Brahms, Wagner and Mozart – all standard concert fare, one might say. Yet conductor Nathalie Stutzmann’s juxtaposition of Brahms, master of form and structure, and Wagner, experimenter with the limits of chromatic harmony, made the first half of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ second of its five Proms performances this year a much more interesting proposition.

Nathalie Stutzmann conducts the BBC NOW
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

This was indeed the ‘War of the Romantics’, with Brahms’ Tragic Overture up against the orchestral version of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Unlike Wagner’s lifted operatic material, Brahms’ tragedy is non-specific, and whilst there is certainly dramatic expression here, from the opening fateful hammer blows to the lushly romantic second subject, most of the effect comes in its quieter moments – an oboe solo emerging out of pianissimo strings, or later, equally pianissimo fugal string entries, creating a sense of dark adversity which is eventually swept away by an emphatic brass chorale and a punchy conclusion. Wagner on the other hand is all about the build-up, ratcheting up the tension through successions of unresolved Tristan chords and rising sequential patterns, so that when the climax arrives, despite the tragedy of lovers united only in death, there is a musical sense of relief and release. Stutzmann’s approach highlighted these differences, with a strong sense of control in the Brahms, and a slow build to a very expansive climax in the Wagner. Stutzmann’s conducting is understated, with minimal unnecessary direction, and only essential direct cues. This puts a great deal of responsibility on the players, and despite a few unsettled entries here and there, the BBC NOW delivered a taut and confident reading of both works here. The cellos struggled a little to find the beat at the opening of the Wagner in their exposed lead into the first Tristan chord, but they warmed into their melodic line that followed. At that climax, Stutzmann pulled the dynamic right back after each entry, dropping back to nothing, so that the surges had even more power.

The absolute star by far of the evening, however, was the BBC National Chorus of Wales (five stars for them!). Singing Mozart’s Requiem from memory, they performed with conviction, impeccable tuning and precision throughout, dealing with some incredibly fast tempi and some scarily late stands with assured confidence. In the opening Requiem, Stutzmann added some unexpected detail, such as heavily staccato “et lux perpetua”, and extreme swells on the rising “aeternam” lines. These kind of details worked to bring out interest in the RAH acoustic, but wouldn’t be so welcome on repeated listening. The Kyrie was very fast indeed, but the chorus was on it with impressive precision.

Fatma Said, Kathryn Rudge, Sunnyboy Dladla and David Shipley
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The decision to place the soloists between the orchestra and chorus was, however, an unfortunate one. For the most part, they were rather distant – no doubt rectified in the balance for the radio and television audience. Bass David Shipley’s Tuba mirum was strong and assured despite this, and tenor Sunnyboy Dladla was bright and direct. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge produced the fullest sound, and was best able to project through the orchestral sound, whilst Fatma Said’s bright soprano voice had delicacy and clarity. They and Stutzmann managed to find a better balance in the Recordare, although here they occasionally fractionally lagged behind the orchestra. Prior to this, anxiety levels were raised as to whether the chorus would stand in time for the Rex tremendae. They did stand just one beat before singing, creating a dramatic effect, but perhaps unnecessarily risky, although their opening chord was indeed powerful. At the end of this movement came another idiosyncrasy, one of the few that really didn’t work for me – a sudden tenuto on “salva me”, presumably to accentuate a sense of pleading for mercy, but which broke the momentum of the close of the movement. Another late stand for the Confutatis, but this had impressive attack, and great power from the tenors in particular, and the upper voices “voca me” response was beautifully in tune (not often the case). After a warm if slightly indulgent Lacrimosa, the Domine Jesu had a slightly shaky start as everyone settled into another rapid tempo. By contrast, the Hostias was relaxed and tender, but the Osanna was once again at breakneck speed. These fast tempi certainly created a sense of drama, particularly as the chorus was so agile, but there was by this stage a cumulative effect of frenzy, leaving one (and perhaps the chorus too) longing for a moment to breathe. The final moments, when the Süssmayr repeats the opening Kyrie fugue to the Cum sanctis text, at that lightning speed were certainly electric, and the chorus impressed with their stamina and full-on energy to the final chord.