Prom 1 - Towards the Sea

Julian Anderson: Harmony (c4 mins) BBC Commission, World Premiere
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from 'Peter Grimes' (17 mins)
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (23 mins)
Lutosławski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (8 mins)
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (66 mins)
Sally Matthews soprano

Roderick Williams baritone
Stephen Hough piano
BBC Proms Youth Choir
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo conductor 

Harmony - a short work for orchestra commissioned by the BBC from a British composer is in danger of becoming the tradition now - in the last 2 seasons we have short pieces by Judith Weir and Mark Turnage.  Julian Anderson's meditation on the nature of measured time and experienced time is - ironically - too short to make its point temporally, but it is big enough physically to set the mood in the huge acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

One expects a certain amount of bite in works by Britten and Oramo delivered plenty  in the Four Sea Interludes. The overall pictorial nature, supplemented by the suggestions from Britten's notes in a libretto, shouldn't disguise that the opera heaves with the ferment of upsetting things (metaphorically and literally) below the surface.  Oramo brought a feverish urgency and hair-raising intensity which fizzed across the four movements.  A very exciting, bullish performance of the first of this season's warhorses (24 performances at the Proms first in 1945 conducted by Adrian Boult).  This bodes well.

Stephen Hough is a master of his instrument and once again he found parts of the score that other pianists fail to reach and realise. Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on the Theme by Paganini isn't a favourite of mine but I really warmed to the way Hough and Oramo combined an ear for the exotic soundscape and nuanced rhythm to give us a reading that was a factor of ten more interesting than any I've heard in a long time.  The Lutoslawski Variations on the same theme were new to me and to Hough who learned them for this concert. It was a dazzling performance of a dazzling piece - though never as challenging as late pieces by the composer it has great panache and charm.

My chief interest in this concert was the performance of the first symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams titled 'A Sea Symphony'.  It's an amazing work - by no means perfect technically.  It has periods of awkwardness but conceptually it is an audacious piece whichever way you look at it: as a piece of Edwardian grand gesture, as a first symphony (who has ever started their symphonic career with such a purposeful stride), as a radical departure from biblical, Wagnerian and nationalistic subject matter and as a most of all - a community, or perhaps a village of singers and instrumentalists coming together in music making (500 or so in this instance).  Its a much loved piece - underplayed at the proms. I have loved it for years, every shaky idea to every inspiring one, first encountered in Vernon Handley's recording then experienced in the flesh with him conducting.  Then in a fit of investigation I got my hands on every other recording, a score and a clearer idea of what I want in it.

From about 3 or 4 minutes in I could hear that Oramo was alert to the glories of this score and as it turned out he carefully picked his way through some of its tender patches.  Moreover it became clear that he had a crack choir for the job.  If this isn't one of the finest performances you could want to hear an orchestra gives then I'd eat my hat: if it's not the very finest performance a choir could sing then I'd eat your hat and mine. 

Fantastic work by all involved - scrupulous ear for the detail by the conductor coaxed some lovely playing from the orchestra in all areas - great to hear the harps and the organ. Two very fine soloists carried Whitman's words with a subtle resilience against the orchestra but without turning to melodramatic ends to do it.  Wiliams' assured baritone eschewed some of the posturing one hears in early recordings and Matthews' powerful and ardent avoiding the winsome tone of some - a fine pairing. 

I hoped for something vivid and exciting but I got the most complete performance of the piece I've heard to date.  Handley's version has perhaps more fire, and Haitink's more cosmological awareness - but Oramo is immediately their equal in so many other ways.  It was great to hear such strong new thinking about this difficult but beloved work: this performance scraped the barnacles off it's hull.

Special mention though should go to the combined choir - many choirs represented it seems but only two listed.  I will remember their glorious attack in the first movement pressing the speed of this movement on the water.  Their quiet benediction against Roderick Williams' wonderfully unaffected contemplation in the second movement was spellbinding.  A tumbling spray-laden third movement was carried by the alacrity of their voices, and they were the golden thread throughout RVW's first troublesome symphonic finale.

The finale movement starts with some of RVW's most beautiful writing for chorus and orchestra (and organ) - O vast rondure - it's a rapt start to a movement which has some excitement but for me is rather spoiled by the rhapsodising RVW writes for the too singers.  To be fair Williams and Burgess sang beautifully and didn't belabour the text. In the midst of it are great moments, "Sail forth" has the frisson all of it's own up there with Beethoven and as the soloists return to a more maritime text: the coda was sublime.  Watching the TV relay - Oramo's gifts as a choral conductor came through time and time again.

What a wonderful way to start the season.  Catch it while you can on TV here or on Radio here...but really the RVW deserves a wider release.


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