Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2018

Proms 17 Parry Vaughan Williams Holst Royal Albert Hall July 27th 2018

BBC BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales, Martyn Brabbins

Genre: Live Music, Music

Venue: Royal Albert Hall, Kensington


Low Down

BBC, BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales, Martyn Brabbins in a programme of Parry’s Symphony No. 5 in B minor and Choral piece ‘Hear my words’, Holst’s Ode to Death Op 38, and Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending with Tai Matthews and Symphony No. 3 in F.


To mark Hubert Parry’s centenary it’s good to find the BBC showing a bit of courage, programming two British symphonies at once. Vaughan Williams joins his teacher with one of those and a crowd-pleaser, and another student Holst with a first Proms performance of a choral work, The Ode to Death.


So does Parry with an unfamiliar choral piece, Hear My Words Ye People. It’s not as if Parry’s ever gone away from the Proms since the 1950s. It’s just that we don’t hear his other best music and never his symphonies. His masterpiece, the Schoenberg-influenced (yes!) Fifth in ruminant B minor, from 1912, is the only one to have been given an outing, and that as recently as 2010.


The BBC NOW brass was on fine form, as ever. But their strings and wind are equally well-projected. This was a high-content low-key Prom to savour.


It’s a striking four-in-one work, showing how unlike Stanford Parry kept abreast of new music, his last organ works showing the chromatic uncertainties of Reger. And despite note-writer Jeremy Dibble suggesting Schumann as formal model and that Parry probably knew Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 and String Quartet No. 1, we know he did, and was excited by the Chamber Symphony. Bit of an opportunity lost: next time programme the Schoenberg, Parry, and say Schrecker or Zemlinsky’s efforts here.


So how does it sound? Well, not astringent and winds-driven like its model, for sure. It’s string and brass heavy, dark and Brahmsian like his 1897 Elegy for Brahms. But it’s much more refracted, chewy, where the four movements with programme-music titles leap out like symphonic poems (and yes the late {1882} Liszt of From the Cradle to the Grave isn’t a bad parallel). The slow ‘Stress’ speeds up then slows in ‘Love’, an obvious Lento. ‘Play’ Vivace-labelled galumphs to a bit of a scherzo. Then ‘Now’ turns up revving from Moderato to Animato.


Each movement is part of an overall thematic arc, developing through each section: more chromatic than Brahms, less obviously tuneful than his big hits but tunes are there: just less obviously breathing than elsewhere. Thing is Schoenberg adopted such methods in reducing to chamber-size, and Parry doesn’t. Even Schoenberg’s fuller version is still pretty sparse. So a wonderful start, a perky memorable Vivace and yes the finale’s impressive, a blaze of B major at the end. But what if someone were to reduce this to say fifteen instruments?


Tai Murray’s rapt performance of Vaughan Williams was so perfect it slipped by, but in fact so riveted that thankfully no-one broke out with some idiot ‘bravo’ at the end; tonight’s audience notably waited half a minute before bursting into applause for anything. Murray’s enormously impressive, full where required yet silvery, able to convey refinement with a piercing, refined palate where required.


Her encore was the magically fretted ‘Memories of Alhambra’ by Tarrega, terraced beautifully for violin and projected with the fragility of the lark finally vanishing – as alas it might well do for good as the interval feature underlined.


Parry returned after the interval with Hear my words, ye people which 1895 commission for Salisbury Cathedral allowed him the luxury of pitting a small choir against a large one – something Vaughan Williams did with the string sections of his Tallis Fantasia. It’s something perhaps that might need a particular cathedral acoustic to do that particular line-up justice. Nevertheless, it was stirring stuff, and breaking out into a great tune hi-jacked for a hymn straight after as ‘O praise ye the lord, praise him in the height’.


Next something really special, yet another Whitman setting by a British composer of the period – Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, and other settings of both composers as well as many others. Whitman’s verse has an elasticity and memorable series of stretchy lines that make him a joy to set. And of course there’s the meaning. Returning from war service in Salonika the ailing Holst didn’t see wartime service in the way his more robust friend Vaughan Williams did, much as he volunteered to. But his de is a memorial, post-Planets being Op 38 dating just before The Perfect Fool ballet from1921. This means that mix of Neptune-voiced choral fade, and incredibly delicate timps as well as instrumentation.


Holst’s setting allows Whitman’s equivocal welcome of death, a strange setting perhaps, but Holst was a melancholic as well as compassionate composer, and the tone’s consolatory, tinged with genuine mysticism. So think ‘Neptune’ crossed with a little of‘Venus’ fullness of texture at times, then given a touch of ‘Saturn’s dark brass; not much, a touch. It’s memorable but ushering in a new astringency that would settle only about three years later which baffled Vaughan Williams. Holst softened eventually, though he had little time left. I’d say the Ode to Death with its haunting but muted themes was the way he ended up and should have gone. A pity he and we didn’t hear it more often.


Then Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 3 in F from two years alter, in 1922. now celebrated as war-torn symphony which was apparent all along with that natural trumpet solo in the second, slow movement. It’s predominantly slow, ‘Moto moderato’ with its magical first movement stunning when VW’s modal sounds get flattened or sharpened suddenly. Brabbins takes this at strong flowing tempi and lets no spaces between movements at all, but geos on attacca – so no-one can get a stupid clap in, thankfully. It was bring filmed and the unfortunate crash or two during this hushed performance might have carried.


The slow ‘Lento moderato’ movement with its unnamed trumpet-call and flattened seventh recalling the bugler who got it slightly wrong, gives way to another galumphing scherzo, heavy, leaden-footed, marked ‘Moderato pesante’ which tells you everything: as if Morris dancers had got drunk and stepped out for a final knees-up after ten pints each.


The final Lento features off-stage Francesca Chiejina a little way in and at the end – a borrowing from Holst’s’ Neptune’- to the most rapt effect this symphony’s received in recent years with the orchestra gently following the wordless cantilena Chiejina floated – magically not too ethereally – over the orchestra from a hidden upper gallery somewhere stage left. Seasoned prommers discussed this, and one, having seen the last four performances of this symphony here – quite a stretch of time – affirmed this the best. So it sounded. Brabbins knows how to press forward even here, yet lets everything breathes.


A revelatory programme, and fresh, flowing performances that pick up the keen lyricism and blow the fustian. A couple more masterpieces we can count on the strength of this one.


Despite the heat thunderstorms and occluded blood moon the Hall was packed, even in the gallery – still acoustically and physically the place to be.