It wasn’t quite the BBC Proms as we know them. The familiar elements were there: the expanse of the Royal Albert Hall, the bust of Sir Henry Wood, Prommers gathered in the central arena. But there were telltale signs that this isn’t a normal year: Covid checks at entry, decidedly thinner audience numbers than usual and a massively expanded stage populated by a very small number of musicians. The programme contained works chosen for their use of small forces and for the opening work, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was pared down to just 30 or so string players and a chamber organ.

The BBC SSO and Martyn Brabbins
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Still, there was a happy air of hushed expectation as we awaited the two soloists, soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Tim Mead, to join us for Pergolesi’s setting of the Stabat Mater. And we were rewarded with some remarkably beautiful singing: both Sampson and Mead have great reserves of sweetness in their voices and the ability to make long notes bloom as they progress. The effect was particularly lovely in the passages where both soloists sang together, the two shaping their notes into intertwining phrases. Conducted by Martyn Brabbins, a late replacement for the originally scheduled Joana Carneiro, the BBC SSO proved elegant accompanists, with a measured tread and smooth phrasing.

Tim Mead
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

And yet for all the evident quality of the performers, the Pergolesi was a disappointment and I question the wisdom of putting on a work for chamber-sized string orchestra in such a big space. There simply wasn’t the dynamic range to add excitement. When Sampson bravely attempted a pianissimo, it was lost altogether (Mead didn’t attempt one); her fortissimi were certainly audible but hardly blow-the-roof-off stuff. The orchestra were able to add variety through accenting and rhythm – Pergolesi provides plenty of different styles, from long-breathed legato to dance – but were never really able to generate thrills. Another option for adding interest in a large hall, the power of textual interpretation, is rather closed off by the nature of the work. Pergolesi’s music may vary between devotion and jauntiness, but the text of the Stabat Mater is an anguished lament from beginning to end.

The second half of the concert was a single work related to Pergolesi, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which proved a much better fit for the occasion, not least due to the addition to the orchestra of ten wind players, but also because of the opportunities given by the music. Stravinsky was commissioned by Diaghilev to write a piece based on unpublished music by Pergolesi (or thought to be – some of it wasn’t). In a sense, Pulcinella was written in circumstances that somewhat mirror our times: in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War and the 1918 Influenza pandemic (whose 50 million deaths worldwide make Covid-19 pale into insignificance), Stravinsky was forced to write for smaller projects than usual.

Carolyn Sampson
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The music starts with gracious Baroque elegance, but Stravinsky soon starts to veer off the rails with ideas and imagination that Pergolesi and his contemporaries could never have dreamed of. Some beautifully melodic oboe solos lit up the occasion; pizzicato double basses provided notable contrast. Pulcinella is a dance work, with a setting of commedia dell’arte villagers vying over the young girls, and the music rapidly lapses into energetic village dances. But Stravinsky is continually playing games with the music, distorting and morphing the Baroque themes so that they remain recognisable but are turned into something new. The whole thing is suffused with humour, whether it’s off-beat accenting or jousting between a burping trombone and the other instruments. Sampson returned to try her hand at decidedly more secular words, ably aided by the honeyed tenor of Benjamin Hulett and some solid bass from Simon Shibambu.

By the end, one sensed that the BBC SSO were enjoying themselves considerably more and that enjoyment was infectious. Still, the second half didn’t completely overcome the sense of an orchestral configuration too small for the hall. One hopes that the Proms will be able to return to larger scale works.