The BBC Concert Orchestra under Keith Lockhart was on top form for Thursday night’s Shakespeare: Stage and Screen Prom, and managed, with great dexterity, the contrast between the subtle pastels of the English light music first half and the showbiz brassiness of the American second half.
Two of Walton’s lesser-known Shakespeare film scores featured in the first half; the earliest, As You Like It (arranged by Christopher Palmer) was represented by two movements that sounded more like Addinsell than Walton, but were none the worse for that (the lucent representation of ‘Moonlight’ was gloriously 1930s). The Prelude from Richard III (arranged by Muir Matheson), though brilliant, and full of the Walton trademarks, is oddly triumphant for such a dark play, and apart from a haunting oboe solo, and a foreboding drum-led allusion to Brahms’ German Requiem, feels as though it belongs more with Prince Hal’s carousing than with Richard’s twisted scheming.
Gerald Finzi’s incidental music for a 1946 radio version of Love’s Labour’s Lost (represented by five excerpts) was a delightful new discovery. The initial trumpet call of the Introduction heralded a banquet of classic Finzi mannerisms – charming pastorality in the strings, contrasted by quirky woodwind interjections, and a witty little homage to ‘The British Grenadiers’ on fife and drum in ‘Quodlibet.’ The fetching viola passage in ‘Moth’ was so lyrical that the words almost formed without a voice to sing them.
Sullivan’s incidental music to The Tempest (from which the Overture was featured), was described in the programme note as heavily influenced by Mendelssohn. While this is undoubtedly true, Sullivan’s personality shines through from the beginning, notably in the pizzicato strings underlying a jolly little oboe tune. This was perhaps just a little early for the orchestra, as, of all the first-half pieces it was less focused.
Contemporary English Shakespeare music was represented by Joby Talbot’s sparkling and rhythmic ‘Springtime Dance’ from his ballet music for The Winter’s Tale. The orchestra handled the minimalist cross-rhythms (reminiscent of John Adams at his best) with élan, making the piece a perfect transition into the more boisterous second half.
Bernstein’s own arrangement of the music from West Side Story into a set of Symphonic Dances has formed a staple of adventurous ensembles for decades now, but the performance these were given by the BBC Concert orchestra was second to none. All of Bernstein’s brilliance was displayed here – the yearning quality of ‘Somewhere’, the delicate cha-cha-treatment of ‘Maria’, and the percussive overload of ‘Rumble’ (Matt Skelton deserves a special Olympic medal for the physicality of this).
The Bernstein, alas, was the apogee, as what followed was one of the reasons why these Friday-Night-Is-Music-Night Proms often don’t deliver. The selections of songs from Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse should have been delightful, but what works with a troupe of amplified musical-theatre voices and a pit band in a theatre or in a cabaret setting, becomes an uneven competition when the soundtrack comes from a large, slick orchestra, and the only audio support is provided by the Albert Hall’s uneven boxing-match-commentary sound system. The best of the bunch were Anna-Jane Casey (whose ‘Always True to You’ was delivered with coquettish precision) and Sarah Eyden (whose delivery of ‘Falling in Love with Love’ was girlishly poignant), but Hannah Waddingham’s over-amplified steely vibrato made ‘So in Love’ an endurance rather than an enjoyment, and the combination of the patchy sound coverage and Graham Bickley’s tendency to swallow words meant that half of Porter’s risqué witticisms in ‘Where is the Life …’ and ‘Brush up your Shakespeare’ were lost.