Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 10: Roll up! Roll up! A Jubilee lucky dip from Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra

22 July 2022

God save her. The BBC Proms adds its tribute to the Queen’s milestone.

Prom 10

The BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Singers & Barry Wordsworth (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Like the more rambunctious musical celebrations at The Platinum Party at the Palace, the Proms’ contribution to this year’s Jubilee celebrations saw, on Friday, the trotting out of some old war horses – in this case, works, rather than performers: Parry’s I was glad; Handel’s Zadok, Walton’s Orb and Sceptre march; Byrd’s O Lord, make they servant Elizabeth our Queen; Elgar’s fourth Pomp and Circumstance march.

Had there been more of the same, the programme might have been dismissed – along with the tacky rotating crowns of the rear stage diorama – as the usual dose of celebratory pablum. But titling the evening ‘Music for Royal Occasions’ allowed for a broader, more interesting programme that included some rarely performed works associated with the Windsors, Hanoverians and Tudors. The Windsor Dances, for example, by W H Harris are three short piano pieces written by the composer as beginners’ piano duets for the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose to play. Typical of the era and style (their titles: ‘Castle Walls’, ‘Down by the River’, ‘At a Canter’, tell you everything), they are nonetheless charming vignettes (although probably more interesting in Jonathan Manners’ orchestral versions, as presented on Friday, than as piano pieces). Elgar’s O hearken thou, written for the coronation of George V, is also a rarity. The 1953 coronation collection of partsongs A Garland for the Queen was represented by Vaughan Williams’s richly sonorous contribution Silence and Music, and a BBC commission, Your servant, Elizabeth, by Cheryl Frances-Hoad (the text a clever interleaving of passages from Psalm 21 sung by the choir, and words written by the current monarch for her 21st birthday speech and in a letter from this year sung by soloists) had its first impressive and thrilling performance. Spicing the bill of fare with a little dissension were Britten’s Courtly Dances from his controversial opera Gloriana and John Ireland’s Epic March, a work the notably pacifist composer was strongarmed into writing to foster patriotic spirit in 1942, and whose spiky, restive material shouts out a sarcastic rejoinder to jingoism.

“…titling the evening ‘Music for Royal Occasions’ allowed for a broader, more interesting programme…”

Prom 10

Barry Wordsworth (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

As with all programmes that cover music of many periods using a single set of performers, compromises have to be made, and deploying the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers to perform music by Handel, Henry VIII and Byrd was unlikely to please fans of historically informed performance. The orchestra, under Barry Wordsworth’s slick control, though, managed a reasonably nuanced account of Zadok the Priest, and provided some authentically robust percussion for Pastime with good companie. It was in the 19th and 20th century items they excelled, though: Bliss’s Jubilant Fanfare and the Walton were given all the glittering pageantry they deserved; the Britten was full of interesting texture from the funereal brass and muddy harmonies of ‘Pavane’ through the comic trombones of ‘Lavolta’ to the punchy rhythms of the final ‘March’. The selections from Handel’s Water Music were arranged for modern orchestra by Hamilton Harty in 1922, so no ‘authenticity’ was required – the horns (particularly the solo held note into the da capo in the ‘Adagio’) and the very quiet strings – were magnificent, and, together with the subtle watercolours of the Harris, conjured an episode of Your Hundred Best Tunes on the BBC Light Programme. Wordsworth’s tempi were perhaps on the brisk side – Parry and Elgar need an allargando or two for the full camp ‘sound of Empah’ to be summoned, and these were missing (one felt from the no-nonsense delivery of the Pomp and Circumstance march that the beers were already waiting backstage).

The BBC Singers have improved their blend over the last few years, and this showed in their excellent accounts of Judith Weir’s I love all beauteous things, the Vaughan Williams, and even the Byrd, which, while not likely to win HIP awards, displayed an informed approach to the polyphony. Henry VIII’s Pastime with good companie, though, was a bridge too far, the polite, neutral, Oxford English performance suggesting something in mid 20th century Kensington rather than an early 16th century hunting lodge. Zadok and I was glad suffered in a different way: performances of these with a big brassy orchestra need much bigger choruses, and the compensatory overblowing (particularly in the tenor) that the choir brought to their accounts was both too much and yet not enough.

• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.

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