Prom 17 – Queenly Matters

Coronation Te Deum
Sea Pictures
Molly on the Shore
Shepherd’s Hey
Dance, Clarion Air
November Woods
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)

Choristers of Winchester Cathedral
Winchester College Quiristers
Members of Eton College Chapel Choir
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 30 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

With the possible exception of Henry VIII, British monarchs have not been especially noted for their devotion to, or even interest in, music, seemingly preferring equestrian or canine activities by way of hobbies.

This year, being the 50th anniversary of her coronation, was marked by only the second visit to the Proms by The Queen, with The Duke of Edinburgh, who were presented with a curiously constituted programme of music by British composers and one, Percy Grainger, from the Commonwealth. The evening as a whole also felt unduly protracted due, in no small measure, to a much prolonged interval during which the Queen and the Duke went ’walkabout’ in the front of the Arena and met selected Prommers and RAH staff.

Following Gordon Jacob’s grandiose arrangement of the National Anthem, made for the coronation, Walton’s magnificent Coronation Te Deum was given in all its glory, complete with extra brass and a chorus that included boys’ voices. This is possibly one of the finest works ever written for ceremonial purposes. Walton was scrupulous in the deployment of resources, with multi-divided choral writing and a separately placed group of trumpets, trombones and side drums in addition to a very full orchestra and solo contributions from the organ.

Andrew Davis marshalled his forces with efficiency, but a marginally statelier tempo might have enabled details of Walton’s writing to emerge more clearly – some awkward rhythmic corners were not always articulated scrupulously. The choral singing was splendid – the boys particularly fine in their cherubic phrases. The extra brass and percussion – placed behind the choirs – had regal impact. The Royal Albert Hall organ was missed though. The electronic substitute was no replacement where a full organ tone is required. Richard Pierce played this tricky part with considerable flair.

However, we could have done without the tasteless projection of a queasy-looking ’Union Jack’ which appeared behind the performers and which provided nothing except a visual distraction.

Elgar’s Sea Pictures followed, which Catherine Wyn-Rogers sang with expressive warmth, even if ultimately her tone was a little unvaried. She made the most of the sometimes-awkward words that Elgar sets in this orchestral song-cycle – a genre all but unknown in England in 1899. Andrew Davis encouraged responsive playing, yet more could have been made of Elgar’s illustrative colourings. The overall lightness of tone ensured, commendably, that the soloist was never overpowered – but Elgar was evoking seascapes not small inland lakes. The invariably-omitted organ-pedal parts were included and added appropriate depth to the conclusions of ’Sabbath morning at Sea’ and ’The Swimmer’ – the latter poem includes the extraordinary line “The flying rollers with frothy feet” which Catherine Wyn-Rogers delivered without turning a hair.

She was also unfazed by intrusive applause between some of the songs, which was ruinous to any atmosphere created.

A similar jarring contrast came with the two Grainger pieces, which followed – typically inventive and wacky arrangements of folk-material with exotic, not to say quixotic, instrumentation and rhythmic quirks. These were played effectively enough, if without the last ounce of polish, which may not, in the end, be a desirable quality in this rough-hewn music.

The writer of the programme note was ill-informed as to which arrangement of Molly on the Shore was being played. We heard both pieces for full orchestra, not, as described, for strings.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Momentum was composed in 1991 for the opening of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, and had the unenviable task of sharing the programme with Mahler’s Second Symphony. There is nothing Mahlerian about this music, and Turnage even eschewed the forces that would have been available to him for the performance of the Mahler symphony. He calls for saxophones, drum kit, piano and bass guitar in addition to the conventional orchestra. Plangent then strident fanfare-like material soon gives way to bustling, low sonorities and, as ever with Turnage, one can admire the juxtaposition of timbres and unconventional scoring. Further hallmarks are to be found in the use of jazzy/swing-like ideas, which were – one or two brass-slips aside – dispatched with aplomb. With this and the episode for piano and drums, one couldn’t help noting how much less successful Turnage is than, say, Tippett, at reconciling his use of diverse styles. Lyrical contrast is provided by a string melody that bears an uncanny resemblance to one in Leonard Bernstein’s Halil. Momentum is not an especially ’difficult’ work, though it annoyed my neighbour who declared afterwards that he had come to the concert to be “entertained”!

Tippett’s unaccompanied setting of Christopher Fry’s “Dance, Clarion Air” was written for the collection compiled in coronation-year entitled “A Garland for the Queen”, which gathers contributions in madrigal-style by ten composers. Tippett’s piece is virtually the only one to have gained independent existence. It sat somewhat uncomfortably here, and Davis’s all-purpose direction was not particularly illuminating, well though the BBC Singers sang. Echo-effects were suitably distant and evocative.

Bax’s November Woods is the middle piece in a trio of symphonic poems he composed around and during World War One. Its predominantly dark mood is surely indicative of both the troubled times and some of the emotional turmoil the composer was experiencing in his relationship with the pianist Harriet Cohen. The quasi-impressionistic scoring can be unduly thick in performance. Davis ensured we heard lines clearly and the frequent woodwind swirls never became mushy and approximate.Indeed this was a clear, direct reading which was well played andemphasised the symphonic and structural aspects of the score rather than misty evocation. In these terms, it was effective, though it is possible to find a more brooding and mysterious atmosphere in this unsettled music.

Britten’s ever-fresh set of variations on Purcell’s ’Abdelazer’ hornpipe made for a refreshing and bracing finale. Davis and the BBCSO are a familiar pairing in this work which never fails to impress with its inventive instrumentation and myriad variants on the theme. It was played with panache and enthusiasm, the orchestra and individual instrumentalists on top form. If I single out the clarinets, bassoons, percussion and harp, this is not to detract from the performance as a whole. It was good to note, too, that Davis did not take the concluding fugue at the frantic pace that has been his wont. This allowed Britten’s teeming contrapuntal invention to make its fullest impact and impression.

A mixed bag, then, as a programme, which didn’t quite convince as a totality – admirable though its intentions were to reflect British music over the past 100 years or so, this is something which can’t realistically be accomplished in a single concert.

It was sad to reflect that our Head of State cannot attend a concert without the most stringent security measures – including armed police and airport-style searching – being in place. One wonders what Elizabeth II’s music-loving – and composing – ancestor Henry VIII would have made of it all.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Saturday 2 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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