Prom 19 got off to a rousing start with Strauss’ Festival Prelude. This 1913 work was composed to show off the acoustic of the brand new Vienna Konzerthaus. Because of the nature of the commission, much of the piece doesn’t sound particularly Straussian – the work doesn’t use much of the exotic instrumentation that Strauss became known for, but uses the three main sections of the orchestra to great effect, particularly the brass. The piece also heavily showcases the enormous Royal Albert Hall organ, played wonderfully by Ian Tracey. This is a composition it is practically impossible not to be swept along with.

Inger Dam-Jensen © Isak Hoffmeyer
Inger Dam-Jensen
© Isak Hoffmeyer

The next piece in the incredibly luscious programme was Strauss’ Deutsche Motette. This is one of the most difficult pieces in the choral repertoire, and as such, is performed very rarely. It is a twenty minute, twenty-part a cappella masterpiece, and was performed thrillingly by the BBC Singers. Their singing was nothing short of exceptional, with no noticeable slip in tuning throughout the work; their diction was also very clear throughout the over four octave range of the piece. The soprano solo was taken by Suzanne Shakespeare, who has a pleasant voice, but suffered from a few intonation issues here and there, and struggled to make herself heard in the sections in which she was not singing at the top of the soprano range. Tara Erraught’s mezzo is creamy and luscious – she really made the most of the few ‘crowning glory’ moments for the mezzo-soprano. Adrian Dwyer’s singing was wonderful. What he lacked in legato, he made up for with his steely, ringing tenor – each note sounded as effortless as the last. Brindley Sherratt sang his part beautifully too; here is a rich and majestic bass. This performance was, on the whole, nothing short of superb.

The final piece in the first half was Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder (or Four Last Songs), sung here by Danish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen. Despite two phones going off at particularly soft and delicate moments, this too was a thrilling performance. Dam-Jensen’s “Frühling” was delightful – she has a lighter voice than many others who sing this piece, and this came off particularly well in this song. “September” was very well sung too, with excellent diction throughout. “Beim Schlafengehen” is, for me, when this piece really comes alive, and we were not let down by Dam-Jensen. The song requires exceptional breath control, as well as the ability to communicate the touching subject matter – death, and what comes afterwards. It contains a significant solo for the leader of the orchestra, which was well played by James Clark, however I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been a little more self-indulgent, as well as a little louder. “Im Abendrot” is the last song of the cycle, and this was possibly the most touching performance of the evening. The audience collectively held its breath, and waited in silence for at least ten seconds after the final note disappeared to applaud the performance. Dam-Jensen’s crystalline soprano is well suited to this style of music, and her final phrase (Ist dies etwa der Tod?” – “Is this perhaps death?”) was incredibly moving. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra played very well throughout the work, with a particularly noble horn solo from Timothy Jackson. 

After the interval came Elgar’s Second Symphony – a problematic work, which never achieved the same level of recognition as its predecessor. The orchestra played very well, from the bouncing syncopation of the strings in the first movement, to the demonic frenzy of the percussion in the third. The second movement is probably the most well-known section of the work, and for good reason – this was a very moving performance of what can only really be referred to as a funeral march. The ending of the symphony is unlike much of Elgar’s large-scale orchestral output in that it is quiet and contemplative, rather than a return to the main theme, complete with noble crescendo to whip the audience into an appreciative frenzy. This may be one of the reasons that this work is not as popular as the First Symphony, but The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko really pulled it off with aplomb, and was rewarded with much applause.

Petrenko’s performance was a brilliant one – more so in the Elgar than in the Strauss works. His tight leash on the orchestra was much better suited to the symphony. I couldn’t help that feel he could have languished more in the Vier Letzte Lieder – particularly in “Beim Schlafengehen” – but all in all, this was the finest Proms performance I have seen so far this year.