When Sibelius’ first symphony received its Proms premiere in 1903 underSir Henry Wood, Debussy was well underway on his own symphonic masterpieceLa Mer.
Just over a hundred years on and a chance to consider theirinfluence on the Horn Concerto of Colin Matthews, itself receiving a Promspremiere. The composer is sixty this year, youthfully so if the energy withwhich he bounded on stage is anything to go by, and his concerto made toughdemands on not just one but five horn players.
Perfectly suited to the Albert Hall, the work started with all fiveoffstage, soloist to the left and the four ‘concertante’ to the right withconductor Mark Elder. During the piece the concertante moved aroundthe outskirts of the hall, twisting arena heads on the way but providingsignificant signposts for the music’s development. Meanwhile soloistRichard Watkins moved centre stage to take the lead. Watkins, thework’s dedicatee, was fully expressive, his phrase control impeccable andhis natural tuning flawless. Elder made sure his Hallé forces securedwonderfully transparent textures in the accompaniment, at times betrayingSibelius in figuration and Debussy in orchestration.
La Mer opened the Prom and found Elder focussing on definitionand clarity, with beautifully hushed percussion, lightly flitting stringsand pointed brass lines. If not fully scaling the heights it was expertlyrealised, with the wind really blowing round the collar in the Dialogueof Wind and Sea. If only it had, but the stifling auditorium was stillable to enjoy the playful interplay of Jeux de vagues, strings andwind exchanging motifs.
On this occasion Sibelius emerged as the star of the show, thanks to alean account of the first symphony, Elder unleashing its power. Helped by asublime clarinet solo from Lynsey Marsh he was able to up thetension from the start, enough to require plenty of brow mopping at themovement’s end.
The symphony’s close links to Tchaikovsky were emphasised in thegorgeous string textures of the second movement, which was warmly romantic,while the scherzo and finale were urgent and dynamic, with impressivecontributions from wind, brass and timpani. On the latter, TomGreenleaves‘s sticks were almost reaching head height in the mightyclosing section, the music then subsiding to a hushed and deeply feltclose. Conductor and orchestra blew out their cheeks in unison – they hadbeen on quite a journey.