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

Under the Surface at the Proms – British composers

Prom 26, 5 August 2015 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka at the Royal Albert Hall

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Ailish Tynan and Tadaaki Otaka performing Grace Williams’ Fairest of Stars at the BBC Proms Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

Only the BBC Proms could come up with a night like this, a programme of partially or wholly neglected British music flattering not only the composers but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who had clearly invested a lot of rehearsal time.

Their greatest triumph came last, the Symphony no.2 of William Walton, written in 1957 but receiving only its fourth ever performance at the festival and its first since 1996. Walton’s First gets all the glory in his symphonic output, and understandably so – it’s bold, has strength of character, some terrific tunes and bright orchestral colours. Yet the Second deserves far more, as conductor Tadaaki Otaka showed us here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxs45/player

Although it is a much more anxious and questioning piece it is tightly structured, its melodies unusual but somehow memorable too. The first movement tune has a steep incline to its melody but remains in the head, and certainly did so after this performance, beautifully coloured as it was with orchestral piano and glockenspiel. The second movement had softer colours but was equally worrisome, while Walton, thumbing his nose at ‘serial’ composers who had opted out of tonality, uses all twelve tones in his theme for the finale, in a tuneful sense. Here they were hammered home in orchestral unison, and the climax of the work was hugely impressive.

Earlier we heard some better known works from Walton – a bracing Spitfire Prelude and Fugue – and Elgar, his first orchestral work the Froissart Overture, played with a smile on its face.

Then it was over to do two very different Williams. Ralph Vaughan Williams completed his Concerto accademico, for violin and string orchestra, in 1925. It pays explicit homage to Bach but not in the way Stravinsky and co liked to do at the time. The composer saw this as a much more tuneful exercise, using folk-based material in the process. Listen here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxlqh/player

Despite a good performance the piece remains a curiosity. The first movement was dogged and rather foursquare, the music pressing on rather grimly, so it was left to the second movement to bring what felt like more genuine emotion, bringing to mind the slow movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.1 as it did so. Chloë Hanslip, the excellent soloist, was rich in tone both here and in the finale, which reverted to brisk music but in a much more accessible way this time, with a soft-hearted closing section. This was, for me, not the composer’s best.

Grace Williams, a Welsh composer who was a pupil of Vaughan Williams, is not heard much in the concert hall – but Fairest of Stars, for soprano voice and orchestra, suggested she should be. Her writing for the voice was elevated by Ailish Tynan, who looked ready to burst into song as soon as she appeared on stage. Tynan’s voice was the perfect foil for this music, soaring above the clouds brought by the orchestra, and although the words were not always abundantly clear because of the thicker scoring, very much in the Richard Strauss vein, their sentiment was. The top ‘C’ Tynan hit before the end had to be heard to be believed, the crowning glory of the concert’s first half. Listen to the piece here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxqzy/player

The last few years have seen the Proms bring a number of major but neglected British works in from the cold – we have had music by Moeran, Alwyn, Havergal Brian and Howells to name just a few – and it is heartening to see them continuing that tradition. This night was a great success; let’s hope many more will follow.

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival

Vaughan Williams and Sir James MacMillan – Oboe Concertos

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Nicholas Daniel teams up with the Britten Sinfonia and Harmonia Mundi to present the recorded premiere of the Oboe Concerto by the recently knighted Sir James MacMillan. He couples this with a much shorter piece by the composer, One, and another British oboe concerto, the well-loved Vaughan Williams. Completing a varied cross-section of styles is Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was), his final completed orchestral work.

What’s the music like?

MacMillan has written a bold Oboe Concerto, a substantial work lasting nearly 25 minutes that makes great technical demands on its soloist. It is a rewrite of an earlier piece for oboe and orchestra, In Angustiis, which responded to the horrors of 9/11. While the piece is essentially optimistic in tone, these thoughts can be felt in the second movement, essentially a lament, where the strings sigh painfully, and in a moment of deep thought that occurs towards the end of the first movement – in complete contrast to the jaunty, angular main material.

Vaughan Williams’ concerto is a lovely piece, its dreamy first theme coloured with strings to evoke a picture of hazy sunshine. Completed in 1944, it is a largely positive work in the face of the Second World War, especially in the third movement, where a dance plays out between oboe and strings.

Britten’s suite, as with so many of his orchestral works, is a model of economy, saying in fifteen minutes what many lesser composers would do in 25. It is extremely resourceful in its use of ten folk tunes, but it is also tinged with pain, the composer aware that he is in his last days – and this is felt in Daniel’s cor anglais solo in the tune Lord Melbourne.

One, the second MacMillan piece here also shows his love for his home country, based on a single, arching tune based on the traditional song of Scotland and Ireland.

Does it all work?

Nicholas Daniel is one of our finest oboists, and although even he admits to difficulties in learning the part for the MacMillan his playing is absolutely superb. The energy of that work contrasts with the soulful Vaughan Williams, an affectionate performance where the slightly reduced forces of the Britten Sinfonia (in comparison to a full scale orchestra) mean more detail can be heard and enjoyed. Turning his hand to a conducting role, Daniel teases out Britten’s subtle affection for folk tunes through the relative darkness of illness.

Is it recommended?

Yes – and how satisfying to listen to such a substantial contemporary piece for oboe, which could hardly have a better advocate than it does here.

With contrasting styles of music this disc is an unrestricted pleasure, and is recommended for all fans of classical music from these shores.

Listen on Spotify

This disc can be heard here:

Vaughan Williams – Symphonies nos. 4 & 8

Featured recording: Vaughan Williams – Symphonies nos. 4 & 8 (London Philharmonic Orchestra)
vaughan-williams-4-8

Two very different Vaughan Williams symphonies presented in live recordings by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with the angry, resentful Fourth conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and the seraphic Eighth under the direction of the orchestra’s chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski

What’s the music like?

Of all his nine symphonies, the Fourth, completed in 1935, is the one that sounds least like Vaughan Williams’ work. If you didn’t know the composer, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a wartime Russian work. Such is the explosion of anger at the start, the ongoing the desolation in the slow movement, the very notion of VW being a ‘green and pleasant land’ composer is thrown right out of the water.

The Eighth Symphony of 1955 is much more amiable in mood. It is not well known among the composer’s output but there are some lovely sonorities here, such as the beautiful textures at the start, where Vaughan Williams harnesses a number of percussion instruments. Celesta and vibraphone blend beautifully to make music that sounds as if it originated a lot further east than the North Sea! The large percussion section also includes three tuned gongs. The middle two movements dispense with these instruments – the third becoming a gorgeous romance for strings – while the closing minutes are full of joyous music.

Does it all work?

This is a disc of two halves. The Symphony no.4 is given a strong performance but feels rushed at times, especially in the fourth movement, where Ryan Wigglesworth zips through a lot of the arguments so fast that they sound just a bit perfunctory.

That said, the fall-out at the end of the first movement makes quite an impact, the coda sounding truly desolate, while the second movement Scherzo is spot on, thanks to a superb bassoon contribution.

In contrast the Eighth Symphony receives an affectionate performance under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski, enjoying the use of the percussion at the start, mysterious yet rather exotic too. The Cavatina is the emotional centre of this piece, ending with a lovely cello solo that rises through the layers at the end. From this point the last movement Toccata is a joyous celebration, sounding English in its folksy tunes but again enjoying the shimmering sounds the tuned percussion have to offer.

Is it recommended?

Jurowski’s performance of the Eighth is recommended without reservation, a beautifully constructed performance that enjoys the unusual orchestral colours but which is keenly emotive too. The recording from London’s Royal Festival Hall is excellent.

Wigglesworth’s Fourth – though well played – is good but not so fine that it displaces the formidable competition among its rivals. Recordings conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, Vernon Handley and Bernard Haitink are all preferable in this respect.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here: