Studio Concert Begins BBC preparations for a British Music Celebration 2016-17

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Walton, Elgar, Stanford, Delius: John Bradbury (clarinet), BBC Philharmonic / John Wilson (conductor), MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 6.7.2016. (RBa)

William Walton: Overture – Scapino (1940)

Edward Elgar: Serenade for Strings (1892)

Charles Villiers Standord: Clarinet Concerto (1902)

Frederick Delius:  A Song of Summer (1931)

This BBC Phil studio concert forms part of preparations for a major British music theme spanning Radio 3 programmes from September this year to Easter next. The primary venue will, I understand, be the Afternoon on Three concerts. However I will not be surprised if some of this material eventually finds its way into Composer of the Week, Through the Night and onto cover-mount CDs on BBC Music Magazine. We shall see.

This early afternoon concert was given without an intermission before a capacity audience. Tickets were, as usual, allocated by ballot on the basis of 30% to those living in the Salford catchment and 70% to the rest of the UK. It’s a brave arrangement. Although rehearsals are in private there were two instances (Stanford and Delius) where minor patching was necessary in front of the audience after the complete performance of each of the two works had finished.

The concert had linking presentation mostly by the eager and engaging conductor. The opening address by a BBC PO staff member reminded the 300 or so members of the audience that MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, is the home of the BBC Phil and that the orchestra is in residence there for 200 days every year.

The Walton overture was blitzed through with all the brilliance one could want. It’s a score packed with seething and unruly detail. Even so the French horns were especially prominent in the mix. Celebrity conductor John Wilson, well known for his film and musicals Proms concerts, brought out the overture’s episodes of almost Hollywoodian romance – moments when you can almost see the floor to ceiling curtains stirring in the wind in front of windows opening onto the night-time Californian Pacific; monochrome film noir or what. I recall that Wilson included Walton’s War in the Air in one of those Royal Albert Hall concerts so he is no stranger to Walton.

The benches slimmed down from about 94 to 46 players for the Elgar Serenade. The orchestra’s silken soft strings were led by BBC Phil regular Yuri Torchinsky. For this work Wilson conducted without a baton. Here is a piece for which this conductor evidently feels a great affection; that much was evident from what we heard and also the way Wilson physically conducted. The music, which stands in the shadow of the Introduction and Allegro, was here played with great tenderness. It belongs in the same gentle pastel-pastoral as the Atterburg Suite No. 3 and Sibelius’s Rakastava.

Until this concert I had never heard the Stanford Clarinet Concerto live. By contrast I must have witnessed the Finzi Concerto about half a dozen times since 1999. John Bradbury arrived with two clarinets and switched instruments for the finale movement although the three movements were played without any real break. Stanford’s Brahmsian sympathies showed through more than once in orchestral echoes, especially of the Fourth Symphony. Bradbury gave us some superfine pianissimos. In fact Wilson secured results throughout that indicated the most solicitous attention to dynamic contrast. These touches were a delight. The finale, with its quick thematic flashbacks to the first movement, rounded out a fine revival. While the Stanford Concerto has had several prominent recordings on CD it’s not a frequent visitor to the concert hall. John Bradbury lavished on this work the sort of caring eloquence that should change all that.

We ended with one of Delius’ ‘Fenby works’: A Song of Summer. Strangely this appears not to have been taken up by Beecham; I couldn’t find a Beecham recording of the piece. It’s for a very full band and seems to include reminiscences (flute and oboe solos) of the ‘fountain music’ from Hassan. There are several climactic moments in which the music seems to be striving with all its heart to express something grand and probably inexpressible – rather as Delius does in Song of the High Hills. Intensity is piled higher and higher before falling away to a sigh. Wilson obviously loves the piece going by his introduction and by this performance.

Will Brian Wilson be giving us Alwyn, Foulds, Bax, Rubbra and Moeran sometime soon? His next BBCPO concert is at Salford Quays on 8 July and includes Vaughan Williams’ Eighth Symphony, Ravel’s Mother Goose suite and John Ireland’s Satyricon overture. One to look forward to.

Rob Barnett

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