An Inspiring Evening of English Music at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC PROM 53 – Vaughan Williams, Wood, Elgar: Stacey Tappan (soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 29.8.2019. (CC)

Stacey Tappan (soprano) (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1919)
Hugh WoodScenes from Comus (1965)
ElgarThe Music Makers Op.69 (1912)

Sir Andrew Davis, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Conductor Laureate, could hardly have asked for a warmer welcome from the Proms audience; a homecoming of sorts. The BBC orchestra played its heart out for him in a programme of core Proms territory, British music. The Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia found the BBC Symphony strings at their very finest, the second string-group placed behind the orchestra, raised, and with the section principals of the main body providing the solo quartet. The bloom of the sound in the hall (well reproduced in the BBC broadcast, incidentally) was a sonic treat. Luminous and yet well delineated, this was a glorious opening. Davis found the perfect tempo, the sense of flow just right.

It was good to see some music by Hugh Wood programmed; and good to see the composer there, too, taking two well-deserved bows from his stalls seat. The premiere of Scenes from Camus was at a Prom in 1965, some 54 years ago (the soloists on that occasion Jeanette Sinclair and Kenneth Bowen, with the BBC Symphony under Norman Del Mar); it was repeated in 1979 (Rozhdestvensky at the helm). Readers might be familiar with Wood’s Symphony (recorded by Andrew Davis in a coupling with Scenes from Comus on NMC) or perhaps the Violin or Cello Concertos (again NMC). For a fabulous introduction to Comus, the interview with Wood currently on BBC Sounds is required listening.

Basing the scenario of his piece on Milton’s 1634 masque Comus, Wood’s half-hour tone-poem with vocalists tells the story of ‘The Lady,’ kidnapped by Comus when separated from her brothers in a ‘wilde wood’, her involvement with a ‘light fantastic round,’ leading to dark, orgy-like proceedings before the wood returns to its natural state as an Attendant Spirit calls on Sabrina, a nymph, to release the Lady.

To open, a solo horn (Martin Owen) sings a twelve-tone row. But, as Sir Andrew points out in an interview printed in the programme, despite Second Viennese influences, the sound remains somehow English – pungent brass fanfares and dissonant wind chords seem more closely related to another magical natural space, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, than survivors from Warsaw or an oppressed soldier (Wozzeck). Stacey Tappan was a fabulous soprano soloist, while Anthony Gregory emerges better off in the broadcast than he did from the stalls in the hall, where he seemed the vocally weaker of the two soloists by some way; also, his diction was not as clear as Tappan’s. Interestingly, I found Gregory a little quiet in the Christie/Les Arts Florissants Bach St John Passion back in March this year. Both Tappan and Gregory are Proms Debut Artists; their voices actually worked well when sounding together at lower dynamic levels (around ‘Sabrina fair,’ for example).

That ‘light fantastic round’ was brilliantly led by the bassoons. Sir Andrew delineated the score brilliantly, his clear affection for and belief in the score palpable. A splendid, moving performance.

Sir Andrew has actually recorded Elgar’s The Music Makers twice before – for Teldec and recently for Chandos, the latter with the same soloist, Dame Sarah Connolly (review). The piece sets a poem by the short-lived Arthur O’Shaughnessy. The work is full of Elgar self-quotations in the Richard Straussian manner (the composer was at the 1902 English premiere of Ein Heldenleben, which does something similar). What with the new Chandos recording, it is no surprise that the music is in the performers’ blood. Connolly had cancelled earlier in the season (Prom 37) so it was good to see and hear her in fine fettle, her voice full and majestic, her delivery of ‘They had no vision amazing/Of the goodly house they were raising’ simply gorgeous; infinitely touching, in fact. Davis then allowing his strings to steal in with the ‘Enigma’ theme was the closest Elgar has ever brought me to tears.

The BBC Symphony Chorus was on equally regal form, the opening lines ‘We are the music makers/And we are the makers of dreams’ given with hushed reverence, finding core strength elsewhere, everywhere perfectly balanced at all dynamic levels. Perhaps it was in those quieter moments the chorus truly excelled (‘But we, with our dreaming and singing/Ceaseless and sorrowful we!’ another instance).

The orchestra reacted with hair’s breadth precision to Sir Andrew’s direction; and how wonderful to have the Albert Hall organ underpinning the sonority. A word for the solo viola of Norbert Blume, too, adding an extra layer of eloquence to already noble proceedings.

There is no getting away from the fact that The Music Makers is a major Elgar score, and one that needs to be performed more often. The Proms is the perfect place for a reminder of stature such as this. Another Knight of the Realm, Sir Malcolm Sargent, incidentally, conducted it six times between 1947 and 1954 but since then it has only been performed in 1992 (conducted, again, by Andrew Davis) and 2004 (Slatkin, where the soloist was the much-missed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson).

An inspiring evening. The early, 7pm start was because of a Late Night Prom (and therefore past my bedtime) of Duke Ellington’s sacred music, a fascinating prospect if ever there was one.

Colin Clarke

1 thought on “An Inspiring Evening of English Music at the Proms”

  1. There was the following comment about this review sent to S&H …

    ‘The opening horn solo of ‘Scenes from Comus’ isn’t a ‘twelve-tone row’. It’s a melody. Twelve-tone rows are a-musical constructs devoid of musical features such as specific octave location, durations, dynamics, melodic shape and so on. Hugh’s melody has all of these elements alchemised into something very beautiful and affecting.’

    and Colin has provided this response …

    ‘I think there’s a bit of a misunderstanding here, but first I need to clear up if by ‘a-musical’ you mean ‘pre compositional’? Note rows can of course be stated as melodies – look at the first movement of Berg’s Violin Concerto for example – and they also provide material through manipulation (retrograde, retrograde inversion, octave displacement, segmentation etc.). When heard in sound sequentially of course they can take on a melodic function; heard in normal order (with minimised intervals) we would hear both the row and a ‘melody’. At which point we hear the twelve note row. Rows are not by nature unmelodic note row and melody are not mutually exclusive. Unless one is biased against the concept of serialism itself.’


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