PROM 1:Seascapes and Caprices in Opening Prom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 1: Anderson, Britten, Rachmaninov, Lutosławski, Vaughan Williams: Stephen Hough (piano); Sally Matthews (soprano); Roderick Williams (baritone); BBC Proms Youth Choir; BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.7.2013 (CC)

J. Anderson: Harmony (2013, World Premiere)
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Lutosławski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

And so another Prom season – the 119th – begins, and with it a new era for the much-loved BBC Symphony Orchestra. This was the first concert directed by Sakari Oramo in his role as Chief Conductor. The programming was characteristically generous for the 2013 First Night, resulting in a projected 10.20pm finish.

The mystical poet Richard Jeffries’ vision of time and eternity is the basis of this piece. Anderson sets out to showcase the RAH’s acoustic in his short, specially commissioned opener. The poem itself is memorable and inspiring, cogitating on things mystical with a depth surely only poets know. All credit to the BBC Symphony Chorus for negotiating the tricky lines and for their superb sense of choral balance (thanks surely to their chorus master, Stephen Jackson). Yet, despite Anderson’s clearly superb ear, expert scoring and cogency of harmonic writing, there seemed a clear disjunction between the greatness of Jefferies’ poem and Anderson’s treatment thereof. The poem’s essence seemed at a remove, as if Anderson was reacting only to the poem’s first stratum of meaning.

Britten’s Sea Interludes might be well-trodden territory, but Oramo ensured a well disciplined performance. Yet the discipline came a price – involvement. The music seemed distanced somehow, especially in the usually bright-and-breezy “Sunday Morning” (the second Interlude). Everything seemed careful, and with that, cautious. Oramo seems happiest when Britten is in lyrical mode, something which was particularly apparent in “Moonlight”. The rather messy finale (“Storm”) seemed to hang on by the seat of its pants.

It was terrific programming, though, to juxtapose two very different takes on Paganini’s 24th Caprice, both scored for piano and orchestra. Luxury casting, too, in Stephen Hough as piano soloist; his Rachmaninov recordings for Hyperion have gathered almost universal praise. Oramo’s attention to detail was confirmed by the orchestral contribution to Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. Hough’s care – his thinking through of myriad details was evident at every turn in his reading – made the two perfect partners, and indeed a new breath of life seemed to waft through the orchestra, now unfailingly alert to every tricky corner. Character was all here, with not a trace of routine or hesitant delivery. Hough’s capricious way with the earlier parts of the piece meant maximal contrast when it came to the famous XVIIIth variation, perfectly projected by the soloist when it came. Just as impressive was Hough’s preparation for the famous melody’s arrival by darkening his sound, allowing the music to blossom out.

The Lutosławski that followed was the ideal complement. Originally conceived for two pianos (the two pianists being the composer and Panufnik), it was arranged for piano and orchestra in 1978 at the request of Felicja Blumenthal. It is a good deal shorter than the Rachmaninov (around eight minutes as opposed to around 23); it is also significantly more acerbic and, at times, overtly Stravinskian; at others, it is clearly indebted to Poulenc. It almost acted as a showcase for Hough’s preternaturally fine staccato touch. Brilliantly spiky and bright, it is the perfect Proms piece. A triumph.

Talking of perfect Proms pieces, the second half delivered Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony (the Symphony No. 1). It was if the Sea Interludes of the first half exploded into the Vaughan Williams of the second. This was a beautifully rounded performance, led with a proper unity of conception by Oramo, enabling the piece to emerge as the masterwork edifice that it truly is. The awe-inspiring sight of massed chorus and large orchestra was equalled only by the sheer volume of sound, impressive in the broadcast, visceral in the hall. Oramo let the opening hymn to the sea speak in its own majestic time; his far swifter tempo at the baritone’s “Today a rude recitative” seemed perfectly conceived, perhaps because of the excellence of his forces and their ability to play absolutely together (this comment refers both to the orchestra and the combination of orchestra and choir). Roderick Williams was the sterling baritone soloist (last seen by me in March as Toby Kramer in the rather disappointing 3-D opera Sunken Garden by van der Aa), singing throughout with not only impressive vocal resources and great clarity of diction, but also with a commanding presence entirely fitting to the music. His partner soloist, Sally Matthews, was radiant, giving her first entrance her all (“Flaunt out, O sea your separate flags of nations!”). Her ability to float a phrase was beautiful; but it was Roderick Williams in the phenomenal slow movement (“On the beach at night alone”) that triumphed. Here it is that Vaughan Williams ponders eternity and who finds depths of which Julian Anderson cannot even dream.

If the Scherzo (“The Waves”) was a white-knuckle ride, that is absolutely as it should be, a celebration of gesture prior to the extended finale (“The Explorers”). The chorus came into its own in this finale, positively radiant, the male voices at “Down from the gardens of Asia descending” mixing, miraculously, clarity with a true sense of the mysterious, the triumphant final lines (“O my brave Soul! O farther, farther sail!”) the proper and fitting end to a performance of the greatest integrity. As far as Oramo and his bond with the orchestra is concerned, it all augurs extremely well.

Colin Clarke