A most endearing feature of the Proms is the encouragement of youth orchestras, and tonight it was the turn of the European Community ensemble to take centre stage. These could well be the players of the Berlin/Vienna Philharmonics of the future, drawn as they are from more than one hundred European countries, and the colourful program of quality 20th century music gave them an ample chance to shine.
They grabbed it with both hands, securing a dramatic performance of one of the great English symphonies, Walton’s first. In this they were aided and abetted by John Eliot Gardiner, somehow conducting in a rather stiff, odd looking jacket that contrasted with the orchestra’s free flowing approach, the girls wearing over the shoulder sashes bearing the community flag.
Gardiner managed to impose a few of his own mannerisms on the first movement in particular, sudden changes in dynamic within the later section that enhanced the drama but confused the melody. He evidently loves the work though, and conducted a bitingly good rendition of the fierce second movement, followed by an Andante that could have been more introspective and less full of body, the plaintive flute melody well done but the strings too warm. The surging fourth movement was beyond reproach, however, as Gardiner led his troops home timpani and brass in particular excelling themselves.
The players were joined in the first half by Bernarda Fink, who gave a good performance of Ravel’s song cycle Sheherezade, floating above the orchestra in the nautical Asia and securing a pleasingly rich sound for the more weighty passages. It’s easy to forget that Gardiner has recorded a lot of French repertoire, and his empathy with it came through here and in the Rapsodie Espagnole. Of the three conductors I have heard in Ravel this Prom season (Sakari Oramo and Bernard Haitink the others), Gardiner’s has been the most idiomatic.
Both pieces placed demands on the instrumentalists that were met unswervingly. The flute solo in the second Sheherezade song Le Flute Enchantee was spot on, in keeping with much of the woodwind playing. First and second violinists traded exquisite solos, and Gardiner’s attention to detail revealed the inside parts, as so often with Ravel, to be much more than mere colouring. The Rapsodie‘s uncertain beginning was caught perfectly, as was the exaggerated, full blown Feria at the end.
After the adulation of the audience for the Walton came the nicest touch of the evening, a tribute to the orchestra’s first president Sir Edward Heath with a softly spoken rendition of Elgar’s Sospiri, sensitively done and thoughtfully programmed.