Der fliegende Holländer – Overture
Ludwig van Beethoven
Rondino for wind octet
Nicolò Paganini, arr. Percy Pitt
Modest Mussorgsky, orch. Henry Wood
David Matthews/Ralph Vaughan Williams
Dark Pastoral – based on the surviving fragment of the slow movement of Vaughan Williams’s Cello Concerto (1942) [BBC commission: world premiere]
Rondo in G minor
Ludwig van Beethoven
Overture ‘Leonore’ No.3
Mignon – Connais-tu le pays?
Humoresque in G flat, Op.101/7
Fantasia on British Sea Songs
Merrie England – Who were the Yeoman of England?
Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 in G
The National Anthem [arr. Henry Wood]
Mr Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)
Mr Steven Isserlis (violoncello)
Miss Jennifer Larmore (mezzo-soprano)
The Ladies and Gentlemen of the BBC Concert Orchestra under the musical direction of Mr Paul Daniel
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 5 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Petroc Trelawny introduced the afternoon’s proceedings from the stage – in 1910 George V had just ascended the throne, Mahler was composing (if not completing) his Tenth Symphony, Richard Strauss was writing “Der Rosenkavalier”, and the world was three years away from the premiere of The Rite of Spring (by the way, it is not an “opera”, Mr Trelawny!). Concerts in those days were also protracted affairs – as the long first half of this one indicated. This was tough on the players and indeed on the audience.
The programme had some historic value in that it presented some real curiosities of the time. Tastes change of course, and one can see why some of these works have not stood the test of time – but there were glimpses of music that could well do with some re-appraisal too! The real curio of the collection was surely Henry Wood’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “The Peep Show” – sung here with characteristic relish in a persuasive performance by Sergei Leiferkus. This verbal and musical lampooning of the cult following of soprano Adelina Patti and the Russian critics and musical commentators who admired her or denigrated the composer’s music is hardly a subtle piece of writing. Leiferkus gamely entered into the spirit of the piece highlighting its moments of pastiche (a lilting swaying section with vocal embellishments on the word “Patti” completed by a mock-cadenza) as well as presenting the absurd text with genial humour. But, not a piece one needs to hear often!
The same could be said of Wagner’s Kaisermarsch, which Paul Daniel tried to persuade us was better than it sounded (to paraphrase Mark Twain). It starts with reasonable promise for the first three minutes or so – where the music sounds like a combination of some of the choral music from Act Two of “Tannhäuser” and Act Three of “Lohengrin”, allied to a bit of “Die Meistersinger”. This sounds as if it might develop interestingly, but such hope is not sustained, the music soon becoming increasingly brash and blaring, then vacuous and hollow despite rather obvious interpolations of “Ein’ feste Burg” and which finally concludes with a superfluous organ flourish. This is a work of compositional throwback to “Rienzi” and “Das Liebesverbot” rather than demonstrative of Wagner’s mature writing. What the “optional chorus” (here omitted) could add to this piece I dread to think! Wagner was certainly better served by the vibrant performance of the Overture to “The Flying Dutchman”, which was not the most tempestuous account ever but which allowed much detail to register – especially that of the harps.
There was some whimsy in the programme too. The Paganini/Pitt Moto perpetuo was a very engaging lollipop, one putting the violins through their paces, which deserves more regular outings as a witty encore. The BBC Concert Orchestra strings certainly seemed to enjoy it – and Daniel’s ostensibly laid-back and knowing conducting made a case for it. One often thinks of the Edwardian period as a time where ballads and parlour-songs were popular. Leiferkus lent some heavily-accented English to the excerpt from “Merrie England”, and Jennifer Larmore bought out the melancholy of Dorothy Forster’s “Mifanwy”. She was less successful in persuading us that the aria from Ambroise Thomas’s “Mignon” was such a popular concert extract in its time, for she sounded tentative and the long lines lacked poise.
Henry Wood’s championing of new music was a Proms hallmark, as it remains today thankfully, and so the cunning inclusion (at the expense of the Max Reger piece that graced the 1910 concert) of David Matthews’s composition that incorporates Ralph Vaughan Williams’s surviving sketches for the second movement of a proposed cello concerto for Pablo Casals was welcome. The opening was pure Vaughan Williams in its use of sonority and for its sustained tension. It transformed seamlessly into Matthews’s graceful and lilting melodies and then the different themes counterpointed very persuasively. Steven Isserlis provided playing of intensity, warmth and commitment, and the woodwind contributions were notable for their freshness.
The woodwinds were also notable for their piquant and distinctive playing in the excerpts from Bizet’s music for “L’Arlésienne” (despite a sudden rash of interruptive coughing from the audience) as well as their contributions to Henry Wood’s “Fantasia on British Sea Songs”, given complete with bugle-calls enjoying the space of the Royal Albert Hall. Brasses also made much of their moments in the Elgar. The concert finished up with Wood’s arrangement of the United Kingdom National Anthem – perhaps we should have sung “our gracious King”.