Serenade to Music … The Lark Ascending

Dynamic Triptych
Vaughan Williams
Serenade to Music
The Lark Ascending
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Ashley Wass (piano)

Elin Pritchard, Marie Claire Breen, Emily Mitchell & Natalie Montakhab (sopranos); Jemma Brown, Beth Mackay, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones & Lynda-Jane Workman (mezzo-sopranos); Stephen Chambers, Warren Gillespie, John Pumphrey & Rónan Busfield (tenors); James Birchall, Owain Browne, Michel de Souza & Ross McInroy (basses)

Nicola Benedetti (violin)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Donald Runnicles. Photograph: Johannes IfkovitsThis oddly programmed and lopsided Prom began with a concerto, once again confirming that starting a concert with music featuring a soloist is a very unsatisfactory arrangement. Beginning this particular Prom with say the profoundly indigenous George Butterworth’s miniature The Banks of Green Willow would have made an appealing foil to the music by the inquisitive and European-looking John Foulds; or Foulds’s Triptych would have sat interestingly between the two Vaughan Williams pieces as a first-half threesome which would have left the Elgar to itself for the concert’s second half; as it was the essentially rolling-countryside ‘vision’ of Vaughan Williams’s George Meredith-inspired score rather conflicted with Elgar’s Europe-rooted and often-secretive symphony.

Donald Runnicles (Chief Conductor since September last year but a regular visitor to Glasgow for several years beforehand) is doing a great job with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, inspiring its players to music-making that is focussed, sensitive, vibrant and team-spirited; a real sense of pride informs its performances. In this first of two back-to-back proms with Runnicles we had a programme that really is the preserve of a radio orchestra (as well as a BBC-sponsored festival) with the inherent opportunity to rehearse properly (and then be able to give an immediate second concert that is devoted to nothing less than Mahler’s Third Symphony). Certainly Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych was delivered with confidence and surety by the orchestra; and Ashley Wass plays British piano music (and records it for Naxos) with commendable belief in its quality.

Ashley WassManchester-born John Foulds (1880-1939, he died in India from cholera) – cellist (as a member of the Hallé Orchestra), pianist, musical experimenter, spiritualist and socialist – completed Dynamic Triptych in 1929 in Paris, the first performance occurring two years later in Edinburgh with Frank Merrick as the soloist. The first movement, ‘Dynamic Mode’, has a filmic quality (Foulds had been a silent-movie pianist in Paris) and may have been thought of as outlandish in its day; not so much now though. Nor the quarter-tones of the second movement, ‘Dynamic Timbre’, which today seem no more than novelty; yet there is deep meditation here, the piano carrying particularly intoxicating themes (and with some likeness to Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, completed 1931) as well as some anticipation of Vaughan Williams’s later music. The finale, ‘Dynamic Rhythm’, is pugnacious, reminiscent of Prokofiev and with much evidence that Foulds was a free spirit.

Nicola Benedetti. Photograph: Simon Fowler/UniversalThese two pieces of Ralph Vaughan Williams are amongst his most pastoral and poignant. Runnicles and his orchestra played them with intimacy and warmth of feeling. As a gift for Henry Wood’s fifty years as a conductor, Vaughan Williams scored his setting of words from “The Merchant of Venice” for sixteen leading singers of the day (1938) and such lavishness was here repeated (ever-practical, Vaughan Williams made versions of “Serenade to Music” for chorus and orchestra, and for orchestra alone). On this occasion the vocalists affiliated to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama made a beguiling consort, yet individual contributions were often off-pitch and lacking character. It was the orchestra that shone (if too legato at the opening, certainly in this acoustic) – not least in some potent oboe solos from Stella McCracken, although Marcia Crayford’s violin solos had a suggestion of fallibility – as it again did in The Lark Ascending, Nicola Benedetti rather too calculated in her (finely honed) playing, somewhat restricting the music’s free and soaring spirit; forgive the pun, but this performance failed to take wing.

Elgar’s mighty First Symphony completed the concert, in a magnificent performance. Runnicles has this knack of pulling rabbits out of hats (he did so last season with Richard Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica). This Elgar 1 – played with honour and integrity – began in momentous fashion with a stately slow introduction, more Adagio solennelle than Elgar’s requested Andante semplice but certainly with a sense of occasion, setting the scene for a spacious, sometimes-impetuous first movement alive to both rigour and fantasy. We get the usual comparisons to Brahms (and Richard Strauss) but Anthony Payne has made the pertinent observation that Elgar’s true German counterpart is Robert Schumann, and it was his spirit that was suggested here. A demonic scherzo followed, Runnicles having enough elasticity when needed to not completely bulldoze through it and easing into the glorious slow movement artlessly, initially keeping the music flowing while also tapping into its inner recesses and introducing a subtle allargando across the whole so that the final bars, rapt and private, really did go to a place that words cannot express, Yann Ghiro’s clarinet a little miracle of pianissimo.

Having been blissfully free of between-movement applause, some clapping after this most affecting of movements was insolent when thoughtful silence is the only possible response (coughing during the evening tended to be inconsiderately unguarded and in the worst possible places); a hubbub ensued but an undeterred Runnicles carried on, the opening bars of the finale inaudible. The conductor exposed the movement’s contrasts mercilessly, not least for the rapturous middle section, brakes somewhat slammed on for its appearance, but there was a real sense of coming together for the triumphant coda. Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are a class act; tradition redefined and refreshed.

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