Thursday 28 August 2008

Prom 54

Tuesday night's Prom was the Ralph Vaughan Williams centenary Prom. The works included ranged from the Tallis Fantasia from 1907 to the 9th Symphony which was premiered in 1958, the year RVW died. In between Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented 2 works from the inter-war period, the Serenade to Music in the original version for 16 soloists and Job, a masque for dancing.

We were sitting in the choir, behind the orchestra, so the balance was not ideal. In the Tallis Fantasia we were in fact closer to the small string orchestra than the larger body of strings. So RVW's effects were disturbed but the result was still magical.

Similarly with Job, we were slightly too close to the brass, so that the trumpet was often dominant. This was not ideal, but there was much to enjoy in the performance. There were some notable solo moments: leader Simon Bryant gave a lovely sinuous line to Elihu's dance and the saxophone solo in the dance of Job's comforters was suitably oily. Though I would have like slightly less vibrato. But the work is such that many different artists go a chance to shine and the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded beautifully.

Job is divided into 9 movements, and each movement splits into named sections. The link between then is the continuous flow of the narrative. Andrew Davis's Job was a sequence of beautiful and moving moments, some stunningly lovely, varying from the spiky dissonance of Satan's dance to the quiet contemplation of the close.

But these moments never quite added up to a dramatic whole. Perhaps because I see Job as a dramatic ballet, rather than a concert work, I want a performance to coalesce into a coherent whole. But there was much to enjoy in the performance and with this caveat it was profoundly satisfying.

After the interval, 16 young singers assembled to perform the Serenade to Music. Here, perhaps, our placing in the auditorium gave us an advantage as the singers were stood behind the orchestra. It will be interesting to hear the TV broadcast of the concert (without Job) on Saturday to discover how different the recorded balance is.

It is always fascinating to hear a group of modern singers in the Serenade as it was written for 16 very specific singers. Each singer gets 1 short solo (except for Soprano 1:Isobel Baillie who gets a 2nd solo at the end). And RVW wrote for their particular voice type. More than this, English singers of the period tended to have more focussed, rather lower vibrato voices. This means that, particularly for the singers with bigger voices, such as Eva Turner and Walter Widdop, they not only projected but did so with a sense of line and noticeable lack of wobble.

Sarah Tynan successfully evoked the ghost of Isobel Baillie with her gloriously floated phrases. Not all singers were quite as successful. Tim Mirfin could not quite generate the necessary resonance for Noorman Allin's low phrase. And both Rachel Nicholls (Eva Turner) and Peter Wedd (Walter Widdop) seemed to have large voices which were slightly slower to respond, less laser sharp, than their predecessors, something which is desirable in their solos. But again it comes down to the change in vocal types in the last 70 years. Overall this was a magical performance.

RVW's 9th Symphony was rather coolly received when premièred. But more recently we have come to see that RVW had developed a fascinating late style and now the 9th is regarded as one of his strongest symphonies. It is an uneasy, brooding work which has the spirit of Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles hovering in the background. Andrew Davis brought out the sinister and ambiguous nature of the piece, something which is never resolved even in the closing pages.

RVW uses a large orchestra but the sound world is notable for the way he incorporates a flugel horn and 3 saxophones. These are not solo instruments but incorporated into the orchestral texture. There was much discussion in the interval about the nature of a flugel horn. It proved to be a large trumpet/cornet like instrument played by one of the trumpet players. As in Job, the saxophones had slightly more vibrato than I would have liked.

The concert was well received by a packed Albert Hall, perhaps reflecting the way this anniversary year has helped to focus attention on how powerful a symphonist RVW was.

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