Friday, August 27, 2021, Royal Albert Hall, London
Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 7.30 p.m.
It’s only right that Malcolm Arnold, in his centenary year, should have one of his Nine Symphonies included during this Proms season, but his contemporary, Robert Simpson, has not been so fortunate regarding his eleven such works (only the First of his fifteen String Quartets was mentioned in Proms dispatches, http://www.colinscolumn.com/bbc-proms-2021-marmen-quartet-cadogan-hall-joseph-haydns-lark-robert-simpsons-first/; looks like we’ll have to make do with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Phil’s studio account of Symphony 2 from a few months ago).
It was probably inevitable that Arnold’s Fifth would be the Symphony of choice – it’s crept into the concert repertoire somewhat ahead of the rest (and has reached places such as Bergen, Lyon, Reykjavík and Saint Petersburg). First heard in 1961 at the Cheltenham Festival of Music, the composer conducting the Hallé Orchestra – and he went on to record it in Birmingham for HMV (also included in the discography are versions from Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox) – the restless first movement of Arnold Five remembers four of his friends who died young, including Dennis Brain and Gerard Hoffnung – music with an edge, both bittersweet and harsh, contrasted with balletic lightness. This performance didn’t sugar the pill. The slow movement brings an expansive melody full of sadness – so eloquent here – that turns into an anguished climax and then shadowy reminiscences, whereas the Scherzo juxtaposes sinister prowling with joviality. The Finale may be the Symphony’s weak link, partly due to its brevity, and because the turn from jauntiness (close to English Dance mode) to tragedy can seem too contrived; here, with a filmic return to the second movement, the transformation to Shostakovichian desolation was devastating. Given the quality of this revealing rendition, one imagines that Sakari Oramo holds this Symphony in the highest regard.
In 1929 William Walton wrote a Concerto for viola-player Lionel Tertis, but it was rejected by him leaving Paul Hindemith to give the premiere. Timothy Ridout brought smoky tone, athletic virtuosity and shapely phrasing to the solo part, agitated emotions, too – the outer movements tend to the poetic, yearning and the contemplative, the work, following an orchestral emotional outpouring, closing as a sunset, whereas the middle one scintillates at speed, here bouncy rather than daredevil (for the latter try Primrose and Boult). Oramo and the BBCSO (using Walton’s revised 1961 scoring: woodwinds and brass somewhat reduced and a harp added) were sympathetic partners, vivid and sensitive, displaying a pioneering spirit.
For an apposite encore, Ridout offered a remarkably rough-hewn and diabolically fast movement from Hindemith’s Sonata Opus 25/1, almost computer-generated. Stunning!
The concert’s respective halves opened with short pieces, respectively John Foulds’s Le cabaret (Overture to a French Comedy), a hip-swinging and insouciant gem, conducted with affection by Oramo; and the UK premiere of Charlotte Bray’s intriguingly titled Where Icebergs Dance Away, music reflecting on Global Warming, meditative and animated, with much expression between the lines. Engaging; chilly and questioning, too.