Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 35: Elgar – Enigma Variations; Coleridge-Taylor – Violin Concerto; Stanford, Lambert @ Royal Albert Hall, London

9 August 2005

To my eyes it often seems that the BBC Concert Orchestra get a raw deal compared to their counterparts in the organisation, looked down on somewhat as purveyors of light, inconsequential fare more suited to Radio 2 on a Sunday afternoon.

Not so, as this all-British program demonstrated. The orchestra’s long-term conductor Barry Wordsworth has led them for sixteen years, and specialises in just the sort of music on offer here, the majority of which would be derided as “cow pat” by the cynics, but which had plenty of melodic charm to offer.

Of which more later. Wordsworth treated us to an affectionate reading of the most substantial work here, Elgar’s Enigma Variations receiving a carefully studied performance yet cutting loose when the composer demanded, as in the WMB and Troyte variations. Having begun at a slightly slow pace the conductor was keen to keep the phrasing relatively light, and the familiar hush at the start of Nimrod was perfectly realised in a still hall, even if the percussion over-enthused at the end.

The attractive concert included two rarities. Constant Lambert’s Merchant Seamen suite neatly took up the evening’s maritime connections in a light-hearted ten minutes of cinematic nostalgia. Eclectic’ was the word chosen by the booklet writer for this, though whether that was complementary or not was open to question!

It could however accurately describe the following work, the Violin Concerto of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, rediscovered by Philippe Graffin and receiving its first Prom performance for some ninety-three years. Graffin was almost bashful as the orchestra played, but when it was his moment he took it, understated but successfully bringing out the lyrical content of this rhapsodic piece. If Wordsworth and his troops were a bit too serious and heavy handed in the first movement, the mood lightened for a nicely shaded Andante and an enjoyable final movement which seemed to anticipate Barber’s Violin Concerto some thirty years later. Graffin won the Albert Hall crowd over with his technical delivery and modest manner as the applause rained down.

With British music and nautical themes to the fore you couldn’t help feeling the organisers had missed a trick by not including Frank Bridge’s marvellous score The Sea. His teacher got lucky though, and Stanford’s Songs Of The Sea were hugely enjoyable in this performance from the baritone Mark Stone. The lightish tread of Drake’s Drum was fun, the wistful Outward Bound brought a momentary tear to the eye, resolved by the later hush of Homeward Bound. Best of all was the exuberance of the other two songs, Devon, O Devon and The Old Superb, bringing the best from Stone’s accomplices, the men of the London Chorus. The forty strong ensemble must have totalled two thousand years between them, but their full-blooded rendition of “Westward ho” in the final song left it lingering in the mind, even taking into account Wordsworth’s sensitive Enigma.

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