United Kingdom BBC PROM 17 – Parry, Vaughan Williams, Holst: Tai Murray (violin), Francesca Chiejina (soprano), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Adrian Partington (organ), BBC National Chorus of Wales and BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 27.7.2018. (CS)
Parry – Symphony No.5 in B minor; Hear my words, ye people
Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending; Symphony No.3, Pastoral
Holst – Ode to Death
If you thought that Hubert Parry was ‘merely’ a composer of sentimental and/or grandiose choral masterpieces – of the Blest Pair of Sirens, Jerusalem, I Was Glad ilk – then this was the Promenade concert, marking the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, designed to change your mind.
The composer’s Fifth Symphony, written for the centenary of the Royal Philharmonic Society, received its first performance at the Queen’s Hall on 5th December 1912. That Parry’s orchestral music has been unjustly neglected is evidenced by the fact that it took 98 years for his final symphony to arrive at the Proms – in 2010, played by the BBC Philharmonic under Vassily Sinaisky – but now eight years later the work has been granted a second RAH outing.
The Symphonic Fantasia, as it is sometimes known, was not met with unanimous praise initially, the music correspondent of The Observer (8th December 1912) commenting that Parry had ‘definitely forsworn his allegiance to the absolutists and gone over to the enemy in the design and intent’. This remark relates to the form of the symphony, which eschews sonata structures and presents its four movements as a continuous philosophical programme exploring the progress of the human heart and mind, the four movements being entitled ‘Stress’, ‘Love’, ‘Play’ and ‘Now’.
To start at the end, my first thought when conductor Martyn Brabbins allowed his baton to fall and rest was, ‘Parry trying to be Brahms’, but then I reflected on the orchestration (Schumann, with a few hints of Wagner) and structure (cyclical reminiscences), and decided that a cocktail of Brahms-&-Liszt would be more apt.
But, that sounds disrespectfully and unfairly flippant. For, if Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales made one thing crystal clear, this is a ‘serious’ work with weighty aspirations. The gentle undulations at the start of first movement were quickly superseded by strong brass statements of character and energy. There was a sense of musical motifs searching for their ultimate realisation – and for the ‘big tune’ that would surely conclude the work in rousing fashion.
The playing was assured as Brabbins sustained a strong sense of direction. Excitement was created by opposing blocks of orchestral colour, and there was some lovely playing from the clarinets, bass clarinet and bassoon, while in the following slow movement, ‘Love’, the strings offered touching sentiment which was balanced by delicacy in the woodwind. To my mind, the third movement, a vivace scherzo, had the strongest character, and both strings and woodwind showed dexterity in the fleet scurrying; the trio provided relaxing contrast as the horns evoked the warm breadth of a Mahlerian Ländler, and a touch of joy in their leaping sixths and sevenths. ‘Now’ began purposefully and the ‘big tune’ did indeed arrive, adding a dash of Elgarian nobilmente (maybe the brass could have glowed even more?), though it didn’t stay around long and Brabbins pushed the counterpoint and motivic dialogues energetically to the close.
Parry’s anthem, Hear My Words, Ye People, is one of his most popular works, but this was the first time that it had been performed at the Proms. Composed for the Salisbury Diocesan Choral Association, it was originally intended for a huge chorus uniting choirs from across the diocese with the Cathedral Choir forming a large semi-chorus, accompanied by organ and brass, and the Artistic Director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, Adrian Partington, seemed determined to summon memories of this massive congregation of singers in the organ’s bright and buoyant opening statements which burst with devotional assurance and joy. The chorus matched Partington’s warm sound and dynamism, enunciating the text with clarity and conviction, and as the sound grew in presence and passion there was a sense of accumulating zeal which swelled in thrilling style with the arrival of the brass for the fortissimo pronouncement, ‘The Lord’s seat is in heaven’. Bass-baritone Ashley Riches had a good feel for the work’s ‘pomp’, declaiming the solo line powerfully, and with vigour. Contrast came with the more gentle, but no less energised, unaccompanied semi-chorus, ‘Behold, the eye of the Lord’, from which Francesca Chiejina’s soprano solo blossomed, a breath of fresh air before the glowing hymnal conclusion, ‘O Praise ye the Lord’.
Gustav Holst may have been a pupil of Parry’s but there is none of his teacher’s worshipful confidence in the Ode to Death – a setting for choir and orchestra of Walt Whitman’s ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed’ from The Memories of President Lincoln – composed in 1919 upon Holst’s return from Salonica, where he had been helping to organise musical entertainment for the troops. Brabbins carefully shaped the dark opening, with its unsteady seven beats-in-a-bar, as the chorus whispered their strange and eerie plea, ‘Come lovely and soothing death’, and though the tension accrued, the fortissimo cry, ‘Praise! For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death’, was still disconcerting. Brabbins exploited the myriad instrumental colours with which Holst crafts moods both mystical and ominous and the chorus worked hard to keep the pitch true in the unsupported choral passages.
The third Englishman represented in this Prom, which was titled ‘English Elegy’, was Ralph Vaughan Williams. In 2016, former BBC New Generation Artist, Tai Murray, made her Proms debut with the BBCNOW under their Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård. Here she re-joined the orchestra to give a refined performance of The Lark Ascending. The delicacy and sweetness of the bird’s heavenward climbs impressed, as Murray drew her bow close to the bridge and bowed with wonderful fluidity to sustain the soaring silvery threads. Tempos were on the slow side – the emphasis was on the molto in the tranquillo passages – and perhaps Brabbins might have injected a little more propulsion into the dancing Allegretto section, but there was more fine playing from the clarinet and horn. I wondered at times if a work that is so familiar, played in a Hall so vast, needed a little more passion from the soloist, to balance the elegance, but Murray let the music speak for itself and the close was magical. The Prommers always long for an encore, but on this occasion, I wished that Murray had simply let the bird sail ever upwards into the silence: she demonstrated her virtuosity in the string-crossing acrobats of Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Recuerdos de la Alhambra by the Spanish composer and guitarist Francisco Tárrega – though the tuning wasn’t always spot on – but the calm and completeness which she had created at the end of the lark’s ascent was rather brusquely erased.
Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony concluded the Prom. Brabbins adopted a restrained tempo in the opening Molto moderato which initially allowed space for the solos for woodwind and leader Nick Whiting to breathe and imbued the searching motivic gestures with an ominous weight. Horns and brass cast dark shadows and the steady tread of the harp cast little light. As the movement unfolded, the ebbs and flows were well negotiated by Brabbins but more injection of pace in the agitated sections would have created greater tension and release; that said, we were held tightly on tender-hooks as the music pondered portentously. A confident horn solo opened the Lento moderato and was answered by equally eloquent playing in the woodwind and strings, as Brabbins crafted fine textures. The off-stage natural trumpet solo was clear and true, and created a brief moment of laden stillness. After an urgent Moderato pesante, which was never heavy-footed, came the final Lento. I found Chiejina’s vocalise, sung from the gallery, far too ‘present’, particularly at the ppp close which Vaughan Williams marks ‘Distant’, but Brabbins once more found plentiful shading and subtlety and the BBCNOW communicated sincere feeling.