Shakespeare Celebrated by British and American Composers at the Proms


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 44 – Shakespeare – Stage and Screen: Walton, Finzi, Sullivan, Talbot, Bernstein, Rodgers, Porter: Graham Bickley, Anna-Jane Casey, Sarah Eyden, Joseph Shovelton, Hannah Waddingham (vocalists), BBC Concert Orchestra/Keith Lockhart (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.8.2016. (CS)

Walton: Richard III Suite, ‘Prelude’ (arr. Muir Mathieson)
Finzi: Love’s Labour’s Lost Suite
Sullivan: The Tempest, Overture to Act 4
Walton: As You Like It, a poem for orchestra after Shakespeare, ‘Prelude’ and ‘Moonlight’ (arr. Christopher Palmer)
Joby Talbot: ‘Springtime Dance’ from The Winter’s Tale
Bernstein: West Side Story, Symphonic Dances
Cole Porter: Kiss Me, Kate
Richard Rodgers: The Boys from Syracuse

The BBC Concert Orchestra’s contribution to the Proms’ Shakespeare celebrations was a concert of contrasts and oppositions bound together by the Bard: stage v. screen; English nostalgia v. American razzamatazz; subtlety and restraint v. glamour and glitz.

The first half of the programme featured incidental music for Shakespeare on stage and screen, composed by British composers from both ends of the twentieth century.  William Walton’s four collaborations with Laurence Olivier probably make him the most well-known of those who have provided Shakespearean music for the theatre and cinema, but it was two of his less familiar scores which had an airing here.  Walton and Olivier followed films of Henry V (1945) and Hamlet (1948) with Richard III in 1955 (their 1965 Othello was essentially a filmed stage production) and Lockhart and the BBC Concert Orchestra gave us the ‘Prelude’ to the Richard III Suite, as well as the ‘Prelude’ and ‘Moonlight’ from Christopher Palmer’s arrangement of Walton’s ‘poem for orchestra’, As You Like It, which was written for film director Paul Czinner in 1936.

Walton’s Shakespeare scores are usually both fit for purpose and stirring in their own right.  The Richard III ‘Prelude’ certainly had more than a dash of Crown Imperial majesty about it, but its brassy jollity seemed at odds with the poisonous ruthlessness which characterises the eponymous crown-snatcher.  With Ralph Fiennes’ embodiment of the crooked monarch fresh in my mind, I can’t say that this ‘Prelude’ conjured up many images from the play: the music gave us a Richard who was certainly cocksure and (remarkably) spry, but there was little of his dark malice and self-disgust.  Perhaps Walton’s imperiousness is tongue-in-cheek – but musical irony is a difficult trick to pull off.

There was a lovely oboe solo – perhaps suggestive of the scenes of Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne, and his reflections on his success? – and shimmering string tremolos brought a note of tension towards the close, as long shadows are cast on Richard’s throne and he is tormented by nightmares on the eve of the battle at Bosworth field.  A doom-laden drum signalled the tragic close.  This was disciplined playing but the result was a little underwhelming.

Czinner’s As You Like it was the first Shakespearean film in which Olivier starred.  This score is in a lighter vein as befits the play’s comic pastoralism.  The ‘Prelude’ kicked off to a rousing, start – hunting calls ringing from the horns, romping galloping rhythms, pounding timpani thumps – but twinkling harp and seductive flute and oboe solos lured us into the magical mysteries of the Forest of Arden in ‘Moonlight’.  Lockhart made much of the pictorialism of the score, with strings and harps shimmering à la Debussy, while woodwind etched lines of gentle pristineness: full orchestral outbursts had the saturating sweetness of Technicolor.

Arthur Sullivan was only 19 years old when he conducted the first performance of his Overture to Act 4 of The Tempest in 1861.  The work was essentially a graduation exercise at the Leipzig Conservatory and the Overture to the fourth Act given here didn’t make much of a mark, though its rich textures did reveal the young composer’s flair for orchestration.  As Rick Jones’ programme notes remark, the influence of Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ is apparent in the chirpy brightness of this prelude to the forthcoming nuptials of Ferdinand and Miranda, but so too perhaps is the hand of Berlioz in its rhythmic agility and melodic grace.  The BBCCO alternately tripped along with breezy levity and blazed with dignity, and Lockhart achieved a transparency which enabled us to appreciate the precision of the woodwind, the sweet tone of the cellos, and the coloristic richness of the full orchestral episodes.

There was a contemporary response to Shakespeare too, in the form of Joby Talbot’s ‘Springtime Dance’ from the ballet The Winter’s Tale, which was first performed by the Royal Ballet in 2014.  Shakespeare’s tragicomedy presents a world torn apart by jealousy and suspicion, and Talbot’s asymmetrical rhythms – skilfully executed by the BBCCO – certainly suggested a destabilised court and looming violence.  In Act 2 Scene 1 Mamillius warns that ‘a sad tale’s best for winter’ but this dance was savage rather than sombre, though its minimalist repetitions did take on a more buoyant tone towards the close, perhaps leading us into the upbeat playfulness of Broadway which was to follow the interval.

The most interesting work among these English offerings, and the most sensitively performed, was Gerald Finzi’s 1946 Love’s Labour’s Lost Suite, which was composed to accompany a radio broadcast of the play.  In the step-wise bass line, meandering melodies, plagal harmonies and flowering orchestral blooms, Finzi’s trademark blend of counterpoint and pastoralism was present, but there were many delightfully refreshing episodes, not least the beautiful viola solo in the second movement, ‘Moth’, which affectingly expressed the plight of Shakespeare’s lovelorn aristocrats.  The decorative fanfare of the ‘Introduction’ and the subsequent broad string melody, coloured with a dash of Elgarian nobilmente, were aptly dignified and Lockhart drew playing of considerable grace from all sections of the orchestra.  The bassoon lamented tenderly at the start of the ‘Nocturne’, throughout which the sighs where softened by the warmth of the melodies and the full-toned bass underpinning them.  The scherzo, ‘Quodilbet’, featured some lively character-painting from bassoon, piccolo and unison strings, while the rondo Finale was bright and joyful, a clearing of the air and the re-establishment of reason and harmony.

With shirt-sleeves rolled, Keith Lockhart entered into the high spirits of the second half, executing some neat taps steps on the podium and waltzing elegantly with Sarah Eyden in ‘Falling in Love’ from Rodger’s and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse (after The Comedy of Errors).  Lockhart’s baton danced as lightly as his feet and the BBC Concert Orchestra responded to their conductor’s charm with playing of clarity and colour, vitality and variety.  The strings had a lovely sheen in the moments of soaring sentimentality, and there were pristine solos from the woodwind; I’d have liked even more dazzle from the brass, but their playing was lithe and melodious, and – most particularly in the ‘Symphonic Dances’ from West Side Story – the percussion whipped up a frenzy.

Despite this, the swing never quite gathered momentum.  Bernstein’s ‘Symphonic Dances’ really did fly at times: ‘Mambo’ was terrifically exciting and Lockhart ratcheted up the tension brilliantly in the ‘Cool fugue’.  But the big Romantic moments might have had more lushness – too much English restraint? – and, overall, the ‘Wow!’ factor wasn’t quite summoned.

The ‘Dances’ were followed by a series of vocal numbers from Broadway shows which – despite the big names represented, on the score and on the stage – didn’t really join up.  Part of the problem was the format, with the short individual numbers having little opportunity to establish a sense of character or narrative.  The five vocalists brought a wealth of music theatre experience and esteem to the RAH but the venue and its sound system perhaps didn’t do them justice.  The amplification was tinny and over-resonant at times, with the voices not blending successfully with the symphonic backdrop.  Perhaps scaling down the band, and consequently reducing the need for such blunt amplification, would have helped?  But, then, that might have taken the sheen off the glamour.

The soloists coped with challenges with varying success.  In ‘Always True to You’ from Kiss Me, Kate Anne-Jane Casey revealed a glossy, weighty mezzo and immediate stage presence.  The text was clear and this was a characterful performance; Casey showed natural ease on stage, moving along the fore-front of the stage and communicating well to whole Hall.  Just one quibble: I’m probably a sourpuss but I can’t bear the faux-Yankie drawl which seems obligatory in music theatre.

One of the sound team might have advised Hannah Waddingham to tone down her vibrato, which repeatedly produced an ear-piercing whistle from the microphone, spoiling the heart-aching poignancy of ‘So in Love’.  Graham Bickley and Joseph Shovelton had plenty of vitality, but Shovelton’s ‘Dear Old Syracuse’ confirmed his greater intimation of the subtlety of the song’s comedy. ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ was the inevitable finale, but the song needed more virtuosity of diction and stylishness of execution for Porter’s comic genius to truly make its mark.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment