Arcana at the Proms – Prom 53: Sir Andrew Davis conducts Vaughan Williams, Hugh Wood and Elgar’s The Music Makers & Huw Watkins

Prom 53: Stacey Tappan (soprano) Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Hugh Wood Scenes from Comus (1965)
Elgar The Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 29 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

A knight of the realm and a dame performing Elgar. It doesn’t get much more English than that! Yet on this humid night in the Royal Albert Hall the continental aspects of the music chosen were just as evident, Sir Andrew Davis securing a trio of very fine performances from the assembled forces.

To begin, the solemn but radiant strains of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, written in the wake of his studies with Ravel in France. That opening chord never fails to transport the listener to another place, and Davis has more experience with it than most. The BBC Symphony Orchestra strings responded as one, their unity as evident in the swelling of the music as it was when the parts were divided. The four soloists at the front – violinists Igor Yuzefovich and Dawn Beazley, viola player Norbert Blume and cellist Susan Monks played beautifully, as did the group of nine instruments on a raised platform at the back of the stage. With these judicious placements Davis ensured the balance of the music – both audibly and emotionally – was firmly aligned.

Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus approach Englishness from a very different perspective – that of the Second Viennese School, headed by Schoenberg. Notorious for its rejection of tonality, the school was an incredibly innovative part of 20th century classical music, and Wood was one of several English composers to fall under its spell. Often the accusation is that music without tonality lacks emotion, but Wood refutes that emphatically.

Scenes from Comus may not have an obvious key centre but it treats its story in a powerfully expressive way. The orchestra told the story with strongly rendered colours, with particularly fine playing from principal horn Martin Owen with the opening theme. Soloists Stacey Tappan and Anthony Gregory (both above) found an ideal balance with the orchestra, and the story – where an Attendant Lady, lost in a ‘wilde wood’, is kidnapped by Comus – came to life. The 87 year-old Wood was present in the audience, waving cheerily at Sir Andrew Davis in acknowledgement of an excellent performance of his piece, performed for the first time at the Proms in 1965.

Elgar’s The Music Makers, a setting of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode, has tended to fall short of critical acclaim, which is unfortunate as it contains some very fine music. In it the composer recycles some of his greatest melodies, quoting and redressing them in the manner of a greatest hits compilation. If anything that approach, when complemented by new musical ideas, makes the piece even more personal, speaking to us of his own favourite moments in music while wrought with worry about the onset of later life and the prospect of war.

The memorable opening line, ‘We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams’, was magical in the hands of the BBC Symphony Chorus, subdued but wonderfully clear as they are in a recent recording made with Sir Andrew Davis for Chandos.

Also on the recording is Dame Sarah Connolly, and her first notes in this particular concert (‘they had no vision amazing of the goodly house they are raising’) sent a shiver down the spine, sung with raw emotion and urgency. She was a dominant figure from her on, passionate yet fully in control of her phrasing, responding forcefully to O’Shaughnessy’s text.

Elgar’s liberal quotations enhanced the music, none of the melodies present for the sake of it, and each reimagined with O’Shaughnessy’s text. The melodies from the Enigma Variations, the Symphony no.1, the Violin Concerto and, most tellingly, The Dream of Gerontius, all contributed to a reading of really impressive gravity and poise. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang with great unity of purpose, aided by sensitive accompaniment from the orchestra and their heartfelt account of the winsome melodies. Sir Andrew Davis is a master Elgarian, and here his credentials were handsomely reinforced.

You can listen to the new recording by these forces of The Music Makers on Spotify below: