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Seen and Heard Prom Review

PROM 35: Lambert, Coleridge-Taylor, Stanford and Elgar, Mark Stone (baritone), Phillipe Graffin (violin), BBC Concert Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth, Royal Albert Hall, 11 August, 2005 (ED)

Have you ever sat in a concert and wondered why on earth you were there? Well, that’s exactly what went through my mind again and again during this one. In fact, my mind was semi-occupied with Walton, Vaughan Williams, Richard Strauss and Beethoven, but more of them as I proceed.

Of course, I chose to go. The reasons for the choice were plain enough as, on paper, a potentially interesting web of musical associations was promised. Three works had sea associations relating to this year’s major Proms theme – those of Stanford and Lambert being self-evident; that of Coleridge-Taylor was less so (the score for the concerto was lost aboard RMS Titanic en route to the world premiere, leading to hasty re-writing). Stanford was also Coleridge-Taylor’s teacher, and he (C-T) received his first major commission with the help of Alfred Jaeger, forever ‘Nimrod’ of Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme. Just as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – barely two weeks ago – illustrated exactly what the Proms does best, this was nothing more than a slot-filler in the schedule.

The performance proved a non-entity almost from first to last. Mind you, look at what they actually had to work with in terms of music. The craftsmanship of the composition ranged from the mundane to the average; inspiration hardly featuring to any great degree in the first three works. If Lambert’s eclectic style brought shades of Walton and Vaughan Williams to mind (rarely and briefly), I was left wishing that I was listening to something with at least a fraction of their inspiration.

Instead, something well meaning yet stolid from another age was in progress. A journey down memory lane for some perhaps - to a dimly remembered monochrome flick or of school days long past (Stanford) – but no matter how well meaning neither could end soon enough. The kindest thing, it is often said, is to sail a ship serenely out of port and scuttle her at midnight with dignity intact. In musical terms read that as ‘acknowledge the importance these composers had for their age, but don’t perform it any more, please’. The little Englanders were happy and the grey rinse brigade too, but please, composition even in England, has moved on so much…

It seemed hardly anyone noticed the scrappy playing. Alright, so the BBC Concert Orchestra is not the Vienna Phil (we have to wait a few weeks for them), but even so standards were on the ocean’s floor. Violins and violas for the most part dominated with shrill tone. The celli and basses, floundering at first, eventually found something like their depth – but hardly distinctively. Timpani and brass proved dominant and, as repeatedly happened, dominated proceedings to a degree they should not have. Woodwind solos seemed to count for little.

Above it all Wordsworth directed at first with workmanlike dedication; later lunging and flapping extravagantly to little effect. Poor Mark Stone as soloist in the Stanford had not the incisiveness with the text possessed by a Luxon or Allen, though he brought pleasing tone. But he was too frequently caught unawares as orchestral and choral waves swamped his vocal line, a situation that Wordsworth might have done his best to prevent.

The curiosity of the night, Coleridge-Taylor’s violin concerto, proved a curate's egg of a work; indeed to hear it once might be considered enough. The heart of it, the central andante, was pleasing, but the rest barely held together, despite impassioned advocacy from soloist Philippe Graffin. With motifs treated episodically, passed between soloist and orchestra, in unison and repeated beyond their natural strength, there is little of real interest, despite there being two available recordings should you want one. What there is, beyond the nocturnal andante, is chiefly in the rhythmic invention if not the orchestration of the third movement. However, despite committed playing Graffin too failed have enough presence to grip proceedings. Ultimately, it was a deflating experience, given that on record at least Graffin has produced interesting things. His freshly recorded Elgar concerto with Vernon Handley should be worth a listen when it appears.

So finally to the Elgar (and Richard Strauss): “Here for the first time is an Englishman who has something to say.” Some ray of hope was at least in prospect, but it was quickly dashed by the performance. Pancake flat and under-characterized, Wordsworth’s approach was, shall I say, spacious: to the point of lengthy pauses inserted between variations, though thankfully he refrained from squeezing the lifeblood from Nimrod, as I feared he might given the evening so far. It was hard to credit that this, an English orchestra and conductor, should attempt to reduce Elgar to bare mediocrity. If you listened hard there was a slight distant grinding before the organ’s entry in the finale: Elgar, Wood, Boult, and the rest all turning in their graves. Who could blame them?

Perhaps the time has come to look more closely at the mission and quality of BBC performing groups together with the Proms, and to take both in new directions – even if that should mean quality at the expense of mediocrity in all its forms. “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” – and yes, it took a German to say it first, but he had a point…

Evan Dickerson



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