There seemed to be very little linking Jennifer Walshe’s quirky The Site of an Investigation and BrahmsA German Requiem. The programme notes highlight the tentative link that both pieces use unconventional texts: Brahms sets biblical scripture with no links to the Requiem mass liturgy whilst Walshe selects an eclectic range of words from sources ranging from pop-songs to NASA’s Journey To Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration. Premiered in 2018, commissioned by RTÉ and RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, The Site of an Investigation is for symphony orchestra and voice. In 12 episodes lasting 33 minutes, this musical soundscape dispenses with traditional structures and forms. Harmonically, the piece is very accessible, with some rich chords but also moments of dissonance. 

Ilan Volkov and the BBC SSO
© BBC Proms | Mark Allan

The voice is used in a variety of ways to sing or narrate and everything in between. Walshe performed the vocal part herself, from various locations on the platform. A stabbing chord opens and from the behind the brass Walshe immediately speaks the text “You see, you start with ‘when’”. As the episodes unfold Walshe’s vocal timbres bring an intrigue to the work with her pleasing singing voice, varied vocal intonation and range of accents. The work and the performance have spontaneity. Radio audiences will have missed some of the theatrical visuals that were intrinsic to the performance, such as the wrapping of a large toy giraffe in brown paper, the use of streamers or the building of a large plastic structure by the percussionists of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Ilan Volkov followed Walshe closely, taking her lead in what seemed to be a flawless performance in this unusual and unique composition.

Jennifer Walshe
© BBC Proms | Mark Allan

The Site of an Investigation is a work that is designed to be theatrical, dramatic, comical, touching and insightful. There are moments of comedy, which Walshe both as composer and performer does successfully, and moments of profundity. Walshe as the performer is akin to a more restrained version of Björk and conveys her ethical, environmental and philosophical messages with conviction, in a very personal way. Many of the Prommers were very much taken by the experience, which for some was highly engaging. I looked on with a sense of envy and disappointment wondering what they had seen in the piece that I had sadly missed.

After the interval, Brahms’ A German Requiem. Volkov had a clear vision of the work, which prevailed throughout its seven movements. There was emotional and musical restraint, not allowing the music to rush ahead too quickly and keeping the dynamics within a restricted range. The overall pacing of this long work was a little too pedestrian. The National Youth Choir of Great Britain were the stars of the performance and were obviously well drilled in this demanding sing. Their diction was strong initially, especially in the opening two movements, with often crystal clear and unified placement of consonants, but became less defined by the end. Throughout, their balance was superb and Volkov maintained a judicious balance against the large forces of the BBC SSO. 

A German Requiem
© BBC Proms | Mark Allan

The two soloists, soprano Elena Tsallagova and bass-baritone Shenyang, were evenly matched and pleasing. Shenyang gave a solid rendition, while the most tender and sensitive movement was “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”, in which Tsallagova was particularly convincing.

Overall, this was not a disappointing evening by any stretch of the imagination, but it was not the most memorable either. Performances were strong, but these two works would have been better if not placed together in a somewhat odd and uncomplimentary pairing.