Prom 32: BBC NOW – Pejačević, Williams and Holst

Dora Pejačević
Overture Op.49

Grace Williams
Violin Concerto

Gustav Holst
The Planets

Geneva Lewis

London Symphony Chorus (upper voices)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jaime Martín

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 8 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

With a revelatory first half containing Proms premieres by two notable female composers contrasting, or perhaps complementing, the better known ‘pop’ by Holst, the Royal Albert Hall was on the full side. Music by the short-lived Dora Pejačević, who died 100 years ago, is getting a belated, and highly welcome, showcase at this years’ Proms. Her 1919 Overture was a fabulous opener for this concert – richly and brilliantly orchestrated, full of snippets of engaging thematic material, interwoven into a tapestry of musical forms including dances, chorale-like sections and more. The whole has a propulsive quality and vitality that, as an overture should, promises so much to come and one that the players of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were obviously relishing given the sheer élan with which they played. What a voice was lost with the composer’s early death! Further exploration is clearly needed!

BBC Radio 3 New generation Artist Geneva Lewis was the solo violinist for Welsh composer Grace Williams’ Violin Concerto which dates from 1950. Essentially in classic concerto form, the piece stretches the boundaries to produce a work that is as reflective as it is playful. The first two movements start with the solo violin in the lower register, before soaring aloft above the burgeoning orchestral cushion. Cadenzas are given their due place but develop and abate seamlessly. Geneva Lewis’s playing was both ravishing and unshowy – giving the music a beguiling meditative quality – never more so than at the start of the second movement where the violin duets with the oboe in an exchange of exquisite, piquant beauty before other orchestral soloists are brought into the mix. Those high floating lines have an ethereal quality and yet a sense of brittleness that keeps the listener enthralled. Yet no denying the technical prowess that is required. The final movement feels more ebullient and improvisatory and here the interplay between soloist and the clearly sympathetic conductor, Jaime Martín, was evident. One can only hope the work finds its way to a commercial recording soon – 73 years is too long a wait!

The Planets is oftentimes described as a ‘warhorse’ but are live performances as common as one is led to believe? Surely the Royal Albert Hall is one of the best venues to encounter the work – the emergence of the high choral voices from the gallery space in Neptune in this venue is always a marvellous moment, as it was here.  Jaime Martín seemed determined to use the spaciousness of the hall to exact phenomenal dynamic range and contrasts, and to steer clear from overtly romantic tempi – notably in Jupiter. Mars, as always, has a shattering effect – but on this occasion it seemed that the latter three movements were those that really held the audience’s attention. The inexorable plod of Saturn grew into something almost alarming and yet culminated in a sense of ease with the world; Uranus had a dangerously elemental feel to it and, as aforementioned, Neptune was sheer atmospheric magic. It isn’t a warhorse if one finds something fresh and new!

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