Traditional: Seventeen Come Sunday; Green Bushes; I Wonder as I Wander
English Folk Song Suite
Shepherd’s Hey; Green Bushes
Traditional, arr. Folkestra: Folk Music from the British Isles; Folk Music from Transylvania, the Eastern Carpathian Mountains and Moldova
Confluence [BBC commission: world premiere]
Bella Hardy (singer)
Monica Bacelli (mezzo-soprano)
Kathryn Tickell (Northumbrian pipes)
Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra
London Young Musicians
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: 20 July, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This was the first of two Royal Albert Hall concerts on this day marking “Folk Day” at the BBC Proms and made the best out of a potentially fraught, not to say disastrous, concept, in a manner that would not have offended purists, mainstream classical-music lovers or the ‘occasional’ listener. In broadening the appeal of the Proms, Roger Wright is to be applauded, for this was an eminently valid exercise – much more so than the deplorable ‘film music’ Prom last year.
The first half was cleverly planned – a folk-singer, unaccompanied, sang three folksongs, each followed by a setting of the same song (alongside one or two others) by a twentieth-century composer. Bella Hardy sang with unaffected purity, easily filling the Royal Albert Hall without forcing her voice, although in ethnic terms, the notion of just one singer essaying essentially intimate songs before several thousand people may have caused a metaphorical raised eyebrow.
“Seventeen Come Sunday” was followed by Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite in the composer’s original version for Military Band played by the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra under the dependable Martyn Brabbins. This work, in three movements, was rather spoilt by fulsome extended applause after the first two movements, in the modern deplorable Proms manner. “Shepherd’s Hey” followed, in Percy Grainger’s version, and his much freer extended version, after Hardy’s rendition, of “Green Bushes” was also outstandingly well played, with just the right amount of devilment. Hardy followed with “I Wonder as I Wander” (strictly speaking, this is not a folk-song as such, but an original composition). Once again, Hardy was excellent, her rendition followed by Luciano Berio’s “Folk Songs”, settings of around twenty pieces from around the world for a chamber orchestra and, on this occasion, mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli (the work was written for Berio’s then wife, Cathy Berberian).
With members of the London Sinfonietta, these concert/recital settings, far more ethnomusicologically correct that Vaughan Williams’s or Grainger’s wholly instrumental takes on their chosen material, were brilliantly sung by Bacelli, cleverly preparing the way for the concert’s second half, which began with folk-music arrangements by Folkestra, in no way intended to approach the sophistication of the twentieth-century masters of the first half.
The colour and vitality, the sensitivity and recreation of a living tradition was here brilliantly demonstrated, with music from the regions of the United Kingdom being cunningly juxtaposed. Muzsikás, the essentially Hungarian folk-music group, situated in the centre of the Hall surrounded by Prommers, presented a set from the regions of Transylvania, Moldova and the East Carpathian Mountains, the melodic contours and rhythmic subtleties familiar to music-lovers who know Bartók’s music well. His Romanian Dances followed, played by the combined London Sinfonietta and London Young Musicians, interspersing movements of the score with contributions from Muzsikás. This was extremely well done, and something of an ear-opener.
The advertised programme concluded with the first performance of Confluence by Kathryn Tickell, calling for the participation of virtually all of the musicians who had thus far taken part in the concert. In the nature of things, this was a fundamentally unnecessary ‘one-off’ score, and, truth to tell, it added nothing to our experience, but it was a thoughtful, provocative and at times fun-filled piece to bring proceedings to a close. Based upon a Hungarian folk-tune, with improvised passages, this was imaginatively and evocatively scored, more respectful of the material than much of the ‘set’ pieces by her great predecessors had shown – such was the force of their creative personalities that that aspect could not be gainsaid.
If a folk-music theme is followed in future seasons, may I make a plea for earlier folk-song arrangements by, say, Haydn, Beethoven or Brahms? This particular net could certainly have been more widely cast, but this was a most successful addition to the expanding Proms repertoire.