John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London set the Proms bar high

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [2], Prom 2 – Vaughan Williams, Watkins, Bax, Walton, Elgar: Adam Walker (flute), Sinfonia of London / John Wilson (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 16.7.2022. (CS)

John Wilson conducts the Sinfonia of London (c) Chris Christodoulou

Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Huw Watkins – Flute Concerto
Walton – Partita for Orchestra
Elgar‘Enigma’ Variations

With a political, economic and meteorological meltdown currently afflicting the UK, this Prom – built around the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ birth – from John Wilson’s Sinfonia of London, which cast a nostalgic eye back to the English musical Renaissance of the early twentieth century, might have been thought to offer the almost full-house audience at the Royal Albert Hall a welcome retreat from the storms of the present.  But, Wilson is not one to wallow in wistfulness – no cow-pat pastoralism here – and familiar favourites were refreshed, as new pathways were opened.

It’s worth beginning by simply stating that musical and technical standards were superlative throughout this Prom.  The Sinfonia of London is a hand-picked group of world-class musicians comprising a significant number of principals and leaders from other UK and international orchestras, alongside soloists and members of distinguished chamber groups, originally brought together for recording purposes.

But a gaggle of virtuosi does not necessarily a first-rate ensemble make, and the RAH can present difficult acoustic corners to negotiate.  So it proved in the opening work, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis – or, at least, so it seemed from my vantage point, for it’s always hard to tell what others hear in this barn of a space.  Wilson took risks: the tempo and the dynamic of the introductory statement were strikingly slow and distant, but despite the ubiquitous wide vibrato employed, the string players struggled in these opening moments to make their sound cohere and push forwards into the initial statement of Tallis’s theme.  Dynamic contrasts were extreme throughout, but at times at the expense of fluency.  The ‘Orchestra II’ of nine players was filed in a line on a higher tier across the back of the RAH platform; as a string player, I wondered how, in single file, they ‘felt’ their contributions as a ‘collective’, and in the event I’d have liked the secondary group to project greater antiphonal weight to complement the main body of the fantasia.

In contrast to the spacious opening, with its ‘stretched’ largamentes, it seemed at times that Wilson, anxious to avoid sentimentality, pushed forward precipitously, but, that said, the full-blooded climaxes were gloriously resonant and fervent, and Wilson shaped thrilling contrasts of reticence and pressing incisiveness which also articulated the harmonic arguments with persuasive insight.  The solo quartet playing was beautifully articulate, and Wilson offered us an irresistible invitation in the episodes of expressive expansiveness to nestle comfortingly within the golden glow of the string enfold.

I had a brief Arnold Bax obsession as a teenager, and this performance of the composer’s Celtic-inspired Tintagel – a seascape that harks back to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and walks in the shadows of Debussy’s La mer – was a welcome reminder that the opportunities to hear even the composer’s most well-known orchestral work are few.  The expanded brass section relished the grandeur of Bax’s representation of the craggy Cornish cliffs and the wide expanse of the Atlantic, playing with a brilliant luminosity.  Wilson gave free rein to the score’s fluid rubatos, shaping an imaginative vision replete with both freedom and danger, stirring the erotic potency of the music but creating spaciousness vistas.

Walton’s Partita found Wilson in his groove.  Walton composed this showpiece in 1957 for the Cleveland Orchestra’s 50th anniversary and Wilson and his superb players brought a sharp wit to the flashiness which reflects a love of Mediterranean exuberance (Walton retired to the island of Ischia in the gulf of Naples).  Though this was a hell-for-leather reading – the Giga burlesca, in particular was grabbed by the scruff of its neck and whisked through its paces with a brilliant blend of brashness and polish – the details were allowed to tell, and the piquant dissonance of the duet for solo viola and oboe at the start of the Pastorale siciliana was brilliantly coaxed by Wilson into a fluent dance.  ‘It is to be enjoyed straight off,’ said the composer of his Partita.  Quite.  Wilson’s equal delight in the score’s spiky rhythmic arguments – carved crisply and with visceral, sometimes aggressive, vigour – cool pools of lyrical reflection and sharply defined textural detail was absolutely winning.

Adam Walker (c) Chris Christodoulou

Modernity was represented by Huw Watkins’ Flute Concerto, composed in 2013 for the evening’s soloist, Adam Walker – first performed at the Barbican the following year and receiving its first performance at the Proms.  Walker and Wilson captured the Concerto’s blend of rhapsody and drama.  The layered, kaleidoscopic textures and colours of the first movement, Allegro molto, were shaped with lovely agility by Walker.  This music, whether frenetic or calm, has an otherworldly beauty, and this coalesced in a ravishing episode blending high strings, woodwind, and harp with Walker’s birdsong-like, exuberant effusions. The cuckoo-call which opens the Andante drew one deeper into the English pastoral, and Walker spun a mesmerising web of meandering melodising – some poignant echoes of Shostakovich here, too, perhaps?  The Allegro molto woke one from reverie, though, the lovely freshness and renewed focus of the thematic developments providing impetus and driving wild outbursts of ceaseless, surging freedom.  Walker’s non-stop stream of song, which pushed his instrument low and high, was delivered with unaffected virtuosity and genuine communicativeness of rare sensitivity.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations closed the programme.  This was a revelation.  Wilson eschewed sentimentality and, in a sense, the notion of ‘enigma’ at all.  Using the Christopher Hogwood edition, he stripped the score back to its essence, rejecting habitual traditions.  The strings’ pronouncement of the theme was beautifully tender, legato bow strokes emphasising the lyricism rather than the pathos.  In variations such as ‘H.D. S-P’ the lucidity of the textures was stunning, with the timpani sneaking neatly within the strings’ scurrying.  The violins’ G-string theme in ‘R.P.A.’ pulsed forwards; one could feel oneself breathing in unison with the fiddles’ fervent phrasing, but there was welcome relief in the woodwinds’ hiatuses, however shadowy.  Staccato low strings and timpani fuelled a breathless ‘Troyte’ in which rage was somehow transmuted to radiance.  The violins’ sustained G at the start ‘Nimrod’ was retrieved from ‘elsewhere’, imbued with human spirit, made to throb with controlled ardour, then calmly laid to rest – no mawkish sentimentality here.  The juxtaposition of the whipped-up brassy fury of ‘G.R.S.’ and the heart-wrenching lyrical luxuriance of the cellos’ lament in ‘B.G.N.’ took one’s breath away.

There was a wonderful sweep cohering Elgar’s variations, which continued in the encore – Eric Coates’ ‘At the Dance’ from the Summer Days suite.  As the first weekend of the Proms unfolded, Wilson and the Sinfonia of London set the bar high.

Claire Seymour

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