The celebration of Malcolm Sargent – after Henry Wood, the conductor whose input did most to shape the Proms as we know them – through a re-creation of his 500th Prom from the 1966 Season made many of us grateful that the BBC now runs tighter, shorter concerts. Nearly two and a half hours of music made for a lot of listening. After the obligatory National Anthem, the first half consisted of standard European repertoire of the time: Belioz’s Le carnaval romain overture and the Schumann A-minor piano concerto. The second half demonstrated Sargent’s championship of British music: Elgar’s Cockaigne overture, a selection from Walton’s Façade Suites, ballet music from Holst’s The Perfect Fool, Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (a piece that Sargent premièred in 1945).
The BBC Symphony Orchestra, though, took it all in their stride, producing a fine dynamic range in sound. Indeed, Sir Andrew Davis’ interpretation of all the pieces ensured that they were full of zinging contrasts and that ennui never set in – of particular note were the movements from Walton’s Façade Suites, where solo instruments perform a relay-race handover across lines and counterpoint, pointing up the almost cabaret nature of these quirky Bloomsbury-set works.
Schumann’s piano concerto was written in answer to the more florid soloist-centred works that emerged in the post-Beethoven period; Liszt’s description of it as “a concerto without a piano” summed up the integration of the solo instrument into the orchestral framework. Between them, Davis and Beatrice Rana, the soloist, proved Liszt’s point, and gave us a performance of perfect synchronisation, the piano arpeggios gently rippling through the texture, with just the right amount of Teutonic feel to the orchestra, from which the occasional haunting woodwind obbligato emerged.
Subtlety and contrast were the watchwords in Berlioz’s Le carnaval romain overture – the delicately poised rubato pull-ups in the strings and woodwind juxtaposed with the occasional throaty brass moment, which was instantly reined in. The Elgar echoed this, although was more full of extremes – as, indeed, the piece demands. It’s a jolly romp of a work – Elgar at his most playful – and Strauss’s dictum about never looking at the brass was justifiably ignored, resulting in an exultantly earthy rendition of the marching-band theme, although by contrast, the violins produced the quietest and tenderest sound for the strolling lovers.
Holst’s ballet music form The Perfect Fool was a welcome addition to the programme, as his use of odd-number time signatures and challenging harmonies give him a unique voice in British music. Again, the orchestra brought out the light and shade in the movements – the Uranus-like brassy theme for the magician summoning fire spirits sitting in opposition to the ethereal ‘Dance of Spirits of Water’.
The final items on the programme felt, perhaps, a little rushed (although, by this stage, one could see why); although the pastoral was briefly present, Delius’ cuckoo barely had time to sing before Spring was over, and the final fugue in the Britten was taken at a breakneck pace – although, arguably, none the worse for that. The Britten programmed with the Walton, though, was a clever pairing – both demonstrate different orchestral possibilities, the Britten doing so obviously, the Walton en passant.
Sargent’s determination to showcase a variety of British composers in the second half made for a long evening; it is also a pity that his 500th Prom contained no major choral work, as he was the innovator who began programming such pieces into what had been a primarily orchestral concert series. That said, the trip back in time was an enjoyable experience.