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Prom 39 (Susan Elkin reviews)

BBC Proms 2022 Prom 39: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo 15th August

ConstantinHartwig.jpgThis all-English programme was a high octane concert at the end of which orchestra members must have been very tired although they sustained the stamina until the very last bar.

We began with a new work, a BBC co-commission, by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Time Flies comprises three movements each representing the cities and time zones of the work’s commissioners. Thus we get “London Time” (hint of “Pop Goes the Weasel”), an initially bell-like “Hamburg Time” which finally dies away on an evocative flute motif, followed by “Tokyo Time” in which off beat jazzy rhythms showcase excellent work by the brass section. The whole work – which uses seven percussionists – would make a good teaching exercise if you were trying to teach children about instruments of the orchestra. It features, among other novelties a celesta, soprano saxophone and marimba.

Sakari Oramo is a businesslike, unshowy conductor who maestro-managed all this (and the works which followed) with a strong down beat and encouraging smiles. And of course Turnage was there to take well deserved applause in the end – looking insouciantly arty in a Sinatra-style trilby hat,

Now I just love a bit of tuba. Continuous exposure to Tubby when I was a child has a lot to answer for. So it was a real thrill to see and hear Vaughan Williams’s delightful 1954 concerto live and beautifully played by Constantin Hartwig. He brought lots of wit and rubato to the first movement cadenza with especially in those lower registers which always seem so unlikely. Then Hartwig played the second movement with great tenderness and lyricism – milking the melodies for the maximum levels of RVW-esque pastoral beauty. Why doesn’t this concerto get more outings? It really should.

The encore misfired somewhat, however. Hartwig told the audience that he wasn’t going to tell us what it was because we’d all recognise it after the first six notes. I don’t think many people did. Paul McCartney’s Blackbird seemed almost to have disappeared in Lars Holmgaard’s arguably over complex arrangement. Perhaps we were distracted by the sudden, welcome sound of rain drumming loudly on the roof of the Albert Hall – the first in London for many weeks.

And so to Elgar’s First Symphony. There is a famous film of Elgar conducting Pomp and Circumstance March Number One and telling the orchestra briskly: “Please play this as if you’ve never heard it before” before setting off at a smart, unsentimental pace. I was reminded of that at the opening of this performance of the first symphony. It may be marked with Elgar’s characterisitic noblimente but Oramo allowed the big melody at the beginning to sing out on its own terms without any saccharine wallowing. And the split rhythms later in the movement were delivered with contrasting incisive crispness. Getting that mood shift right is probably the key to delivering Elgar successfully.

Oramo is very good indeed at dramatic dynamics and I particularly liked his warm and spirited transition into the adagio, played with an unusual secretive magicality and some splendid string playing. If you play them as softly as this, the pianissimo passages in all movements require terrific control and we certainly got it in this emotionally charged – but never cloying – rendering.

First published by Lark Reviews

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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