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Seen and Heard Prom Report

English Music At The Proms 2005: by Em Marshall

Finally, finally, finally, a decent amount of English music at the Proms! It would appear that the lobbying of Nicholas Kenyon by British music fans has eventually paid off. Let us hope that Kenyon noted the packed auditorium for these concerts and now realises the tremendous demand for these wonderful works.


The Festival opened in splendid style with A Child of Our Time performed on the opening night, followed by Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore on the second, and Purcell’s Fairy Queen on the third. The Sullivan was conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and included the overture from The Yeomen of the Guard, as well as Mackerras’ own sparkling Sullivan arrangement, Pineapple Poll, a collection of tunes primarily drawn from the less well-known operettas. The BBC Concert Orchestra were on top form, and a gratifying, if rather emotional, presentation followed the interval when Peter Maxwell Davies handed over the first ever Queen’s Medal for Music award to Sir Charles.


The Purcell, with Paul McCreesh conducting the Gabrieli Consort and Players was equally well-performed, with an especially amusing and brilliant performance from Jonathan Best and excellent singing from all soloists.


Vaughan Williams was pleasingly well-represented this year too, with some outstanding performances. On Tuesday 19th July, Richard Hickox gave the third performance in recent times of the original version of the London Symphony. I had been fortunate enough to be present at the first Barbican performance in November 2003, and didn’t believe then that it could get any better. I was wrong. I admit to being something of  fan of the original version, I know it waffles a bit, I know it is long-winded and rambling – but it contains such gorgeous music (that ravishing Andantino episode!) that I find the omissions in the revised version a great shame. This performance, however, was as well near “perfect” as one is going to get. Hickox has clearly got the work under his skin. The symphony was well-paced - exciting but not rushed, passionate, profound and gripping. I cannot imagine that it could be better performed. The symphony was in the second half of a programme that also included Britten’s Quatre Chansons Francais – a remarkable work for a fourteen year old - with Susan Gritton as soprano soloist and was given a sympathetic performance.


VW’s First and Sixth symphonies were also given an airing this year. The sea is one of the themes of this year’s Proms, and the Sea Symphony was played only a few days after the London, with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, and Janice Watson and Dwayne Croft as soloists. Again, the performance was exemplary, full of vitality. However, as one friend, a well-respected baritone, remarked to me, it seems a shame that they didn’t get a British baritone for the solo – someone, perhaps, who has the work more “in his blood.” The American Croft who, although good enough, did not have either the power to fill the hall, nor the conviction to convey the spirit of the work to its full.


The Tallis Fantasia featured as one of a number of British works in a concert on 8th August. Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – who stood up for the Tallis – a nice touch, I felt. The performance was vibrant, rich and luscious, and the quartet's playing was remarkably sweet-toned. It might have been more effective to have had a greater separation between the groups of players to increase the distancing effect, but the performance nonetheless worked well, and I could not fault it. The Tallis was followed by an unexceptional performance by Steven Osborne (with score) of Tippett’s Piano Concerto and Holst’s Planets comprised the second half. I must admit to having been rather disappointed by this. Brabbins is said to have modelled his performance on Holst’s own - on good old Pearl  - a CD I highly recommend - and although Brabbins did roughly follow Holst’s tempi, his phrasing was not after Holst’s example. Despite the fact that Mars was vigorous and propelling, it somehow lacked the exhilaration that it should command. Venus was tender, Jupiter noble without being overly sentimental, Saturn suitably menacing and Uranus lively and well-driven. And yet, particularly in comparison with Hickox at the Proms in 2003 or at the RFH in the autumn of last year, the work l somehow lacked spirit. I cannot comment on the ensuing performance of Colin Matthews' Pluto, as I was not there to witness it, having very manifestly and blatantly marched out at the regretfully truncated end of Neptune in which the women’s voices were not even allowed to die away before Brabbins started into the impostor piece. How for example, would one feel if a new friend of Elgar’s was discovered, and another composer wrote a Variation for him, being not content with calling it a separate work “modelled” on the Enigma? How could this be tagged onto the end of EDU without a break, or worse still, having the last notes of EDU curtailed to run into it more easily? I cannot comprehend how Pluto has been accepted so readily by the British public.


Sir Colin Davis was the conductor for VW's Sixth Symphony (See review) with an orchestra comprising students from the Juilliard School and the RAM. Davis captured the power and drive brilliantly in the opening Allegro, his second movement was stark, chilling, full of menace and intensity, with a most amazingly unrelenting climax, and the Scherzo was fierce and wild. Unfortunately, the Epilogue was utterly ruined by the audience’s appalling behaviour – an acute exacerbation of chronic bronchitis seemed to have afflicted them, as they coughed their lungs up, constantly, completely unrestrained. I saw not one handkerchief out to muffle the sound, and wondered if this was a deliberate attack on the movement, as one cougher started up violently  as soon as another had finished. The result was that barely a phrase was free of intrusion.


Elgar had a reasonable look-in this year as well, with Dream of Gerontius, his First Symphony and Enigma being performed ALL within a fortnight. Gerontius was conducted by Mark Elder, with the Hallé Orchestra, Hallé Choir, Youth Choir and the London Philharmonic Choir combined.The American tenor Paul Groves played Gerontius, Matthew Best sang the bass-baritone role and Alice Coote the soprano. I felt that, as a whole, the performance was not dramatic enough. It was too subtle for my taste, and I was slightly disappointed with Paul Groves, whose voice was too much the “Italian tenor” – not particularly suitable for English oratorio. Like Dwayne Croft in the VW Sea Symphony, Groves' voice was also not quite big enough, and the contrast between him and Matthew Best - whose every word was audible and who sang fantastically, with power and conviction, - was quite startling. Groves didn’t get the force and lyricism of the heart-rending “Sanctus fortis” particularly well, nor, more dismayingly, “Take me Away”. His enunciation was good, however. Other negatives included the too voluble semi-chorus at the end of Part 1( where they should be only just audible) and an Angel whose words were seriously inaudible at the end, slightly marred what would otherwise have been a deeply moving performance. The choirs sang their hearts out and the Hallé responded well to Elder’s expert direction.


Enigma was the conclusion of an all-British concert on 9th August, with Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert opened with Lambert’s brilliant Merchant Seamen, which was given a vivacious, powerful and exhilarating performance. The only hint that this scintillating suite is arrange from a film score is the expansive, lush and romantic “epic” themes in the final movement. It was a great shame that they omitted the second of the five movements (but you can hear this on the ASV disc – another disc I can’t recommend highly enough). Merchant Seamen was followed by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's violin concerto. A composer once incredibly well-loved, and indeed, famous, for his oratorio Hiawatha in the inter-war years of the last century, Coleridge-Taylor's absence from the concert hall is now symptomatic of the general neglect of British composers, and it was wonderful to see his music included again in the Proms after so many years. Unfortunately though, the violin concerto is not his best work, with rather simplistic, repetitious writing that lacks clearn direction. The opening and conclusion are both rather weak, and on the whole, the work is fairly uninspired. That said, it contains some beautiful passages of typically lush, rich, romantic music and the performance given by Philippe Griffin, was absolutely flawless. Griffin has, to my mind, a style of playing that recalls old masters such as Sammons – intense, vibrant, with real heart, soul and commitment, and a most gorgeous dark, rich tone. A superb performance of a modest but interesting piece.


An excellent performance of Stanford’s fantastic Songs of the Sea followed the interval at this concert, with the London Chorus and Mark Stone as baritone. Wordsworth then gave an admirable rendition of Enigma with Nimrod in particular standing out for its almost inaudibly hushed opening. Whilst it lacked the magical electricity of Bramwell Tovey’s version that I heard in Vancouver recently, this was probably the most tender, gossamer and peaceful version I’ve ever experienced – and it really worked. Wordsworth went achieved equal delicacy in Dorabella and considerable vigour in movements such as Sinclair.


Elgar’s First was more satisfactory than the performance of Gerontius. Tadaki Ottaka conducted the National Youth Orchestra, who acquitted themselves exceedingly well, apart from the fudged first woodwind entry. Conducting from memory, Ottaka proved quite exceptional himself, with an obvious rapport with the young players. He drew a clear and precise sound from them, and the symphony was given an exciting and impassioned rendition.


Rawsthorne saw some of the limelight in this, his centenary year (born in 1905), with a performance of his second piano concerto by Howard Shelley with Rumon Gamba and the National Orchestra of Wales. The work is a fairly conventional piece – rather restrained overall but with a much livelier and jazzier fourth movement, which has a tendency to feel a little out of place. The performance was not terribly exciting seeming rather conservative, intimate and delicate in general. This was preceded by Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes – a sensitive Dawn, an unusually exciting and charged Sunday Morning, and a thrilling Storm.


English song composers had some innings as well, in Tom Allen’s Cadogan Hall recital – the first of the Proms chamber music concerts. Warlock featured prominently with Sleep, The Fox (brilliant – and even better for having the fox’s head there with him!), 3 Belloc Songs – Ha’nacker Mill, The Night and My Own Country. Keel’s Trade Winds, the traditional Tom Bowling and Ireland’s Sea Fever were also included in the programme and Allen gave an amusing speech, explaining that his fondness for Nelson was two-fold, partly because there have been Nelsons in his family, and partly because Nelson had a manservant by the name of Tom Allen, a man who deeply respected his master, but refused to bow even when in the presence of kings!


Altogether, I have been pretty impressed by this year’s Proms. In comparison to their parsimonious attitudes to English music in previous years, the range of repertoire has been surprisingly broad, with the inclusion of Coleridge Taylor, Rawsthorne and Lambert as well as VW and Elgar. Performances have, as a general rule, been excellent. One personally hopes that it might be the threat of competition that has forced this change of hand. Whatever the reason, it is only to be welcomed.


Em Marshall

Em Marshall is Managing and Artistic Director of The English Music Festival. Click Here for the Festival web site and 2006 programme.

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