Diverse and stirring English music from Oramo and the BBCSO at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2021 [17] – Foulds, Bray, Walton, Arnold: Timothy Ridout (viola), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 27.8.2021. (CS)

Timothy Ridout (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

John FouldsLe cabaret (Overture to a French Comedy) (Proms premiere performance)
William Walton – Viola Concerto Op.68
Charlotte BrayWhere Icebergs Dance Away (UK premiere)
Malcolm Arnold – Symphony No.5 (Proms premiere performance)

The BBC Symphony Orchestra are performing two of this year’s Proms concerts with their Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo: the ‘Last Night’ and this programme of twentieth and twenty-first century English music.  During the first four minutes of the concert, one might have been forgiven for thinking that Oramo had got his concert schedule muddled, John Foulds’ Le cabaret serving as a breezy party-popping opener.

Foulds’ overture began life in 1921 as incidental music for the London production of Sacha Guitry’s play, Deburau, based on the life of the 19th-century French mime actor, Jean-Gaspard Deburau.  It’s good to hear Foulds’ music at the Proms since it was the performance of the composer’s tone poem, Epithalamium, during the 1906 season, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, that prompted Hans Richter – the music director of the Hallé in which Foulds played cello – to fund the self-taught composer’s musical education in Europe from his own pocket.  Although the Manchester-born Foulds (1880-1939), who had played in seaside and theatre bands during his youth, did go on to compose ‘serious’ works, it was for his light music and theatre scores – including the incidental music for the 1924 production of George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan – that he remained best known, his more demanding compositions failing to find a widespread audience.

And so, here too we did not hear Foulds’ creative and intellectual engagement with eclectic modern techniques, but rather his uncomplicated charm, vitality and verve, as Oramo – conducting with generous gestures and occasional chutzpah – frothed up just the right measure of swagger and exuberance from the BBCSO.  Oramo didn’t rush the tempi, which allowed the sways, wriggles and snatches to make their mark.  As the bass riff revolved, the spirit was nonchalant, though the arch eyebrow of Satie was never far away, and in the Rossinian romp to the close Oramo let loose the rasping brass and held the last chord long and loud, with a showman’s chutzpah.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO (c) BBC / Chris Christodoulou

Fun, and finely played, as it was, Le cabaret made for a rather strange ‘prelude’ to Walton’s Viola Concerto, written in 1929 when the composer had put the audacious cheekiness of Façade and the rumbustiousness of Portsmouth Point behind him.  BBC New Generation Artist Timothy Ridout chose to perform the composer’s revised score of 1961, with a smaller orchestra and the addition of a harp, in what was the viola player’s Proms debut.

I was bewitched by Ridout’s interpretation, which balanced Romantic lyricism with taut, lucid modernism, and was played with an easy mastery of the technical complexities complemented by sustained profundity and focus.  Ridout’s tone is soulful and strong, and the viola’s vaulting melodies tugged at the heart, but his phrasing is nuanced and though the lines were at times ruminative they were never so introspective as to slip into self-absorbed reverie.  Much of the impact of the performance came from the intricate conversations between the orchestra and soloist, which – though he never made concessions to the soloist – were crafted so sensitively by Oramo, with Ridout occasionally turning away from the Proms audience to engage intensely with the BBCSO players, but never failing to project or communicate outwards.  If there was melancholy, it was not all prevailing: Ridout knows how to give the viola line a presence, a personality even; the sense of striving and renewal continued to the final sighing false relation of the fading last bars of the Concerto.

The Andante comodo set out a fairly moderate pace, yearning complemented by mystery.  There was a leanness to the orchestral sound when the viola rose high, and a strong sense of forward movement, blossoming into an exciting stringendo into the central Con spirito where gritty robustness was countered by some lovely solo horn playing.  After this ‘release’, the recapitulation saw ‘retreat’, the lower strings’ tremolando tense and dry, setting off the viola’s warm double-stops which were further softened by delicate interjections from the oboe and flute.

The lithe counterpoint of the Vivo, e molto preciso, seemed reminiscent of Tippett’s conversations with the Elizabethans and Baroque, the 4ths, 5ths and scales ringing and racing with memories of times past, as the meters slipped and swerved.  Ridout’s sprints were both relaxed and firm, as were the risoluto unison strings which later took flight.  And, if the viola’s initial response to the pert bassoon at the start of the Allegro moderato, supported by lovely harp playing, seemed blithe, the tenor soon darkened once again.  Oramo whipped up the brass for a weighty last tutti and the sense of burden and irresolution did not dissolve at the close, despite the beautiful translucence of the scoring and Ridout’s poetic utterances.

Prickly rage replaced poetry in Ridout’s encore, the fourth movement of Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for solo viola Op.25 No.1, whose title, ‘Rasendes Zeitmass: Wild: Tonschönheit ist Nebensache’, translates as, ‘Frenzied tempo: Wild: the beauty of the sound is secondary’.  Since Hindemith had given the premiere performance of Walton’s Concerto, at the Proms in 1929, it was a fittingly fierce, flamboyant and gripping tribute to a composer who left his own significant legacy of music for the instrument.

Charlotte Bray’s Where Icebergs Dance Away was commissioned by Westdeutscher Rundfunk for WDR Sinfonieorchester who premiered the work in May this year, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru.  It was inspired by a visit that Bray made to Greenland in 2016, and, also by the artwork of Zaria Forman, particularly a pastel drawing, Disco Bay, which depicts a place that Bray found especially stirring.  The work seeks, according to the composer, to ‘portray the light and beauty of the icy landscape glistening in the sun, exploring musically the contradictory nature of the glaciers – stable yet fragile’.

Bray’s orchestration creates palpable sensations – brittle creaks and crackles, jumpy snaps, splitting yawns – and an almost frightening expanse, as soaring flute and piccolo pierce the air above deep rumbling pedals.  There were fraught, oppositional tensions, yet nothing was still.  Ever more urgent fragments spluttered and splashed, and if the mood became quasi-playful – alluding to the ‘dances’ of the title perhaps – then Bray somehow creates the impression that the music is playing the players rather than the other way round.  In the central episode the antagonism of immense weighty mass and flighty splinters returned; the sounds of shattering ice and whiplash wind were portentous.  There was no resolution, just glints of light and cold.

Sakari Oramo (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

I’m speculating, and generalising, but I suspect that the fairly small audience at this rather eclectic Prom fell into two broad camps.  Judging from the full-bellied whooping and roaring of the younger clientele, one cohort comprised committed Ridout aficionados, fellow students and friends.  Others were eager to hear seldom-played English music, not least Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony (1961) with which the BBCSO celebrated the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth in the final work of the programme.  Astonishingly it was the first performance of the Symphony at the Proms, and the first Proms performance of any symphony by Arnold since Richard Hickox conducted the Second Symphony in 1994.

Arnold wrote his Fifth Symphony to honour four friends who died young: the musical humourist Gerard Hoffnung, the clarinettist Frederick Thurston, the horn player Dennis Brain and the dancer-choreographer David Paltenghi.  It’s not surprising that anger and grief collide with wistfulness and warmth.  The first movement is marked Tempestuouso, and it was certainly lean, restless and agitated in Oramo’s hands: gruff low strings, tight violin pizzicatos, accented woodwind fragments, glittering celeste and harp, quiet horn chords, powerful timpani interruptions – so many voices, and melodies, seemed to be making their presence felt, staking their right to be heard and remembered.  As in Walton’s Concerto, textures and colours were sculpted with impressive clarity, making the uncompromising spikiness even more unsettling; and though a lovely horn solo, the relaxed arabesques of celeste, harp and bells, and the tuba’s confident assertions did offer some stability, the movement ended with dissonance and disquiet.

Of the Andante con moto – Adagio, Arnold wrote, ‘It will be noted that, in the second movement, the composer is unable to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality’.  But, there were no emotional clichés here.  Oramo risked a slow tempo for the strings’ simple, touching theme, but with the entry of harp, timpani, flute and bassoon he pushed forward, making that opening statement seem all the more fragile, precious, distant.  Eschewing a baton, Oramo conjured a compelling fluidity, as the orchestral groups had their say in turn, but eventually darkness bullied its way in once more, in the form of strident woodwind trills and dominating brass, disrupting progress, fragmenting melody.  What a comfort when the lower strings and woodwind managed to retrieve the theme from the shadows and coax it onto its path once more – more delicate, less sure, redolent with Mahlerian pain and pathos, but beautiful.

Oramo emphasised the aggression of the asymmetries and strident colours of the Con fuoco which was brittle and fraught, like a violin string that’s about to snap.  Even the jaunty episodes had a sneer in their step.  The fanfares for brass, percussion and piccolos which open the Finale (Risoluto – Lento) were certainly not celebratory or optimistic but had a menacing glint of Shostakovich-like irony, and the swirling clouds thickened and blackened as the march ensued.  The glorious eruption of the Andante’s theme in its full orchestral glory was simultaneously cathartic and almost unbearably poignant.  The BBCSO held nothing back, the horns straining high.  And, then, suddenly, almost nothing: just the diminishing chimes of bass drum and tubular bells, celeste and harp, dissolving into the silence.  As the applause broke the stillness, Oramo waved Arnold’s score aloft.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available at BBC Sounds for 44 days following the performance.

5 thoughts on “Diverse and stirring English music from Oramo and the BBCSO at the Proms”

  1. An excellent review – particularly welcome as the press seem to have largely ignored this concert. I was very impressed with Ridout’s playing and the Arnold was a triumph, making a very persuasive case for the rehabilitation of the composer’s reputation.

    I was less taken with the Foulds Overture, which just seemed banal. As for the Bray, I liked her soundworld, but felt that the music failed to fulfill the promise of the first few bars.

  2. A great performance of Arnolds 5th Symphony. Why is one of our greatest and most versatile composers still so shamefully ignored by the BBC? Do the ghosts of the anti-populist serial advocates who blighted music from the 1960s still haunt the BBC. Tunes and melodies are not mortal sins!

  3. I heard this Prom concert on the radio and was particularly moved by the performance of Malcolm Arnold’s 5th. Obviously the Proms season being shorter this year hasn’t helped but with so few works of Arnold being performed in this his centenary year it’s been a real missed opportunity to at least attempt to start the rehabilitation of his reputation in this country. I’ve long thought that works of his like the English, Scottish and Cornish Dances, the overtures ‘Peterloo’, ‘Tam O’Shanter’ and ‘The Sound Barrier’, the concertos for guitar, clarinet, flute and horn and the nine symphonies, particularly the 2nd, 5th, 7th and 8th, should be part of the core repertoire of every professional orchestra in the land.

    • I totally agree. His neglect shames this country. But he is one among many neglected great British composers ignored by the BBC. I will give you a brief list — ARNELL, BAX, BANTOCK, DYSON (THE CANTERBURY TALES IS GREAT), MATTHIAS, LLOYD, DANIEL JONES, ALWYN, MOERAN, HOWELLS, HOLST (PLANETS EXCEPTED), BLISS AND MANY MORE.


  4. Chiming in from the States: Malcolm Arnold is one of my favorite composers. His time is coming, I can feel it.


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