Bach, Ethel Smyth, Rachmaninov – and Henry Wood

Bach, orch. Henry Wood
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Ethel Smyth
Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra
Rachmaninov, orch. Wood
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3/2
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Tasmin Little (violin) & Richard Watkins (horn)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Stefan Solyom

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 4 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1944)Sir Henry Wood was the common denominator for this Prom – as the dedicatee of Ethel Smyth’s Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra, an early champion of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, and the orchestrator of two works for keyboard.

The orchestral transcriptions were skilfully delivered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and its guest conductor to open each of the concert’s halves and both requiring a huge orchestra, beefed up considerably in the brass and percussion sections. Yet it was still a shock to hear the Royal Albert Hall organ, supplying full-bodied bass notes, completely overpowering the brass at the outset of Rachmaninov’s famous C sharp minor Prelude. The balance problem quickly resolved, the stormy central section successfully showed the imagination of Wood’s orchestral colouring. The cymbal sticks used on the gong were particularly atmospheric as the final crescendo approached – this the place where Wood deviated most from the original dynamics, securing a rousing finish rather than a quieter, thoughtful one.

There were similar balance issues in the Toccata and Fugue, though here the choir of woodwinds was clear, and helped keep the definition one would expect from a keyboard (organ) piece. Stefan Solyom lent on the mysterious diminished chords, and helped in his projection by Wood’s inventive scoring, though some of the fantasia passages felt constricted and rushed.

Richard WatkinsEthel Smyth wrote her Concerto for the rare combination of Horn and Violin in 1927, which made light of her death date of 1924 as published in the Proms programme (it was 1944!). Taking Aubrey Brain’s part was Richard Watkins (who recorded the work for Chandos in 1995). Tasmin Little made quite an entrance in a sparkling purple dress, taking the role of Jelly d’Arányi.

Balance was again of primary importance, though both soloists coped admirably, bringing the warm lyricism of the tautly argued first movement to the fore, creating an atmosphere not dissimilar to the equivalent movement in Barber’s not-then-composed Violin Concerto.

Particularly striking were the sonorities the pair found in their cadenza in the finale, both instruments arguing then agreeing like a married couple. In the wistful central ‘Elegy’ there was an especially beautiful moment as the horn resumed its main theme, stillness falling over the Hall and the strings as the violin eulogised in response. Smyth’s resourceful thematic development and interesting orchestral colours, together with a strong sense of purpose, made this piece a most engaging listen.

Stefan Solyom. ©Karl-Magnus FredrikssonSurprisingly Solyom made cuts in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (returning us to the bad old days in this respect) and acknowledged Kurt Sanderling in doing so; yet there were discrepancies between the two conductors in this what was played and what not: Solyom jettisoned the first-movement exposition repeat, which Sanderling tended to observe (certainly in his unconvincingly foreshortened Philharmonia Orchestra recording). The scissors were out in the slow movement and finale.

This was a real shame, for there were many good things in the performance. The first movement, while pushing forward in the faster music, was notable for its clarity, and once into the Allegro moderato section the melody gently danced. This was no lightweight interpretation however, and Solyom balanced moments of calm reflection against the frequent undercurrents of unrest.

Definition was the key in a bracing scherzo, its fugato section arrived with a vigorous snap and clarinettist Yann Ghiro excelled in the long-breathed phrasing of the slow-movement theme complemented by surging strings that kept the right side of sentimentality. The finale revelled in its major-key standing, though the strongly affirmative string theme arrived too soon in its recapitulation – Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony has no need of scissors!

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