Prom 39: BBC Symphony Orchestra – Sakari Oramo conducts Turnage & Elgar – Constantin Hartwig plays Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto

Mark-Anthony Turnage
Time Flies [UK premiere]
Vaughan Williams
Tuba Concerto in F-minor
Symphony No.1 in A-flat, Op.55

Constantin Hartwig (tuba)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 15 August, 2022
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In a nice little irony for this programme featuring a new work called Time Flies, the sequence of pieces here was presented in reverse chronological order of composition. That opening item by Mark-Anthony Turnage was commissioned jointly by BBC Radio 3, Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, and intended to form part of the composer’s sixtieth-birthday celebrations in 2020, before the pandemic got in the way, hence its UK premiere only now. Its three movements, each named after the cities where those institutions are based, to some extent look back in style to previous (if recent) composers and eras, and are less astringent as a result, compared with Turnage’s more typical compositional voice. 

As a suite of movements in some sense based upon particular places (even if not directly evoking or depicting them in any specific musical way), in its form the work may also look back to Debussy’s Ibéria or Janacek’s Sinfonietta, especially the latter in the heavily brass-scored, fanfare-like ‘Hamburg Time’ central section. Sakari Oramo’s monumental layering of the chords from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in that movement also made it redolent of certain brass and woodwind passages in some of Messiaen’s orchestral music. The outer movements (‘London Time’ and ‘Tokyo Time’ respectively) were more conventionally driven by melody: the first sounding much more as though originating in the mid-20th century and played jauntily by the BBC SO; the latter’s grittier, jazz-inflected profile more raucous in sonority if quite controlled in overall character by Oramo, with a bittersweet chorale threaded through the middle.

Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto (1954) is a late work and, like others from that period of his output, combines a certain lyrical strain with a troubled, uncertain mood in its three brief movements. The BBC SO’s lively delivery of the first movement’s spiky rhythms gave it some lift, however, and Constantin Hartwig’s solo on the tuba cut through with his glistening and warmly sustained lines, in the cadenza almost wanting to break out into the unworldly, mystical trumpet call of A Pastoral Symphony. Hartwig blended his part effortlessly with the strings’ flowing theme in the central ‘Romanza’ and remained poised and enigmatic through the otherwise unsettled Rondo alla tedesca Finale. An arrangement of the Beatles’ song Blackbird as an encore enabled the instrument to chirrup away in a livelier manner, though projected by Hartwig somewhat more coyly.

Oramo took the opening statement of Elgar’s Symphony No.1 (1907-8) rather slowly and coolly, bursting into a bolder dynamic and articulation for its repetition, but that didn’t generate the necessary fire and tension for the rest of the first movement: despite tight ensemble from the BBC SO and some vivid effects, overall direction seemed too comfortable, rather than dramatic, its swings of mood and pace even somewhat constipated instead of nervously alert. The second movement Scherzo scurried along more purposefully, if a touch foursquare in its more solidly scored passages, leading to a heartfelt Adagio. Oramo maintained an expansive, seamless course that marked it out in sharp contrast to the preceding two movements. But it drew a clear connection with the subtly submerged recurrences of the Symphony’s opening motto theme where they appeared throughout its movements, coloured by Oramo here with a Parsifal-like wearied glow of resignation (probably not coincidentally, Elgar centred his Symphony tonally upon the same, unusual key that grounds Wagner’s Final opera). That carried over into the sickly, deathly pallor of the slow opening to the Finale, whose relatively cautious trajectory in its faster, principal section led to the concluding statement of the Symphony’s main theme, more relieved than completely triumphant.

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