BBC Proms – Of Land, Sea and Sky…

prom-15

Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra

(c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 15; Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 27 July 2016

Tchaikovsky The Tempest (1873)

Anthony Payne Of Land, Sea and Sky (2016) [BBC commission: World premiere]

Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor (1866) (Ray Chen, violin)

Vaughan Williams Toward the Unknown Region (1906)

The focal point of this evening’s Prom was a first hearing for Of Land, Sea and Sky, the latest work from Anthony Payne and a BBC commission to mark his 80th birthday in a week’s time.

Taking its departure from a description of white horses in the Rhône Valley as they seemed to merge into the surrounding water, this piece comprises eight continuous sections in which the relationship between image and illusion is considered from numerous perspectives.

Payne evidently looked at various texts before deciding to write his own: what resulted is functional in the best sense, each of the choral sections conveying its appropriate imagery without any superfluous literariness. Choral writing is less certain in that it often feels more of a textural gloss on, than integrated into orchestral writing whose clarity and resourcefulness continues from Payne’s previous large-scale works; indeed, the piece as a whole seems to unfold as a sequence of variations on the motifs set out in the opening pages, with an orchestral postlude effecting a final synthesis as the very notion of illusion is rendered in suitably elusive terms.

Of Land, Sea and Sky is typical of Payne in that its approachable (and recognizably English) while never derivative idiom is likely to yield any number of subtleties on repeated hearings. The present performance seemed an assured one, Andrew Davis securing a committed response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in music whose intricacy benefited from the cushioning resonance of the Albert Hall acoustic. This also marked the fourth Proms collaboration between conductor, orchestra and composer, and will hopefully not be the last.

The programme had opened with a hearing for The Tempest, Tchaikovsky’s still relatively unfamiliar symphonic fantasy inspired by, yet by no means indebted to Shakespeare’s play. The framing seascape music, with its sombre horn writing, resonates long after the music has ended, and if what comes in-between – notably the eloquent but unmemorable ‘love’ theme – finds the composer at less than his best, this was perhaps reinforced by a reading that lacked nothing in cohesion without sustaining a cumulative momentum across the piece as a whole.

After the interval, Ray Chen made his much-heralded Proms debut with Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. A little histrionic, the preludial first movement was vividly and at times ardently projected, with a heightened transition into an Adagio whose fervency was purposefully held in check. Nor, other than a slightly hectoring edge in passagework, was there much to fault in the final Allegro; despatched with a flamboyance continued in the encore – Paganini’s 21st Caprice in A, which provided ample means for Chen to display his meaningful virtuosity.

The concert ended with a welcome revival for Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region, the composer’s first major success and a piece whose impression is greater than its modest length. If the rapt inwardness of the first half feels more successful than the fervency of what follows, Davis ensured a cumulative tension such as made the final pages – the BBC Symphony Chorus giving its all and the Albert Hall’s organ enhancing the resplendence – a fitting testimony to Walt Whitman’s conviction as to the soul’s tangibility in death as in life.

Richard Whitehouse

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