Prom 1 - English Eccentrics

All the concert details are here on BBC website (though annoyingly the programme notes disappeared after a time last year).

Turnage: Canon Fever - I thought this piece is hardly remarkable when I heard it the first time and I haven't really changed my mind in three subsequent auditions.  Its not the finest example of Turnage's ability to shock and mesmerise in my view - though I don't follow his output slavishly.  When I looked in the concert programme I saw why its on the bill in Prom 1.  The piece was commissioned to mark neither the Jubilee nor the Olympics but the 20th anniversary of the publication of BBC Music Magazine.  Enough said really.  It went quickly with some fizz - some of the canonical brass writing was lost in the RAH acoustic. I'm not sure how I feel about this kind of piece - we'll see if it has legs.

Elgar: Overture Cockaigne - I heard Sir Charles MacKerras do this in 2009 at the Proms and was annoyed with myself for whistling the tunes for days after.  It is some ways palatable side of Elgar's nature but I still shudder to think of the old social climber's views of the people he was portraying - affectionate - maybe, mocking more likely.  But taken as a piece it is not for nothing that it has been played so often at the Proms - hummable tunes, some choice if not especially imaginative orchestration and some variety.

Norrington conducted with sparse gestures but a whimsical look on his face.  The BBCSO seemed to be finding it all hard work - scarcely a smile. The lightness of Norrington's reading was welcome (as was the vibrato he allowed) but I'm no closer to understanding the appeal of Elgar's writing.

Delius: Sea Drift - The BBC announcer said at the end of this performance "Absolutely beautiful" well in one sense it was - the playing and singing were certainly of the highest order.  I can found nothing wrong with the music - but my problem is with the words.

Delius had to pick and chose from the full text of the poem by Whitman and sometimes it worked but mostly it didn't for me. Vaughan Williams was setting Whitman at the same time and there's great power to his words but neither composer could match the poet's lyricism to their own in my view.  That said Bryn Terfel sang more beautifully than ever - with a wide range and full of sympathy.  The orchestra and chorus were, as always, full of tone and of delicacy as the music required.  Delius' scoring so often leaves me less interested in the melody as time goes on and that's unfortunate because so often I find the melody the most interesting part of his writing. Delius does not, for me, have sufficent ear of the landscape despite his love for it.

One small aside too which may account for my dis-ease.  The male bird loses his mate and sentimental old Whitman has him crooning for his lost partner through the poem; as some metaphor for the boy's suffering.  In fact male birds don't lament over lost love as much as we'd like to think - his song is to find another partner pretty damn quick.  Delius (he's not the only one) stumbles into this woolly thinking - and sentiment in word is layered with sentiment of music.  Nature is not sentimental.

Elder - in a lamentably clipped and lightweight interval TV interview - professed a lifelong love for the piece and it may be a long attendance to it that I require.  He conducted the big forces brilliantly - with care and devotion - his love was evident.  My love was absent.

Tippett: Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles - For me this was the finest piece on the programme.  This piece was a royal offering and as such perhaps constrained the composer or at least put him on his best behaviour, so it wasn't very challenging but its geniality and ingenuity were at least more of the 20th Century that I knew than that of my grandfathers generation.

Brabbins worked hard but the dismal faces of the BBCSO were even more apparent here and one wonders if the four conductors format was causing them problems (in his interval piece Elder said boldly but clearly "it will never happen again").  Signs of strain stayed entirely on the visage and not on the playing which was rich, alert and vivid.

Its a piece which I want to hear again, which is more than can be said for...

Elgar: Coronation Ode - the contents both musical and lyrical of this piece offend me at about every level.  And when, in his interval talk Stephen Johnson said "They don't write music like this anymore" I could only think - "thankfully".

I have to ask why was this hideous example of all that was naive, blusterous and imperialist in Elgar's output dug up: he wrote so much regal matter that surely the Jubilee could have been celebrated with something more appropriate to modern monarchy than this appalling train wreck. 

At one stage I wonder if it was a BBC in-joke.  Was it perhaps the vaguely contemporary notions of demanding joyfulness (useful for `BBC management) which rang bells with the new DG?:

"Die in joy away; Cease ye, sounds of strife!"

Or some anti Armed Forces cuts lobby getting a voice:-

"Britain, ask of thyself, and see that thy sons be strong, Strong to arise and go, if ever the war-trump peal"

But time and time again my stall on Elgar is set firm besides that of the composer Robert Simpson.  He said after a performance at the Royal Festival Hall "I refuse to be addressed in that manner" - I'm sure he would have reacted violently to the music of this Ode and with fervour reading AC Benson's settings.

Gardner's enthusiasm - which he needs to break out of from time to time I think - dragged us through this Edwardian mire.  The soloists were in very fine voice and acted out their narrative well. I just hope after this sole outing the Coronation Ode isn't played in full again in my hearing.

Overall my biggest gripe was the programming of this concert - starting the season with such eccentric choices of music was I think a mistake.  In this year of Jubilee and Olympics - neither was adequately celebrated with fine music nor were English composers adequately represented at their best (Holst, RVW, Britten, Walton all missing and I could go on...) but I'm sure we can expect better of the forthcoming Proms.

Or can we? Prom 2 is My Fair Lady - I'm not going there!


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