Proms premiere – Hugh Wood: Epithalamion


Hugh Wood

Rebecca Bottone (soprano), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (Prom 7)

Duration: 20 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

This piece will shortly be broadcast on BBC4 on July 30, at which point I will provide a new link.

What’s the story behind the piece?

Procession for the wedding of Elizabeth to Frederick VAn engraving by Abraham Hogenberg, c. 1613, used courtesy of the History Today website

Epithalamion, though not one of Hugh Wood’s biggest works, was a mere sixty years in the writing. Wood first started work on it in 1955, only to abandon it, returning to the piece last year.

Epithalamion – an old word for ‘marriage song’ – celebrates the wedding of Princess Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I, and Frederick, Count Palatine, on St Valentine’s Day 1613. The text was written specially for the occasion by John Donne, who used Valentine’s Day as his inspiration for the text.

Wood writes mainly for chorus and orchestra, with soprano and bass soloists (Rebecca Bottone and Nicholas Epton) listed in the Proms programme.

The story takes us through the wedding, as the couple strive to be alone together, to the bliss of the next morning.

Did you know?

Wood writes in largely traditional forms, so as well as a large-scale Symphony he has completed concertos for piano, violin and cello – as well as five celebrated string quartets.

Initial verdict

The celebrations begin with a great swell, the orchestra and choir making a joyful and expansive noise. Yet on first listen from the arena something about Wood’s music did not quite take off in this performance.

That is not a reflection on the quality of the choral writing, nor the brassy fanfares, both of which carry strong echoes of William Walton – who was of course still very active in 1955.

Yet the celebrations did not come through as consistently joyous – perhaps because of the couple striving to get away together – and it was disappointing the soloists were not used more, especially with the quality of Rebecca Bottone’s soprano well in evidence. She comes across fine on the radio but was awkwardly placed in the Hall itself, positioned top left by the percussion. Nicholas Epton, who I assumed to be taking Frederick’s part, had just one tiny cameo.

Wood’s musical language is appealing, with fulsome harmonies and appealing melodies with an upward curve, but although Sir Andrew Davis – to whom the piece is dedicated – gave it maximum input, Epithalamion fell a bit flat. Hopefully the radio broadcast will redress that!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

You can read more about Hugh Wood at Music Sales, one of his two publishers, – where you can also listen to a short playlist of his compositions.

Meanwhile, here is a performance of his String Quartet no.4 from the Escher Quartet:

Encore: Hugh Wood – String Quartet No. 4 from Royal Philharmonic Society on Vimeo.

As part of the Royal Philharmonic Society's Encore Scheme, this short film opens up the music of British composer Hugh Wood.

Hugh Wood's Fourth String Quartet was selected as one of the works on the current scheme, which focuses on chamber music.

It was performed for Encore by the Escher String Quartet.

Encore is a scheme in partnership with BBC Radio 3. Encore is supported by the PRS for Music Foundation, The Mercers’ Company, The D’Oyly Carte Charitable Trust and the Idlewild Trust.

Under the Surface at the Proms – Delius and Nielsen

Prom 7, 22 July 2015 – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis at the Royal Albert Hall


Delius’ garden in Grez-Sur-Loing, France Picture part of a collection at the website

Delius In a Summer Garden (1908)

Is there a less fashionable British composer than Delius?

Not where the BBC Proms are concerned, it would seem – as right from the start the composer’s music has not done particularly well at the festival in the last 50 years. That poor form is exemplified by In a Summer Garden, written about Delius’ garden in Grez-Sur-Loing, France. The piece, receiving its first performance at the Proms since Sir Charles Groves brought it to the festival in 1977, was revived here under Delian specialist Sir Andrew Davis.

Delius’ mastery lies in his orchestration and harmony, with sultry added notes and hazy, impressionistic textures that evoke the laziness of a summer day. Woodwind add bird calls, and lazy melodies flit around the orchestra, before rising to an apex. This performance is as good as any you could wish for, and Davis conducted it with great affection.

Nielsen Clarinet Concerto (1928) with soloist Mark Simpson

Not surprisingly, Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto is a very different animal to the Delius. One of the composer’s last published works, it was the second in a sequence he was planning to write for members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet – but sadly due to ill health he did not get as far as oboe, horn or bassoon.

Cast in three movements, the piece takes on a very private demeanour at times, the clarinet asked to play very quietly. This was where Mark Simpson came into his own, with exemplary control and poise that he held right up to the end, despite the necessities of breathing!

In the faster music Nielsen often brings to mind the music of Shostakovich, and the snare drum assumes a prominent role, frequently interrupting the soloist with its own thoughts. David Hockings, the resident BBC Symphony Orchestra percussionist, was on superb form here, and his rat-a-tat traded blows with the clarinet as the outer movements zipped along. On occasion, especially at the start, Simpson could have been louder still – but in his defence the Royal Albert Hall is not the easiest acoustic to work with for such a piece!

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