Prom 51: Weir, Schumann and Elgar with the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Judith Weir
Begin Afresh (BBC commission: world premiere)

Robert Schumann
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 (Spring)

Edward Elgar
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 24 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Outside the Royal Albert Hall the leaves may have already been on the turn, but inside there was a vernal glow to a spring-themed programme that marked the third collaboration this Proms season between BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Sakari Oramo.

Proceedings began with the world premiere of Judith Weir’s Begin Afresh, a work reflecting her interest in trees and, effectively, a diary of observations across the year beginning from April 2022. With inspiration from the final lines of Philip Larkin’s poem The Trees, this ‘calendar’ unfolded in an unbroken span, its three sections – April, October and February – built as staging posts within the work’s 17 minutes. Nothing to frighten the horses here, Weir fashioning an engaging work, its changing panoramas set in motion by a spiralling solo violin against woodwind sonorities. Thereafter plenty of forward momentum underpinned continuously evolving melodic contours with rich hues given distinction by oboe and trumpet solos and one passage of pulsing energy for piano and brass, the whole given an impressive send-off. 

There followed an infectious account of Schumann’s First Symphony (1841), Orama shaping a handsome account and removing at a stroke old accusations of the work’s weighty orchestration. A nicely signposted first movement with much rhythmic impetus led to the song-like qualities of the Larghetto, its warmth of expression fully embraced as a paean to love. No less affectionately played and involving was the Scherzo, its sense of resolution and dance-like vigour sharply defined. The Finale was an exhilarating affair, its seemingly airborne phrases leapt off the page so buoyantly did Oramo shape its phrase patterns. Michael Cox’s mellifluous flute also caught the ear, but it was a sense of freshness and spontaneity that carried the day, both qualities communicated with undeniable élan.

The cherry on the evening’s cake was a gripping performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff as its assured champion. Equally confident was the partnership with Oramo whose expansive approach to the work’s introductory tutti was as flexible as it was detailed, ‘steak and stouty’ yet not without tenderness, features that were to define the entire account. A meeting of minds between soloist and conductor ensured fluidity in terms of tempo and balance, the latter especially sensitively controlled. A sense of wild abandon brought to life some of the more formidable solo passages (never recklessly dashed off or forced but cleanly articulated), the degree of virtuosity staggering and with no loss of concentrated energy when in confiding mood. There was no shortage of intimacy or soulful introspection in the Andante, orchestral tuttis never over cooked, while insertions from timpani and trombone were always discreet. Straight into the Finale where its vertiginous feats were dispatched with aplomb, Tetzlaff by turns heroic and passionate and, in the Cadenza accompagnata, bewitching.

An encore following one of the longest concertos in the repertoire might be considered superfluous, but Tetzlaff returned to beguile with the Andante from J. S. Bach’s A-minor Sonata, BWV1003, crowning an evening of sovereign performances. 

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