PROM 16: Britain and Russia Rub Shoulders Courtesy of BBC NOW and Jac van Steen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 16. Elgar, Bantock, Walton, Tchaikovsky: Raphael Wallfisch (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jac van Steen, (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 24.7.2013 (CG)

Elgar: Falstaff Op 68 (1902-13)
Bantock:Sapphic Poem (1906, orch. 1909)
Walton: Henry V – Touch her soft lips and part, The Death of Falstaff (1943-4)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 4 in F minor (1877-8)

Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946) is honoured at the Proms this year by performances of several works, and since his music has fallen into neglect, despite the efforts of the late Vernon Handley and others, this was a welcome opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with his output. At a personal level, Bantok has often intrigued me because it was he who wrote on my mother’s examination form, in the year nineteen twenty-something, that her performance of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” was by far the best he’d ever heard! A family hero, then, and yet we don’t know his music very well. Why not?

Of course he suffered the fate of so many British composers who became unfashionable when more radical figures emerged, not only from the UK but especially the continent. Yet he was an important man of his time – not just as a composer, but as the person who helped found what is now the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He involved himself tirelessly in musical education. His advocates tell us that his music shows vision and displays a considerable command of orchestral colour and advanced harmony.

It’s disappointing to say that I am not quite sure that tonight’s piece, Sapphic Poem, is necessarily top-notch Bantock. You couldn’t have asked for a more persuasive soloist in Raphael Wallfisch, a national treasure whose expressive tone suited the piece ideally. The solo line weaves around in a beguiling manner, the orchestra remaining in the background or commenting periodically; it’s rather like an extended song, which is not surprising because the work is an offshoot of the much larger Sappho, Bantock’s extended vocal cycle.

Here I couldn’t help wondering if the material is sufficiently strong and distinctive somehow. The music flows mellifluously and is certainly not without drama, with several cadenza-like passages for the cello, and the harmonic language is late romantic; everything seems perfectly judged, but whether it will serve to bring Bantock into general circulation is open to question. As an encore, we had a miniature, Hamabdil for cello, harp and strings (1919, part of the Judith incidental music), which is a tender and poignant melody obviously relished by Wallfisch. For a rather different side of Bantock, we should listen on 21st August to his large-scale Celtic Symphony.

It didn’t help that these intimate works came immediately after Elgar’s Falstaff, the concert opener. It may have looked effective on paper, but the Elgar is so full of bluster and swagger and so consistently vibrant, that the Bantock felt rather dwarfed to me. “Falstaff” certainly received a dynamic performance. The orchestra, on top of the work’s many difficulties, shot through it entirely convincingly. Even if slightly rough at the edges now and then, it didn’t detract from the overall dramatic effect. What amazing orchestration!

After the interval, intimacy was again the key, with two little gems from Walton’s considerable output as a film composer. These two beautiful pieces date from a time when film producers regularly employed the services of “concert” composers; a very different situation to that we find nowadays, when specialist movie composers are the norm. The result was a succession of wonderfully inspired scores, many of which transfer perfectly well to the concert hall. I find the passacaglia for “The Death of Falstaff” particularly touching, and it worked its quiet magic in the enormous space of the Royal Albert Hall to telling effect.

And so to Tchaikovsky’s great warhorse, the 4th Symphony, played with appropriate power and drama as well as delicacy and expression. There was really fine work from the brass and horns, and beauty as well as wit from the woodwind. Jac van Steen is an energetic conductor, and this was a vigorous, dynamic performance with plenty of thrills. There were a few slightly rough edges, yes, but who cares? The symphony came off brilliantly. I liked the spiky rhythms of the first movement, the folky Russianness of the second and the non-stop pizzicati in the third. Actually I enjoyed every minute of it.

I don’t “get” some of the programming, though. The four composers featured tonight were very odd bedfellows. And why was there nothing by a more recent composer? These are minor and personal gripes, for it was an enjoyable, and in some ways memorable, evening.

Christopher Gunning