Sunday 02 August 2020, BBC Radio 3 @ 9.00 p.m.

Recorded at Royal Albert Hall on 23 July 2006

The following review was written by Dominic Nudd, attending the concert for The Classical Source; it is republished here with a few small amendments…

Richard Hickox made his farewell appearance as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with a programme of British music closely associated with him.

Elgar’s In the South (Alassio) needs careful handling if it is not to sound over-inflated. The work was intended as the centrepiece of an Elgar festival in 1904. The composer, knowing he needed something significant for the occasion, piled on the brass and bombast perhaps a shade too much, attempting to outgun Richard Strauss. Hickox launched into the opening with tremendous swagger with the trumpets in particular cutting through the texture with great brilliance; if the woodwinds were more than once swamped, that problem has affected many more performances in the Royal Albert Hall. The first of two quieter reflective sections was handled with some refinement, particularly from the first violins. Other conductors have demonstrated the virtue of separating the violins either side of the platform and this performance would have benefited from the same arrangement; the second violins were clearly playing with great commitment – but not so well heard. Solos from both clarinet (Robert Plane) and horn (Tim Thorpe) were eloquent and expressive. The central passage, Elgar’s summoning of the ghost of Roman legions, was treated as a great address and with quite a spacious tempo; in its wake a solo viola, here Vicci Wardman, takes up a lovely melody that Elgar labelled Moglio, a village he passed through. This was very lovely, and the accompaniment captured with great delicacy, though the passage possibly didn’t need to be conducted with such vigour. After this extended episode Elgar recalls the heavy brass for a heroic coda, which here swamped much else of Elgar’s scoring.

Sir Arthur Bliss’s A Colour Symphony hovers around the fringes of the repertoire. It also needs careful handling. Bliss was partial to heavy scoring – this was his first major orchestral work – which can easily obscure the invention and make the music seem cluttered. So far this year, the Proms hasn’t been much affected by the ‘TV required’ lighting – however, this opportunity was too good to miss! Rather predictably, then, the back of the platform and the panels beside the organ were lit with the colour represented by each movement: Purple, Red, Blue, Green.

The opening was appropriately well-sprung, though a touch on the slow side, but the tendency of woodwinds to get swamped was even more of a problem here. A great deal of Bliss’s thematic material is heard in answering phrases from woodwinds over the solid bed of string writing and if this detail is lost, some interest is also lost. Bliss’s model was as much Stravinsky as Elgar; thus the pointed rhythms need to be brought out for the piece to be fully effective. The red lighting for the second movement seemed to emphasise the heat in the hall as much as any heraldic association, though no-one playing seemed particularly affected.  Bliss’s scherzo fizzed past, though the highly dramatic writing for horns was too loud and there were a couple of brief moment of untidiness from the brass. The slow movement, ‘Blue, is probably the most effective, one enjoying off-beat rhythms and arabesques for woodwinds, the orchestra’s excellent soloists responding with great panache, but Bliss’s complex orchestration wasn’t well served in the processional passages, which needed greater clarity and care with the balance.

Whoever was handling the lighting was on auto-pilot: blue faded to green before the end of the movement. The Finale has long struck me as the Symphony’s weakest movement, and I’m not sure that Hickox is fully convinced by it either. The opening fugue subject in the strings felt too slow, the lines not delineated enough. The second fugue, beginning in the woodwinds was much clearer, but the entry of both sets of timpani with a repetitive motor rhythm lost clarity again. Bliss himself noted that he found it easier to write dramatic music, rather than pure music, and for all this work’s complexity and sometimes-glorious writing, the music can seem more colour than symphony.

Richard Hickox enjoys a justified reputation as a chorus trainer. All three choirs here certainly gave the most committed response to his imperious direction, delivering the text with exemplary clarity, diction and unity which carried through into the lament by the waters of Babylon, the multi-layered texture clearly defined.  Bryn Terfel was in fine voice, but in his opening managed one minor verbal slip. While the diction and clarity of the chorus were admirable, the orchestra was less clearly defined, and some of Walton’s elaborate detail failed to register. Accents were delivered with tremendous punch, but non-accented notes didn’t step back so much. Terfel was superbly characterful in what Walton called the shopping list, graphically depicting the catalogue of wealth, and reserving his darkest tone for “the souls of men”.

The savagery with which the captured Israelites respond to Belshazzar’s summoning of their sacred vessels so that he can drink wine from them was palpable, but the orchestral opening of the chorus of praise needed more swagger. The two antiphonal brass groups were placed in the second-tier boxes, facing the stage, probably as effective a place as any in this hall – a distinct and distinctive presence – but there was one dodgy moment when the brass got ahead and Hickox had to apply an unintended ritardando to bring everyone into line.

As the fanatical Babylonians called for their King to live forever (always a politic move with tyrants) the combined sound threatened to overwhelm the Albert Hall completely. Summoning forth the fingers of a man’s hand to write Belshazzar’s fate on the wall, Terfel sounded appropriately dark and vengeful and the death-rattle in the orchestra that accompanies this was bleak and sinister, “slain!” echoed with brutal finality.  The chorus of joy was then wildly exultant and then the grieving for the destruction of the great and beautiful city was conveyed with compelling sadness before the final lines rejoicing that Babylon has fallen.

Despite some balance problems, on the evidence of this concert Richard Hickox [1948-2008] leaves the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in superb form.