The Song of Hiawatha – Overture
Piano Concerto in One Movement
Symphony No. 1 in A minor
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason (piano)
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 24 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Promoted from its 2017 late-night Proms debut and two 2019 CBeebies matinees, Chineke! here gave its first full-evening Prom, which also featured two impressive Proms debuts: pianist Jeneba Kanneh-Mason (she returns shortly for Sunday’s Family Proms) and conductor Kalena Bovell. The music featured was all by composers of African ancestry: from the four pieces only one had graced here previously. Before any note had been played, this was a major statement that gets the full Proms treatment, as cameras were there for the television broadcast on Thursday evening.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Overture to The Song of Hiawatha, separate from his three-part cantata Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha after Longfellow completed in 1898, has not been heard at the Proms since 1959. Composed from melodies from the cantatas for the 1899 Norwich Festival, it is a very enjoyable potpourri overture that certainly deserves more outings than once every sixty years, and Bovell’s large forces (built up from six double basses) attacked it with relish.
Losing woodwind, brass and percussion, strings alone gave us the first of two Proms debut composers: Nigerian Fela Sowande’s African Suite. Kira Thompson’s witty programme notes and composer biographies gave a flavour of Sowande’s versatility, he having arrived in London to study civil engineering, but veering towards music. His African Suite – couched in the light music style of the time (it was composed in 1944) – is an expertly worked five-movement suite of alternating moods, from the infectious opening ‘Joyful Day’, via three slower movements – ‘Nostalgia, Lullaby’ and waltz-like ‘Onipe’ – to the gleeful final ‘Akinla’. Those owning Paul Freeman’s Black Composer discs might recall the inclusion of three of the five movements, but an even stronger impression comes from the whole Suite. You could listen without necessarily picking up on the African melodies, but knowing they are there is fascinating, including two melodies from Ghanian composer Ephraim Amu in the first and fourth movements.
Florence Price also makes it to the Proms for the first time with her Piano Concerto in One Movement, which, like her Symphonies, have extended first movements and end with much shorter movements, all based on the Juba dance. A short trumpet- and wind-heralded introduction, and the solo piano offers a solo riff not unlike Schumann, Grieg or Rachmaninov. The orchestra answers, and again a solo. Only later do they coincide, the movement becoming more interesting as it goes. Occasionally in the denser climactic textures did Jeneba Kanneh-Mason’s passagework get subsumed in the orchestral mix. The slow movement – largely oboist Myfanwy Price duetting with Kanneh-Mason – was delicate and contrasting, especially with the seamless melting into the infectious Juba, bringing the work to a rousing close. A fantastic debut for both composer and soloist, the acclamation was tumultuous, for which Kanneh-Mason rewarded the audience with Coleridge-Taylor’s Impromptu in B minor, rapt and intense, creating one of those Royal Albert Hall silences that hangs in the air before the return of the applause.
Following the interval, we had the first Proms performance of this romantic symphony, with more than a touch of Brahms; muscular rhythmic outbursts in the opening movement, and the way the hard-won finale dies away to end in contemplation. This was Coleridge-Taylor’s A-minor Symphony. Like Walton’s First Symphony some decades later, the fourth movement took its composer many attempts, but it definitely worked in this performance. Alongside the Brahmsian references, one could here the British tradition – Stanford (his teacher), Parry, Elgar – although this predates Elgar’s First Symphony by nearly a decade. It’s a big-boned work, given a big-boned, red-blooded performance.
Packed full of telling detail, Chineke!’s performances go from strength to strength, and its future Proms appearances are eagerly awaited, especially with such strong programming and great collaborators as Kalena Bovell and Jeneba Kanneh-Mason. Definitely worth catching on its BBC Four transmission (Thursday 26 August) and on BBC Sounds/iPlayer.