Magnificent Elgar crowns an English Prom from Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [17], Prom 39 – Turnage, Vaughan Williams, and Elgar: Constantin Hartwig (tuba), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 15.8.2022. (MB)

Sakari Oramo conducts Constantin Hartwig (tuba) and the BBC SO © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Turnage – Time Flies (UK premiere)
Vaughan Williams – Tuba Concerto in F minor
Elgar – Symphony No.1 in A-flat major, Op.55

Three very different English composers were to be heard here, in excellent performances from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo. Elgar’s First Symphony was for me unquestionably the highlight, but the varied conspectus will have offered something for many. It is especially welcome just now to be reminded that, notwithstanding unremitting hostility from our fathomlessly philistine government and media, there can still be something to celebrate in English artistic endeavours, past and present. Nadine Dorries does not yet hold all the cultural cards.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Time Flies is a co-commission from the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, and the BBC SO. Its premiere, like so many, fell victim to Covid, as did the Tokyo Olympic Games at which it was due to take place. The piece’s three movements, ‘London Time’, ‘Hamburg Time’ and ‘Tokyo Time’, the last considerably more extended than its predecessors, last about twenty-five minutes in total. ‘London Time’ opened with an urban confidence, metallic and syncopated, perhaps more redolent of London a dozen years ago than now. Upbeat and playful, that opening material nonetheless fell downward through disorienting, corrosive chromaticism, until we reached one of Turnage’s trademark saxophone solos, prior to a final section in which various tendencies are combined. Hope for the future? Perhaps.

The opening trumpets of ‘Hamburg Time’ seemed to recall Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man or, after a while, the Janáček of the Sinfonietta. Stravinsky too came to mind, especially as woodwind became more prominent. But these were ghosts; Turnage’s is the fundamental voice. A sense of wide-open space similarly dissolved in unease, reassertion of something perhaps not so very different from socialist or at least collectivist realism the hallmark of what follows. Jazz rhythms, sonorities, and attack of ‘Tokyo Times’ were refreshingly distinct from faded orientalist tropes. Turnage evokes them, of course, rather than simply recreating them, another sign of Stravinsky’s presence (perhaps Henze’s too). An enigmatic chorale at the centre — post-Messiaen, or is it post-Weill? —  cautioned against easy answers.

Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto was treated to a splendidly nimble reading from Constantin Hartwig and the orchestra. The first movement’s liveliness was justly ambiguous, culminating in a beautifully played cadenza imbued with a sense of longing the more impressive for not being milked. The central ‘Romanza’ offered a fine instance in miniature of Vaughan Williams’s ability to create something folklike that is entirely composed rather than found. Again, there was longing without cloying, let alone sentimentality. The tuba part sounded at times almost like a descant, albeit amidst or beneath orchestral textures, at any rate in intriguing counterpoint. The finale offered darker, even diabolical, play not so distant perhaps from Prokofiev, though certainly speaking with a different accent. Another cadenza, different in character, proved equally fine in execution. A sudden end underlined the composer’s achievement in concision, never outstaying his welcome. That, alas, is more than can be said for a dreary encore, apparently Sir Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, which served mostly to underline Vaughan Williams’s skill in tuba-writing.

Oramo’s studied tempo for the opening of the Elgar avoided sentimentality without going down the more common road of swiftness. Articulation further underlined a premonition of shock, even shellshock. When the full orchestra entered, it sounded glorious, as much maestoso as Elgarian nobilmente, without a tinge of regret. Did it, though, lead to the Allegro material, or was it more a matter of sectional contrast? I missed something, a sense of connection, however intangible, characterising performances otherwise as different as Boult and Barenboim. That, however, was my only doubt concerning this fine performance; given the excellence of everything else, I am happy to allow the fault may have been mine. For Oramo captured even-handedly Elgar’s Wagnerian and Brahmsian tendencies, as did the BBC SO’s sound. And the return of the opening material unquestionably arose from preceding breakdown, mood-swings necessitating something both old and new. It was not only Brahms and Wagner, though: the most liminal qualities of this movement evoked, yet never merely recreated, both featherlight Mendelssohn and phantasmagorial Strauss, the latter especially at the point of disturbing recapitulatory collapse. If the frame of reference were not so wide as that of Barenboim’s extraordinary recent performances, we had likewise travelled a long way from the Boultian ascendancy.

The second movement similarly had a Mendelssohn-cum-Brahms underpinning to its steely (anti?)-militarism. As with Mahler, who increasingly came to mind, there were startling new vistas to witness, though the light, often the half-light, crucially was different in quality. For all the alleged serenity of the third movement, there were darker forces at work too. Harmonies summoned Hagen from his watch. At the close, there prevailed a rapt inwardness not so different from Schumann’s Innigkeit, albeit exquisitely and even tragically late. Disorientation, even brokenness, marked the onset of the finale, the question being ‘is this irreparable?’ It was no easy question to answer, a struggle of Brahmsian order indicated. If here, Elgar comes perilously close on occasion to imitation of Brahms, it is a fault in the right direction — and here a winning one. Ultimately, nobility in both work and performance won out, not despite but on account of the slings and arrows.

Mark Berry

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