Tuesday 16 August 2022

Prom 39: a Turnage premiere, a Vaughan Williams rarity and an Elgar Symphony

Vaughan Williams: Tuba Concerto - Constantin Hartwig, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo - BBC Proms (Photo BBC)
Vaughan Williams: Tuba Concerto - Constantin Hartwig, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo - BBC Proms (Photo BBC)

Mark-Anthony Turnage: Time Flies, Vaughan Williams: Tuba Concerto, Elgar: Symphony No. 1; Constantin Hartwig, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed 15 August 2022 (★★★★)

Four contrasting British works from Turnage's imaginative orchestral writing to concise late RVW and to the expansiveness of Elgar's first full symphonic work

Last night's BBC Prom (15 August 2022) at the Royal Albert Hall featured the return of Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme of English music from the 20th century to today, with the UK premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Time Flies, Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto (with soloist Constantin Hartwig) and Elgar's Symphony No. 1

It was one of those BBC Proms concerts where everything was there for a reason, but the programme as a whole rather left you wondering why. What did Turnage's work have to say to the earlier pieces, and how do we relate the expansiveness (and Imperialist echoes) of Elgar's symphony with the concision (and fun) of the RVW concerto? Or perhaps we don't try, and simply enjoy each work in isolation.

Turnage's Time Flies was a BBC co-commission for 2020 to celebrate the composer's 60th birthday, and it was finally receiving its UK premiere. The work links the three commissioning cities, London, Hamburg, Tokyo with a movement dedicated to each. Turnage writes for a huge orchestra with dazzling skill, yet the booklet notes never quite made clear what linked the three movements - 'London Time', 'Hamburg Time', 'Tokyo Time' - and what linked each movement to its city. Was the main theme of 'London Time' really a version of Oranges and Lemons as it rather seemed to be? Did the fanfare at the heart of the second movement, 'Hamburg Time', have any significance to the city? And why celebrate Tokyo by turning the orchestra into a giant jazz band?

However, if you could still all these questions and sit back and listen, there was plenty to enjoy. Clearly, Turnage himself was having great fun when writing the piece. We began with 'London Time' and an endless wind melody that seemed somehow familiar, yet not quite so. The melody wove its way around some very mobile orchestral textures, emerging and disappearing. Seductive at times, the movement seemed to be about enjoying the journey, rather than arriving, though there was a climax, finally. 'Hamburg Time' began with brass chords creating a not-quite fanfare, and this material threaded its way through the movement. At times the strings added drama, whilst at other times it was all quiet and spare. But finally the intensity grew and the movement erupted. We ended with 'Tokyo Time' and Turnage had great fun re-configuring the large orchestra as a jazz band. Complex and multi-layered, there was much to enjoy here but ultimately the joke seemed to overstay its welcome, though Turnage's handling of his material was dazzling. In fact, throughout the piece, it was Turnage's deft and imaginative handling of the orchestra that I admired, along with some terrific playing from the orchestra.

In his later career RVW seemed to develop a fascinating for more unusual instruments, not only using saxophones, flugelhorns and an array of tuned percussion in his symphonies, but writing concertos for tuba and for harmonica. The tuba concerto dates from 1954 and is a highly compressed piece, three small but perfectly formed movements which show of the tuba as a real concertante instrument. This was only the work's third appearance at the proms, having previously been performed in 1955 and 1988. The young German tuba player, Constantin Hartwig has been making quite a name for himself with the instrument and this was his BBC Proms debut.

The orchestra began with music that could not but be anything other than late RVW then over the top came Hartwig's lovely mellow, hazy tone, phrasing the music in a sophisticated manner that belied the instrument's reputation. Hartwig's playing was fluid and fleet, and throughout the concerto he brought a suaveness to the instrument. There was never a moment (bar one farty note in the cadenza) when there seemed a danger of the music becoming a comic turn, throughout he conveyed the instrument's capability for seriousness and sophistication. The slow movement 'Romanza' featured Hartwig's dusky solo over delicate orchestral support, flowing yet mellow in feel. The last movement was fast and lithe, with some remarkably fleet playing from Hartwig and a particularly sophisticated turn in the cadenza.

We were treated to an encore, an arrangement of Paul McCartney's Blackbird that gave Hartwig a chance to display his virtuosity including using multiphonics.

After the interval it was Elgar's Symphony No. 1, a work that took some years to achieve. He made his orchestral breakthrough with Enigma Variations (1898/99), had ideas for a symphony based on the life of General Gordon (of Khartoum) and a planned symphony failed to materialise in 1904 (he wrote In the South instead), and Symphony No. 1 finally appeared in 1907. Perhaps surprisingly it is a large scale and expansive work. Sakari Oramo took an expansive view of the work, and throughout his approach to the work's big themes seemed deliberately primed to move the music away from the suggestion of the Imperial nobility that can be associated with Elgar.

The opening of the first movement made the motto theme almost aetherial whilst its reprise seemed to be as much about what was going on around the theme as the theme itself. Throughout the movement, when the motto returned it was almost as a series of distant memories. The main part of the movement was fluidly mobile and constantly changing, with some lovely moments. There was not as much storm and stress here as in some interpretations, instead Oramo drew out the music's restlessness and only towards the end did the stress of the movement's struggle between conflicting keys really come to a head, though the ending fell back into something quietly magical. The second movement was light, crisp and scurrying, with a strong character for the march-like theme. At times vivid and turbulent, there were magical moments and some translucent textures. The slow movement started with a quiet warm string tune, leading to a rich orchestral sound. Restless again, but full of fabulous details with Oramo seeming to have all the time in the world. The finale began misterioso before becoming fast and vivid. There is an element of cyclical form to the work, with themes returning and being transformed and this leads to a complexity in the finale. Here Oramo very much enjoyed the journey, again the music was restless and constantly changing but finally, finally the motto theme returned in a form that was quite something and rather stirring. 

You don't really think of Elgar and Sibelius in the same breath, though Sibelius' Symphony No. 3 debuted a little before Elgar's symphony and the Sibelius was dedicated to Granville Bantock who was a great champion of Sibelius' music. The way Oramo led the music on a long, long journey and only at the end gave a fully rounded and an satisfying rendition of the motto theme made me think of Sibelius and the way in his symphonies a theme can be introduced in pieces and only gradually come together.

The concert is available on BBC Sounds.

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