of the work were fully luminous, beautifully sung and played.
Judex presents a new raft of challenges greater than the ones already surmounted, and Iím ambivalent about the subtle reinforcement by organ: in some places it undoubtedly helped the tuning of the notoriously difficult a cappella music; but the slippage of pitch soon ruled out the organist offering any further help, and the dislocation at the entry of the soprano soloist whose A eventually emerged the better part of a semitone higher than the choirís ďAĒ was regrettable. (In Brisbane, different methods were used to assist this passage; it stayed in pitch, but at the cost of some wayward tuning en route.) The orchestral interludes have seldom felt weightier or more menacing, but I found the entries of the four brass orchestras with their associated division of the choir a little too unrelenting. The slow starting tempo for the second interlude meant a large gear change had to occur at some point (which occurred, in fact, five bars after Brianís marking of ďPiý AllegroĒ). The final pages of Judex sounded wonderfully apocalyptic and the effect in the hall must have been much more actinic and overpowering. (The second last bar could have milked the vocal crescendo just a little further.)
The sixth movement has the most diversity and the struggle is in successfully contrasting the almost irreconcilable disparate musical elements. After the oboe díamore solo (the first of a number of prominent oboe solos in this movement), the tenor aria perhaps wanted a little more beauty in the sudden reversion to chamber-music sensibility of textured playing for its opening stanzas, before the dramatic urge takes over. The incredible celestial passage for choirs (on paper, it looks almost unrehearsable) worked its usual magic when it finally arrived into a single key. The male voice a cappella section sounded less impressive than the womenís bell-like passage, perhaps because each of the four sections of the choir sounded like there were different quantities of voices allocated. The truly weird section comprising popular-sounding clarinet march, seated choir vocalisations, Mahlerian posthorn, and truly over-the-top assertion of the major key was roof-raising, with one truly inspired bit of comic pointing by Brabbins, contrasting full forces with the jaunty little flute and clarinet tune that has small links of chains as the percussion accompaniment after a dramatic caesura.
After such enormous jollities, the aspect abruptly turns darker, and Alastair Milesí bass solo was beautifully and dramatically sung, but perhaps the tiniest bit short of the sense of desperation that the music has begun to convey and the hymnistís ďmiserereĒ suggests. The double fugue for the choir provided the last moment of calm before the storm, rising beautifully to a molto espressivo climax: if the organ was used here for reinforcement it was done most unobtrusively. About the ending, there is not much to say: the violence was unleashed (the drums entering quietly at first, which is to say, correctly), and at the last minute when all hope seemed lost, the final murmuring of the choir grounded the work securely in E major with a very long dimininuendo into nothing, and an even longer held silence (I think almost 24 seconds on my recording). If the thousand performers of the Proms Gothic were sublime in their numerousness, their repose and the rapt silence in which they were regarded by the audience was almost as incredible.