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:

BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below: