BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Wilson – Scapino & Five Tudor Portraits – Lawrence Power plays York Bowen

Overture, Scapino
Viola Concerto in C minor Op.25
Vaughan Williams
Five Tudor Portraits

Lawrence Power (viola)

Rosie Aldridge (mezzo-soprano) & Neal Davies (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 3 May, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

John Wilson. Photograph: www.johnwilsonorchestra.comAnother English programme under John Wilson, who is clearly well on the way to inheriting the late Richard Hickox’s mantle in this repertoire; he certainly deserves to. Scapino is probably the least effective (in terms of individual character) of Walton’s three overtures, but when given with total commitment (as on this occasion) it can work very well. Indeed, following the premiere of the revised version, by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1950 (at which your correspondent was present), it enjoyed no little success – even appearing in the quasi-Carry On film, Raising the Wind, surely the only film in which story, dialogue and music (not Walton’s!) were written by the same person (Bruce Montgomery). Scapino may lack the thoroughgoing coruscating brilliance and limitless energy of Portsmouth Point or the wonderful melodic appeal and impact of the Johannesburg Festival Overture, but it has elements of both, as well as a rather more adult view of life; such characteristics demand a truly first-rate performance, played to the hilt, which it certainly got under Wilson’s dynamic leadership, the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing throughout at its best.

Lawrence Power. Photograph: exhilarating start was followed by the rather enigmatic Viola Concerto of York Bowen. This remarkable work has had at least three recordings in the past ten years, Lawrence Power’s Hyperion issue being the preferred choice for many collectors. It is a very finely composed score dating from 1907 (when the composer was 33), which – being written for Lionel Tertis – is excellently laid out for the solo instrument. As a composer and performing musician, Bowen had everything – except memorability. The structure of this 35-minute work is exemplary and endlessly fascinating in itself, and Power’s performance was intensely gripping and at times quite moving. It was good, too, that Power played Bowen’s original cadenza in the finale (one of the three violists who have recorded the work removed it and wrote her own far less suitable offering). In terms of belief, understanding and communicative music-making, Power is surely in a class of his own: this was magnificent playing from the young master and Wilson’s partnership was an inspiration to all aspiring conductors.

There is an interesting connection between Bowen and Walton – 20 years after the former’s Viola Concerto appeared (and two years before Paul Hindemith gave the first performance of Walton’s Viola Concerto), Bowen was the soloist in the world premiere of Walton’s Sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra, a very different kettle of fish, for it is the air then breathed by Elgar, Delius and Stanford that encircles and enriches this Concerto.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Five Tudor Portraits was first heard at the Norwich Festival in 1936, in a programme which also had the world premiere of Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers conducted by the composer and sung by Sophie Wyss in the first half – a concert for which your correspondent regretted arriving on this planet too late. There is an amusing story connected with this premiere: having endured Britten’s astonishingly original yet disturbing early masterpiece, an elderly Dowager-type lady of no little nobility, sitting in the front row, on reading the text of the opening movement in the Festival programme, and hearing the words being sung, upped and went during the performance, taking her ladies’ maid with her, muttering no doubt in Lady Bracknell-type epigrams how disgusting everything was “nowadays”.

Stephen Johnson’s somewhat inadequate programme note told us nothing about the circumstances of Walton’s Scapino or of the Five Tudor Portraits, which was no great loss, for – from the opening bars – this was a consistently wonderful performance of one of the great composer’s most endearing and wholly characteristic (in every sense) works.

The choral singing throughout was superb – excellently balanced with the orchestra, the members of which gave every indication of enjoying participating in a work which few of them can have played before. They were fortunate to have John Wilson in charge – his technique is fully as it should be – accurate, clear, communicative, tingling with vitality and expressively moulding the many lyrical passages – and his tempos were absolutely right, when either directing the choir or accompanying the soloists. Luckily, the choice of soloists was also spot-on: one cannot imagine either solo part being given with such artistry; Rosie Aldridge had the bigger parts to play, and she was magnificent, from her initial drunken entry in ‘The Tunning of Elinor Rumming’, to the myriad emotions of the long Jane Scroop movement (nicely termed a ‘Romanza’ by the composer), this was a singer relishing every one of the opportunities RVW has given her, communicating her characterisations and various moods with no little artistry – and dead in tune.

Tie-less Neal Davies was fine, too, in his shorter contributions, from the superbly lyrical ‘Pretty Bess’ portrait to the boisterous ‘Jolly Rutterkin’ finale, which exuded enjoyment – as it should – in every bar, the men’s “Like a rutter hoyda” refrain raising the emotional and musical temperature significantly – and keeping it there. A great performance to round off a truly outstanding evening.

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