Sakari Oramo conducts Foulds, Walton with violist Timothy Ridout, Charlotte Bray and Arnold

Le cabaret – Overture to a French Comedy, Op.72a

Viola Concerto

Charlotte Bray
Where Icebergs Dance Away [UK premiere]

Symphony No.5, Op.74

Timothy Ridout (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

From the rumbustious opening bars of John Foulds’s Overture Le cabaret (for a play about 19th-century French mime artist Jean-Gaspard Deburau) to the heart-breaking fading denouement of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony, this was an outstanding Prom of British music under the enthusiastic guidance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, Sakari Oramo.  He proved his credentials in championing British music at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where he zealously advocated Foulds.  And he’s at it again, with three works new to the Proms (one a UK premiere) and a concerto that is indelibly connected to the Proms.

All four works were descriptive of sorts: the Overture (a late, but perfect, addition to the programme) of Deburau; Walton’s Viola Concerto of its cherished dedicatee, Christabel, the Hon Mrs Henry McLaren; Charlotte Bray’s Where Icebergs Dance Away of Greenland’s glaciers (particularly at Disco Bay) as depicted with naturalistic accuracy in Zaria Forman’s pastel-on-paper image reprinted in the programme (actual size over nearly 6 x 8 feet); and Arnold’s Fifth Symphony – well, in its turns of moods it could very well be a musical evocation of his own complex character, although its original impetus was as a memorial for dear departed colleagues who had recently died all-too early: Gerard Hoffnung and Dennis Brain.

Oramo’s addition of an overture proved the importance of such openers.  It really galvanised the Hall with its jaunty syncopated melody that was in danger of obliterating everything that came after.  But the Viola Concerto was the perfect foil, its arc from meditative opening to rapt and hushed close in the assured Proms-debut performance by Timothy Ridout (who makes a speedy return on Sunday for the Family Prom with the Kanneh-Masons). Ridout brought Walton’s Concerto home to the Proms to positively rock-star-like acclaim.

I was struck, as I had been with Steven Isserlis’s performance of the Cello Concerto, how Walton stamped his own mark on concerto form, with an emotional underlay as important to the musical argument, especially here given the poignant dedication.  Ridout has the sweetness of tone for the whispered opening (even if Walton insists on a harmonic clash between the viola’s C and bassoons’ C-sharp) as well as the strength and fortitude for the relentless second movement, which almost returned us to the playfulness of Foulds’s Overture, yet retained a steely edge.  Oramo and Ridout opted for the 1961 revision, in which Walton removed the tuba and third wind parts, but added a harp, most tellingly in the final movement.  Ridout told me the solo part remained unchanged apart from some articulation marks. That 1961 version was one Tertis never played.  For more about Tertis and his connection to Walton, listen to Ridout’s podcast Lionel Tertis – Legend of the Viola (interviewed by yours truly): link below.

As an encore Ridout played the fourth, penultimate, movement of Hindemith’s Solo Viola Sonata, warning us that Hindemith’s marking stated that “tonal beauty is of secondary importance”.  But, there was a form of breathless beauty in the barrage of repeated notes at hectic speed which had the audience cheering and whistling for more.

There are sections of Sir Malcolm’s Fifth Symphony that could easily be marked similarly to Hindemith’s movement but, first, to open the second half, the UK premiere (and first in front of live audience, given lock-down conditions for the WDR Sinfonieorchester world premiere last May) of Charlotte Bray’s wonderfully evocative Where Icebergs Dance Away.  Here the image of glacial expanse meeting the sea was subtly explored in a short sequence of glittering instrumental effects.  As has now become the custom, Charlotte Bray took the applause from her seat in the stalls.

We ended with another – inexplicably – Proms first performance.  How a symphony of the stature of Arnold’s Fifth could only now, sixty years after its composition, be debuting here is a mystery and, as such, was the only nod in the published guide to the centenary of his birth (there will be another, now announced, for the Last Night).  It’s clear Oramo loves it – raising the score above his head to accept the applause at the end – and he directed a vibrant, vital performance, playing the music for all it was worth, with its sudden changes of mood. 

Malcolm Hayes’s programme note compared Sir Malcolm’s musical juxtapositions to Mahler, but surely a more contemporary comparison would be to Shostakovich and his mercurial, perhaps even facetious, changes of mood.  Arnold can melt the soul one minute – the gentle chiming sections of the first movement and the opening string theme of the second movement, for example – and rudely waken you from such reverie with a barrage of brass and percussion, or tickle you with a St Trinian-like ditty the next.  But seriousness is never far away, as the final movement’s sudden return to the slow movement’s main theme crumbles away to silence.  It is a glorious work, which – on the strength of Oramo’s masterly performance (sculpting the slow movement without baton) – needs a speedy return to this platform.  I simply can’t imagine it being better played.

Timothy Ridout’s podcast on Lionel Tertis – Legend of the Viola is available here:

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