Saturday 16 August 2014

Prom 36: Vaughan Williams and Alwyn

Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra - © BBC/Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC/Sim Canetty-Clarke
Vaughan Williams and William Alwyn; Janine Jansen, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 13 2014
Star rating: 4.5

RVW's symphonic ballet paired with a rare outing for William Alwyn's first symphony

The BBC Symphony Orchestra's chief conductor, Sakari Oramo has a track record of interest in English 20th century music so it came as no surprise that in this Proms season with the orchestra he would conduct an all English programme. The pairing of works, RVW's symphonic ballet/masque Job and William Alwyn's Symphony No. 1 in Prom 36 (14 August 2014) was by no means obvious and gave us a chance to look at the English symphonic tradition from a different angle. The concert was completed by RVW's overture to The Wasps and The Lark Ascending, when Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were joined by soloist Janine Jansen.

RVW's overture from his early incidental music to Aristophanes The Wasps made a vividly taut start to the evening, with Oramo taking quite a brisk view of opening section and getting a highly coloured performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The middle section relaxed beautifully, and the whole had a wonderfully clear and perky sense of enjoyment to it from both conductor and orchestra.

William Alwyn
William Alwyn
William Alwyn's Symphony No. 1 was premiered by John Barbirolli and the Halle in 1950. Coming as it did after Alwyn's major sequence of film scores (such as that for The History of Mr Polly), the response of critics was vitriolic. The work is a substantial one, lasting forty minutes and is in the traditional four movements. But Alwyn's intention was to write a symphonic cycle of four linked symphonies which stood together as a whole with each symphony representing a movement of the cycle so that Symphony No. 1 has a very coherent sense of dramatic thought running through it.

The opening Adagio started with a quiet, dark theme on the cellos and basses, gradually joined by the rest of the orchestra there was a sense of something emerging. Alwyn writes for a large orchestra, including triple woodwind. Anguished climaxes followed, plus wonderful sweeping tunes but there was also a sense of struggle until the final big tune. Here, and throughout the symphony, there was a the sense of listening to a closely reasoned but unsettled argument. Though later in the symphony there were perhaps filmic moments, there was no sense of film music in this first movement.

The Allegro leggiero started as a wispy, but edgy scherzo and then gradually developed more muscles. Perhaps Alwyn's film credentials could be hear here, but certainly combined into a closely organised movement. There was a lovely viola tune, which developed during the movement but the overall sense was of restlessness and striving. Later on, I did think that perhaps the musical argument wandered a bit, before regaining its vigour towards the end of the movement.

The slow movement, Adagio ma con moto, started with a beautiful cor anglais solo accompanied by just horns, with more instruments joining. Though melodic and romantic, this movement gave a sense of close argument. Rather than being lush, there was a sense of strenuousness with restless mood changes. Towards the end there was a rather striking, and bluesy trumpet solo before the opening material reappeared on a solo horn.

The final movement was a lively Allegro jubilante which was again restless and changeable, but after a lot of struggle there was a brilliantly fast concluding section.

Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra - © BBC/Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC/Sim Canetty-Clarke
Whilst the music of the symphony, particularly the final movement, sometimes evoked that of William Walton, the composer whose music most frequently came to mind was the of Edmund Rubbra, with his sequence symphonies. From this distance it is difficult to understand the vitriol of the critics after the first performance, and as with a number of other 20th century British composers we need to be able to view Alwyn's symphonic career in balance with that of his film music. This performance from Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra rather brilliantly brought out the music's quality, with a superb performance which certainly made me curious about the composer's remaining symphonies.

A quite long first half concluded with RVW's Lark Ascending with the solo violin part played by Janine Jansen. Both Oramo and Jansen took a very quiet, hushed view of RVW's work with quite slow tempi but a lovely fluent solo line. The result was very particular and some distance away from the chocolate box view of this work. Quite why if was felt necessary to add this to the end of a very long first half was not immediately apparent. It was only when listening to Elihu's Dance of Youth and Beauty in Job in the second half that the links between the two began to fall into place.

Anton Dolin as Satan in RVW's Job
Anton Dolin as Satan in RVW's Job
A ballet based on Blake's Job was originally conceived of after the centenary of Blake's death in 1927 by the Blake scholar Geoffrey Keynes and his sister-in-law the artist Gwen Raverat. They approached RVW with a view to writing a ballet for Diaghilev. In his 50's, RVW was one of the pre-eminent English composers of the senior generation. But the connections and links are rather more interesting than that (see my article on the links between RVW and the Bloomsbury Group on Music and Vision).

Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave us a steady and finely controlled opening to Job with a relaxed sense of flow to it, all quiet rhapsody and controlled power. The Saraband has a lovely sweep to it. When Satan appeared the music was fast, tight and edgy with percussion to the fore and lots of telling detail, though Satan's Dance of Triumph seemed somewhat more fun than it sometimes is!

In the poised and spare Minuet of the Sons of Job and their Wives Oramo kept the piece moving but still allowed space for the music to breath, and all led to the incredible screaming climax. Job's Dream brought back the sense of quiet rhapsody but the faster sections had vivid vigour and a sense of suppressed violence, and Oramo's fast was very fast! The sense of underlying drama continued into the next movement which was full of contrasts but the quieter moments were mesmerising.

RVW would probably have not liked the saxophone solo in the Dance of Job's Comforters owing to the amount of vibrato used, but the result was wonderfully slimy and complemented by a very characterful ensemble. Oramo brought tense drama to Job's curse, with no sense of relaxing. Elihu's Dance of Youth and Beauty brought a lovely poised violin solo from leader, Clio Gould,. RVW's music here links to the Lark Ascending but is cooler and less sugary.  The Pavane of the Sons of Morning was again superbly controlled, but full of tingling moments and a sense of intense inner rhapsody. The Galliard was brisk yet dignified, and rhythmically very appealing. With the Altar Dance and Epilogue there was a lovely clarity and limpidness of sound throughout the multilayered textures of the piece.

RVW's Job comes between his pastoral third symphony and violent fourth. Anyone who seeks to understand the variety and development of his symphonic output, with the combination of pastoral, rhapsodic, violent and mystic elements needs to get to know Job as it brings all these elements together.

Oramo's performance was rather Adrian Boult-like in the lack of indulgence in the performance, but with a very strong sense of the interior drama of the piece. I certainly hope we get to hear Oramo conducting more of RVW's mystical and rhapsodic works.

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