Sir Henry Wood (continued)

Birthday Fanfare for Sir Henry Wood
London Pageant
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 [Revised Version]
Karelia Suite, Op.11
Symphonic Variations
Eugene Onegin – Waltz & Polonaise

Steven Osborne (piano)

Ulster Orchestra
Paul Watkins

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 5 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Henry Wood. Photograph: BBCIt was more than Sir Henry Wood day, it was the end of a Sir Henry Wood four days, starting with his extravagant orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and then including Simon Rattle and his Berliners in Mahler 1 and Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, of which Wood gave the UK and world premieres respectively. And finally this concert by the Ulster Orchestra, with new principal guest conductor (and no stranger to the Proms, though as a cellist) Paul Watkins, hot on the heels of the BBC Concert Orchestra’s recreation of the 1910 Last Night, in all its bitty glory.

In fact, Watkins himself presided over a fairly bitty concert – with works from Wood’s own lifetime. The Ulster Orchestra is in fine fettle, with a full-bodied sound, more immediate than many an ensemble, and playing well for Watkins’s clear and enthusiastic beat.

Brass and wind attacked Sir Arthur Bliss’s Birthday Fanfare for Sir Henry Wood (on his 75th-birthday), which, although listed for 1944’s First Night (not verified), may never have been played at the Proms. The threat of flying bombs certainly meant a scheduled performance on 10 August was cancelled, and Wood died soon after the season ended. In 2010, as an opener in Wood’s honour, it was perfect and led into Sir Arnold Bax’s London Pageant written (without official commission, but with the promise of performances from the BBC) for the coronation of George VI (the official commission was Walton’s Crown Imperial). Very much in Pomp and Circumstance mode, it could easily hold its head high against No.4 which we’d heard just a few hours earlier. There was a connection to the Proms’ original home, the Queen’s Hall, as it was one of the works in the last-ever Prom in Langham Place on 7 September 1940, before the Hall got repeatedly hit in the Blitz the following year.

Dorothy Howell’s exotic symphonic poem Lamia came next, its tenth Prom, all made very early. Composed before she was 20 in 1918, this is remarkably assured in its telling of snake-girl Lamia who is given human form by Hermes to find the man she loves, Lycius. When he persuades her into a public marriage she is recognised and condemned to be changed back into a snake. Slithering flutes open and close the work, which also encompasses a love-scene, tender and ardent by turns, and fleet-footed dancing at the wedding. There is a hint of Dukas in Howell’s orchestral palate. Lamia was well worth discovering and Watkins and his players seemed effortlessly in tune with the idiom.

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Eric RichmondThe year before Howell composed Lamia, Rachmaninov revised his youthful First Piano Concerto, which received a typically incisive performance from the nimble fingers of Steven Osborne, making you wonder why it’s not heard more often (30 so far at the Proms, of which only the first two were in the discarded original version).

I’m always amazed by some Prom performance tallies of what we regard as staple repertoire. Schumann’s symphonies are barely into second-figures status, and here we had only the third complete performance of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite since the War (though Wood had conducted it often before). So it was good to hear this irrepressible lilting music live in the Royal Albert Hall, as it was Parry’s sonorously and finely wrought Symphonic Variations (only it’s seventh performance, the last being in 1936).

To follow such orchestral fervour, Tchaikovsky’s rustic Waltz from Act Two and more the regal Polonaise from Act III of “Eugene Onegin”, were like announced encores. However, it was good to be appraised of Wood’s prowess in the opera pit, for he had given the UK première of Tchaikovsky’s ‘lyric scenes’ in 1892 (in English). And they rounded the concert, the Wood Day, and the mini Wood festival off in fine style.

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