Prom 11: 28th July 2001 – Spring Symphony

Printemps – suite symphonique (first performance of Christopher Palmer’s reconstruction of the original version)
Cello Concerto
Spring Symphony

Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Lillian Watson (soprano)
Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano)
Philip Langridge (tenor)

BBC Singers, Southend Boys’ Choir, Boys of Colorado Children’s Chorale, London Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 28 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This year’s ’Pastoral’ theme was to the fore in this Prom, focusing in particular on the spring season. Debussy’s evocation was composed in 1887 during the time when he was the recipient of the Prix de Rome. This original version was never performed, presumed to be lost. It featured a chorus vocalising as part of the orchestral colours. Henri Busser made the purely orchestral version, which has become relatively familiar. The version heard tonight, a world premiere, which uses Busser’s orchestration as a basis, was made by the late Christopher Palmer, which, in his words, “… approximates more closely to Debussy’s original concept than either of the previous ones.”

This may well be true, but as so often happens in these cases,though of some academic interest, the end result, from a musical point of view, does the composer no favours, especially in such a laboured, ungainly performance as this. No doubt the work will do the rounds with orchestras anxious to stake a claim to a regional Debussy premiere – but here is no unearthed masterpiece.

It’s good that the centenary of Gerald Finzi’s birth is taken account of by the Proms – this area of British music has not always had the attention that many believe it should. Cello Concerto was Finzi’s last major work, which was premiered and repeated at the Proms only a matter of weeks before the composer’s death in 1956.

Raphael Wallfisch has made great claims for the work in the musical press, putting it on a higher level than the Elgar or Waltonconcertos. Paul Conway in his programme note, whilst not exactly comparing it with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony or Schubert’s C major String Quintet as a great valedictory work, comments on its “fusion of serenity and intensity… “. Sadly I cannot share such enthusiasm.

Once again the piece suffered from what can only be described as a sluggish performance, with some distinctly suspect intonationfrom the soloist. Perhaps the intense heat in the hall didn’t help, but even a first-rate performance cannot hide the fact that the piece outstays its welcome; Finzi struggles with a symphonic conception that is quite clearly anathema to him. The slow movement, unsurprisingly, is the most successful – a rapt, elegiac cantilena. The finale, as in the recently “discovered” Violin Concerto, forced and unconvincing.

Spring reared its head again in Britten’s wonderful Spring Symphony – for this writer one of the composer’s most successful non-operatic works. The distinguished team of soloists workedhard to brighten the otherwise heavy-handed performance – again perhaps it was the heat, but Hickox and his Orchestra seemed reluctant to lighten up; their contribution was more a lacklustre read-through than a real performance.

Particularly beautiful was Pamela Helen Stephen’s dreamyrendition of WH Auden’s “Out on the Lawn I Lie in Bed”. Philip Langridge was, as ever, in fine voice (what a remarkable artist he is). I am a great admirer of Lillian Watson – the fact that I couldn’t hear her very much was due to my position in the cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall than any deficiency on her part.

The combined LS and BBCNOW choruses sang with gusto and sensitivity as the occasion demanded. The opening “Shine Out, Fair Sun” reached a marvellously vivid climax – “Black winter freezes to his seat / The grey wolf howls he does so bite” – diction was for the most part excellent. The boys’ choirs made engaging whistling urchins in “The Driving Boy”, but even in their not inconsiderable numbers struggled to be heard in the astonishing finale in which all the forces are heard together for the first time.

Not a great performance then, but at least an occasion to be reminded of the startling originality of Britten’s conception.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast – Wednesday, 1 August, at 2 o’clock

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