Prom 7 – London Symphonies

Symphony No.104 in D (London)
A Song of Orpheus
Vaughan Williams
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)

Paul Watkins (cello)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 23 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There were no composer anniversaries commemorated in this concert. Instead, although there was a contribution to the Proms theme of Greek mythology, there was a unifying theme to the symphonies: both inspired by, written for and, indeed, nicknamed after, London. Moreover, the concertante work – a rare performance of William Schuman’s cello and orchestra work – has a British connection in that it was inspired by Shakespeare’s poem to Orpheus contained within his late (and once disputed) Henry VIII. First seen in 1613 (so I suppose this concert commemorated a very loose 390th anniversary), it is thought that Shakespeare wrote the play with John Fletcher and perhaps Philip Massinger. The alternative title is intriguing – “All is True” – given (a) we now know the Tudor regime to have been one of the most propagandist in history, and (b) what the present regime is doing with its own spin on events. But that is by the by.

Leonard Slatkin’s reading of Haydn’s genial final symphony – written for his second visit to London in 1795 – was one refracted through nostalgic glasses. Any nod to authentic practice – antiphonal violins and the basses arrayed across the back of the orchestra on double-high risers – was not evident in the soundworld. This was a serene view of the past, harking back to old-style big-band timbre: smooth, homogenous and (now) somewhat rare. That’s not a criticism – ’authentic’ pungency is not the only way to play classical music: it can accommodate many playing styles. Slatkin is never less than musical and he received cultured support from the BBC Symphony. Most intriguingly it was only the 17th performance at a Prom – somewhat scandalous I’d say. Is it too early to put in a bid that all Haydn’s symphonies should be programmed in the 2009 season to mark the 200th-anniversary of the composer’s death?

Slatkin conducted the final version of the second ’London Symphony’ of the night (although seemingly there had been some talk of him doing the original version – with its 20 minutes extra music). He is a long-standing champion of Vaughan Williams’s music, and recorded the symphonies with the Philharmonia for RCA. He lives and breathes this music. His interpretation of A London Symphony has darkened. Starting in the depths (bizarrely here with the double basses vertiginous on their high risers) the architecture of the piece rises in volume and falls back again to quiet music, although it is high strings that bring the slow, ambivalent final movement to a close.Slatkin uncovers the penumbral underworld of Vaughan Williams’s London: yes, there are people revelling somewhere around, but we never actually get to see them, perhaps occluded by the then-common ’pea-soupers’ (fog!).

Vaughan Williams becomes more complex as a result and infinitely more interesting than simply a ’pastoral’ composer. This performance will last a long time in the memory, superbly played and with Slatkin in his element, moulding the slow movement without baton to draw even more from his orchestra; Philip Hall provided eloquent viola solos, so too Helen McQueen on the cor anglais. Certainly worth listening again either on the repeat broadcast or on-demand through the BBC Proms website.

As the concert’s centrepiece, one-time principal cellist of the BBCSO, Paul Watkins, returned for William Schuman’s A Song of Orpheus. New to me, this is an impressive work and beautifully orchestrated; Watkins’s lyrical line was never overpowered. Following a similar arch to the Vaughan Williams – sonorous slow music flanking a faster central section, the only part where Schuman’s American voice was evident in the rhythmic pulses – this was satisfying both in conception and performance.

Shakespeare’s two-stanza poem on Orpheus in Henry VIII inspired Schuman to such an extent that the poem is reprinted in the score over the cello’s opening melody. Schuman (1910-92) made it clear that it should either be recited before a performance or (as here) printed in the programme (Vaughan Williams set the very same words). As much a fervent advocate of music from his homeland, Slatkin was sensitive to the beauty and fragile nature of the music. Seemingly this is atypical Schuman. It found a rapt and eager reception in a well-filled Royal Albert Hall and certainly deserves much wider acceptance, which hopefully this glorious performance can help bring about.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday 25 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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