The joint orchestra had played this programme in Leicesters De Montfort Hall two nights earlier and the appearance at the Proms was great music-making. Sir Colin Davis belied his 77 years (hes 78 at the end of the month) and seemed to have been injected by the youthful enthusiasm of his players. Once again, young players, with no hard-bitten attitudes, brought out the best in Sir Colin (the same thing happens with Bernard Haitink) and this was a concert to remember.
Perhaps it was the nature of Coplands Fanfare for the Common Man with timpani and percussion raised high at the back of the stage, just under Sir Henry Woods bust, and horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba on the tier in front that sounded out the halls acoustic. From the press seats, on the back row of the stalls, I normally complain of a veiled sound from orchestras. But the Fanfare had well-rounded and focussed sound.
The remainder of the programme was equally vivid and clear admittedly with a larger than usual body of strings (including 12 double basses) and consisted of two contrasting symphonies. Vaughan Williamss Sixth, while suffering from a barrage of uncovered coughing, especially through the desolate final movement, was powerful in its effect. The four movements are played without a break (which has the advantage of keeping the audiences applause at bay until the end; sadly, the Berlioz didnt escape so easily) and is music of distinctive punch, although the saxophone solo in the scherzo wasnt sinister in the way the programme-note outlined. The player, in a red dress, stood up and, amidst the black and white of the suitably dress-suited orchestra, there was a bit of theatricality, rather like Spielbergs little red-coated girl amidst the overall monochrome in Schindlers List.
War-inspired or not, this symphony may have been new to many of the Juilliard players indeed, its not a everyday work in Vaughan Williamss homeland (Sir Colin conducted the last performance of it at the Proms, in 1997, with the National Youth Orchestra) and, indeed, may have been unfamiliar to many of the Royal Academy musicians, too but you wouldnt have realised that from this full-blooded reading.
The Symphonie fantastique here complete with all repeats, including in March to the Scaffold, and the use of the ad lib cornet in A Ball is, of course, something of a party-piece for Sir Colin, but it is amazing how much more you seem to hear whenever he conducts the work. A slight imbalance and unsteady intonation from the off-stage oboe in `Scene in the country aside, this was every bit as thrilling as past Davis-led performances Berliozs helter-skelter drug-related demise with his hero, in the face of spurned love, thinking first that he being dragged off to the scaffold and then amidst a witches Sabbath. As a warning against drugs it is surely better than most of the public service advertisements on television, although there is a serious danger you might get addicted to the music, certainly when as played with as much as commitment as here!
- BBC Proms 2005
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