PROM 36: Oramo Excels in Vaughan Williams and Alwyn

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 36 Vaughan Williams, Alwyn: Janine Jansen (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 13.8.2014 (RB)

Vaughan WilliamsThe Wasps – Overture
William Alwyn – Symphony No. 1
Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending
Job: A Masque for Dancing


Sakari Oramo’s championing of British music is no passing infatuation. His acclaimed Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony at last year’s Proms (review) is one thing but long before that, during his time with the CBSO, he ventured valiantly and with inspiration into some fairly arcane areas. Almost ten years ago he revived Constant Lambert’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament … a major and poignant work. He has also recorded for Warner and played in concert most of the concert music of that once completely forgotten genius, John Foulds (review review).

Now in an early evening Proms concert at a packed Royal Albert Hall we heard him in a largely Vaughan Williams programme in which the Odd Man Out was the First Symphony of William Alwyn. The Alwyn came in the centre of the first half of this concert alongside two RVW plums: the succulence and panache of The Wasps
Overture and the nature spirituality of a work whose popularity has grown exponentially in the last decade: The Lark Ascending.

The first part of the concert was generously timed. The Wasps Overture was flightily handled – indeed flight of a different sort linked the overture with the final piece in part 1 in which Janine Jansen delivered a very spiritual reading of The Lark Ascending, fading into ineffable and ecstatic silence. The Wasps needs no apologies with writing that comfortably sits alongside that of Falla and Rimsky-Korsakov. Oramo knows the piece well having played it at the start of a CBSO concert in 2006.

The Alwyn is a ripe four-movement symphony which must have been very unfamiliar to the orchestra though less so to the enthusiasts in the audience who would know it from the composer’s own LPO recording on Lyrita (review) and the David Lloyd-Jones version on Naxos (review). The brilliant fourth movement felt like something of celebratory add-on although the return to the yearning romantic theme of the first movement just before the end does provide some structural adhesive. Otherwise that movement has a sort of ‘Blissy’ exuberance as well as reminding me of the Rootham First Symphony. Rather like the RVW overture this symphony seethes with melody and those first three movements are deeply impressive – certainly transcending the hackneyed references to the work as a ‘Cheltenham Symphony’. Alwyn does seem to draw on Bax at various points – especially the Seventh Symphony. However his language is more athletic, less ‘pumped up’ than that of Bax. Another parallel lies with Miaskovsky, though surely coincidental. It lies in the use of instrumental ‘echo and reply’ and the starting of a melody in one part of the orchestra only to hand its consummation to another.

There’s a litheness to it which Oramo certainly played to.  His delight in the generous-hearted melody and excitement of this score was obvious from his magniloquent arm gestures and the smiles he exchanged with sections of the orchestra. I hope he feels encouraged to explore further: the harp concerto Lyra Angelica and the compact Fifth Symphony are glories of the British musical heritage. So was the extended and breath-taking pianissimo solo horn passage with strings in the third movement of tonight’s symphony

Job came after the interval. The first scene rose from the silence into which The Lark Ascending had subsided. I have struggled with this work through the recordings by Boult (review) and Handley (review) and usually found it diffuse. Its galumphing folk dance always struck me as off-putting and for me the music sits uncomfortably with the Bible story. Here, however, Oramo and the BBCSO involved me from the start. The writing in Scenes 1, 3 and 8 more than ever reminded me of the green leaf spiritual delights of An Oxford Elegy and the cool renewal of slow-running streams. Hypnotic stuff. The later scene in which the orchestra’s leader takes an extended solo more than ever might serve as an extension of The Lark. The brass were immersed in the growling satanic majesty of the writing and the soft answer of the strings was always moving. The oily saxophone capered obsequiously while at the same time hinting at its role – in trio – in the Ninth Symphony.

Oramo has a very open and eloquent manner – expressive but not gauche. He is mobile on the podium – not a minimalist. He was clearly pleased with the BBCSO, as well he might be. I will single out their string section which is in fine heart. The distancing of this huge hall rather softens the rasp or growl of the brass but it certainly pampers those silky violins and put across adroitly the long gradient into niente at the close of Job: a deep quiet vibration superbly handled and returning us to the silence from which it emerged. That quiet and silence was not disturbed by audience coughing which was otherwise much in evidence.

Rob Barnett

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