Last night was the Kenneth Montgomery and the Ulster Orchestra's Prom. We went mainly to see hear Finghin Collins playing Stanford's 2nd Piano Concerto, but the Prom proved to have a great deal in it to enjoy.
They opened with Howard Fergusson's Overture for an Occasion, the occasion being the Coronation. The work was commissioned for the Ulster Orchestra's predecessor. Fergusson was famously circumspect with his music, there are only 20 opus numbers. This piece was rhythmically lithe and finely scored, beautifully played and certainly worth hearing again. Though the programme booklet talked of comparisons with Walton, there seemed to be much that was distinctive about Fergusson's voice.
Stanford's 2nd Piano Concerto is often compared to Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto, which had in fact inspired the composer to write his. But though you can find many parallels I have always found that the Stanford sounds very much like Stanford rather than ersatz Rachmaninov. The work has Stanford's familiar sweep to the music and the melodies have his rather Irish cast. Collins played the piano part beautifully poetically. He provided the requisite heft at the really big moments but as with Rachmaninov's 1st Piano Concerto at the Proms the other week, there were moments when the orchestra overshadowed the piano, when you simply wanted more heft from the pianist.
After the interval we were treated to a lively performance of Smetana's Vltava, in fact it was a very swift flowing Vltava that the orchestra gave us. The opening flute solos rippled at quite a considerable speed, and much credit to flautists and other instrumentalists for creating such a fast but deft flow. The Smetana was followed by Dvorak's 8th Symphony, the work which Dvorak conducted prior to his honorary degree in Cambridge (at the invitation of Stanford). This was a bravura performance of a charming work. The orchestra's performance was lithe and lively, rhythms well sprung. Part of the charm of their account was that they did not try and play it like Brahms, as many orchestras do. This had none of the smoothed out feeling that more recent performances of the symphony have had, instead Montgomery and the orchestra brought a sprung liveliness and crisp rhythmical undertow to it; add a great deal of charm for good measure.
As an encore we heard another Fergusson piece, one of his Diversons for orchestra. Another charmer to complete a fine concert.
This was one of the BBC's family proms so that we were surrounded by children, on the whole pretty attentive. I did feel that the 30 minute, long-breathed romantic concerto from Stanford was pushing it a bit for a children's audience but I suppose you'd have to ask the children.