There was a spring in Sakari Oramo’s step as he strode towards the podium in the Royal Albert Hall to lead the BBC Symphony Orchestra as its new Chief Conductor for the first time on the opening night of the 2013 BBC Proms season. The evening’s programme was well constructed to introduce several leitmotifs that will be in evidence throughout the season: the world première of a new work, celebrations of Lutosławski and Britten’s centenary birthdays (orchestral excerpts from one of the latter’s operas making a nod to the unusually large helping of opera this year), a perennial crowd-pleaser and a large-scale choral work. As if to make up for the lack of Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs as part of the Last Night in eight weeks’ time, the sea was present here courtesy of Britten and Vaughan Williams. All told then, the concert held out much to intrigue and impress.
Julian Anderson’s Harmony, a BBC commission written earlier this year, sets a text adapted from the 19th-century mystical poet Richard Jefferies and aims to capture in a five-minute duration the essence of eternity. Forming an arc of sound that began and ended with carefully crafted pianissimi, the instrumental and choral forces alike were articulate in exposing the revelation of eternity’s grandeur, hinting at the expansive shifts of expressiveness that the human soul is capable of. Under Oramo’s direction the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the BBC Proms Youth Choir gave a confident performance that was warmly applauded by the composer from his seat in the stalls.
Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes were conducted by Oramo almost as an orchestral suite with only the minutest of breaks between each interlude. Together they created an impressive orchestral tableau whose drama was filled out by incidents of colourful interest in the writing, for the most part well realised. In Dawn, the ebb and flow of the morning tide found the brass fulsomely toned as the textural undercurrents bubbled along. Sunday morning, the second interlude, was a rather bright affair, benefiting perhaps from greater flamboyancy of gesture from Oramo than had hitherto been in evidence. Moonlight proceeded at a rather too deliberate tempo, though the tendency to exactitude returned at the expense of some feeling for the mood behind the notes. By contrast, the ensuing Storm almost became all-consuming in its tumult.
Rachmaninov and Lutosławski took Paganini’s 24th Caprice as their inspiration for the works that followed, and shared Stephen Hough as the soloist. Rachmaninov’s evergreen Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini found Hough alive to the nuance of the writing, delivering it with his inimitable crisp and clear touch. Together with the orchestra he realised a performance that spoke as much through its restraint as the ability to advocate a well-loved tune. The famous eighteenth variation was not over-blown, but tastefully integrated into the whole as it should be, before Hough proceeded to a pleasingly wry concluding solo statement. Lutosławski’s Variations almost seemed to pick up where Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody left off, with deliciously edgy woodwinds in the orchestra to accompany Hough’s masterful playing of the intricate solo part. The music moved from Lutosławski’s conception of a nineteenth century sound-world, to the filigree delicacy of his own style in 1941 with its slow tempo and atmosphere of calm beautifully realised, and lastly to the growing density of timbre of his later 1970s style which was thrown off with irony and acerbity.
Filling the second half, Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony is exactly the kind of large choral work that is best served by the Proms within the Royal Albert Hall’s cavernous acoustic. The first movement opened with the choruses in suitably emphatic voice, before Roderick Williams’ focussed and rounded baritone made its telling contribution. Both Williams and Sally Matthews drew from their experience and skill as song recitalists to draw out specific textual lines which helped make sense of Walt Whitman’s verses. Matthews’ lyricism and opulently creamy tone made for a good vocal pairing in the soloists’ duo passages. Much of the feeling for nocturnal atmosphere which had eluded Sakari Oramo earlier during the Britten Interludes was present in the symphony’s second movement. The low and deep sonorities of the orchestra were matched by the sotto voce chorus and meditative baritone solo. The third movement scherzo drew its surging energy from the text in a colourful and well-drilled performance from the choruses. It is arguable though that the final movement finds Vaughan Williams at his most adventurous as a composer, since the selected Whitman texts urge a change of course from the merely descriptive to more philosophical and inwardly questioning terrain. In the context of the concert, suggestive links were felt between Julian Anderson’s work and Vaughan Williams’ with references to the questing Soul in the vastness of Space and Time. In the performance, control and abandon at times both held sway amongst the forces to often thrilling effect. Hopefully, Sakari Oramo will explore Vaughan Williams further with the BBC Symphony Orchestra throughout his tenure with them.
Further information on BBC Proms concerts can be found at bbc.co.uk/proms.