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

Proms premiere – Hugh Wood: Epithalamion

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Hugh Wood

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

Duration: 20 minutes

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02xv5wc/player

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?

epithalamion
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

tbc!

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.

Proms guide – First Night: A tale of two Belshazzars

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Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

Prom 1 – Christopher Maltman, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b062nrdk/bbc-proms-2015-season-first-night-of-the-proms

Sibelius’ suite begins at 57:45; Walton’s interpretation at 1:18:36.

The Biblical tale of Belshazzar’s Feast, where the downfall of Babylon is predicted by a human hand writing on the wall during a lavish party, inspired three very different responses. The first, from Handel in 1744, took the form of a large scale sacred piece, but the second half of this Prom threw together two very different responses by twentieth century composers.

Sibelius wrote a score of ten scenes, condensing it into a suite of four for concert performance. It finds the composer in typically economic form, though it is a surprise to note the exotic Oriental Procession, colourfully rendered by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Finnish conductor is an expert in this music, and found the emotional depths of the stark Solitude and the emotive Nocturne, where flautist Michael Cox spun a delectable web of notes. The finale, Khadra’s Dance, signed off in typical style.

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The massive forces assembled for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Walton, on the other hand, throws everything at his 35-minute tale, including the whole story in a choral dramatisation that at times threatened to take the roof off the Royal Albert Hall. With 256 singers (give or take one or two on the naked eye count from the Arena!) this was a massive scale on which to play out the story, and Christopher Maltman did a sterling job in the baritone solo role.

The chorus were the stars, though, and the combined forces of the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales were absolutely superb; hair-raising, even. Their shout of “SLAIN!” when Belshazzar finally perished was terrifying. No less chilling was the macabre percussion used when the hand appears.

Yet the epic climax of the piece, with Babylon’s redemption trumping the empty jubilation of the feast, was the crowning glory. Brilliantly marshalled by Oramo and superbly sung by the assembled BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, this was a piece to fire the starting gun on the 2015 Proms with maximum power. Here’s to the next 75!

Further listening

If this is your first encounter with the music of Walton, a strong recommendation goes to the composer’s Symphony no.1, his finest orchestral composition:

Sibelius‘ incidental music is curiously elusive – so here is some more in the form of his score for the play Pelléas et Mélisande. You will doubtless recognise the first movement, At the Castle Gate, as the music used for the BBC’s The Sky at Night:

If your curiousity is aroused for the third of the Belshazzar interpretations, this Spotify link gives you Handel‘s oratorio in its entirety:

This BBC Prom also included Nielsen’s ebullient overture to Maskarade and Mozart’s masterly Piano Concerto no.20, with soloist Lars Vogt. They are also on the iPlayer link above