Prom 66 opened with two evocations of the ocean: Grace Williams’ 1944 Sea Sketches, for string orchestra and Elgar’s song-cycle Sea Pictures. Maritime connotations ebbed away for the second half, with just one work in Tchaikovsky’s searing final symphony, the Pathétique .
The Welsh composer Grace Williams (1906-77) does a reasonable job in summoning up images of the sea but it is, as the title suggests, a sketchy work of no great depth or colour. Like earlier compositions dealing with the subject, Sea Sketches evokes various salty moods, with sections titled “High Wind”, “Sailing Song”, “Channel Sirens”, “Breakers” and “Calm Sea in Summer”, using all sorts of picturesque effects such as howling, lapping and swelling.
The slow, slow third movement certainly had a lulling feel under Tadaaki Otaka’s baton and was met with a positive barrage of coughing, indicating perhaps that the proms audience wasn’t fully engaged. It was laudable that the BBC National Orchestra of Wales should open their final concert of the season with a bit of local colour but this was a dragon without much fire and they surely could have found something a little more dynamic for the occasion.
Elgar’s Sea Pictures is an altogether fuller and more seductive work, although it too is a little uneven. The final setting, of the poem “The Swimmer”, is the weakest, full of Elgarian bombast, but there’s plenty of loveliness in the preceding movements. In particular, the Gerontius-like “Sabbath Morning at Sea” and the celebrated “Where Corals Lie” contain some very fine music. Forever associated with Janet Baker, the vocal line lies low for the mezzo Christine Rice but this tremendous singer did a splendid job, spinning out the words with great expression and beauty.
The BBC NOW’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, premiered just nine days before the composer died, also suffered from unevenness. Otaka continued his languorous roll through much of the first movement. The development was lively enough but the outer sections slowed to a point of inertia and the third movement march also began in very leisurely fashion.
It did pick up considerably, though, finishing with a mighty climax, which drew a positive outburst of applause from the audience, much more than the usual half-hearted effort that accompanies so many Proms performances these days. The vigour of Otaka’s attack almost (almost) made the intrusion feel justified this time.
The contrasting final movement wasn’t as gut-wrenching as it can be, ending a performance which, like the whole concert, was good in part.