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Susan Elkin reviews: Prom 06 August 2021

BBC Prom: Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Martyn Brabbins 6th August 2021

It was interesting programming – and apparently unprecedented at the Proms – to pair Pergolesi and Stravinsky as a way of highlighting the influence of the former on the latter. Of course we now know that the direct source material for Pulcinella came from his early eighteenth century contemporise rather than from Pergolesi himself but the influence is clear for all that.

We began with an exquisitely moving account of Pegolesi’s Stabat Mater with the blending of voices – Carolyn Sampson, soprano and Tim Mead, counter-tenor – so subtle that at times it sounded like a single person miraculously able to sing two lines. The crystalline, vibrato-free purity was magical too. Then there was the Quae moerebat in which Mead and the orchestra duetted with subtle sensitivity like a baton being passed back and forth. The final Quando corpus morietur – the ultimate moment in a mother’s anguish for her son – was an edge-of-seat, lump-in-throat moment and it’s just as well that Pergolesi provides a relatively jolly Amen after it or the very well deserved applause would have felt inappropriate.

Brabbins (a short notice substitute for Joana Carneiro) is an unassuming conductor and a safe pair of hands in the best possible sense. He knows exactly how to deliver this gorgeous quasi-operatic eighteenth century stuff with all its colourfulness, variety and precision. He beats time unashamedly and the cohesion was spot on.

Then after the interval came a real change of mood – marked even before it started by the entrance of Carolyn Sampson in scarlet dress with glittery jewellery rather than the simple sober black she’d worn for the first half. The original 1919/20 version of Pulcinella was a hybrid “ballet in one act with song” and this is what was performed at this concert although many of us may be more familiar with the shorter orchestral suite which Stravinsky arranged later in 1920.

Sampson was joined by tenor Benjamin Hulett and bass Simon Shibambu all of whom did a good job especially in the Andante when the three come together as in an opera by, say, Mozart until the tenor leads off into some unlikely harmonies before his challenging patter song – all delivered by Hulett with warmth.

I also admired the verve of all that off-beat pizzicato scrupulously played by SSO and stressed by Brabbins as the winds deliver their many solos in this sparky narrative tale of skulduggery and love told in a series of reworked eighteenth century. And the dramatic jazzy trombone solo is always fun. The unexpected glissandi rang out with wit, thanks to principal trombonist, Simon Johnson who earned his moment of individual applause at the end.

This review was first published by Lark Reviews:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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