The playing of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis on Thursday evening was of the high standard that one would expect from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under its Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis. The contrasts in dynamics and intensity between the quartet, the smaller orchestral group and the main body of strings were precisely calculated so that Vaughan Williams’ shifting patterns of musical light and shade flitted effortlessly through the Albert Hall.
The opening French-horn tone-row of Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus, echoed in the solo soprano entry, hinted that the following half hour might be somewhat heavy going, but this was far from the truth. Wood’s response to serialism certainly shone through in the work, but his sure feel for lyricism and orchestration picked up the richness of the Vaughan Williams and added a complex and irresistible piquancy. Although hints of Turangalîla were present in some of the massive brass chords, the piece’s shifting timbral textures were still very English – from the rich string tone to the skittering woodwind passages.
Davis is no stranger to Wood’s music, and his understanding of the composer’s intention was manifest in his control of the seamless passing of thematic material across the orchestra, allowing threads of almost-melody to emerge and then lose their way in Milton’s ‘wilde wood’. The central orchestral ‘scherzo’ with its driving rhythm and intricate counterpoint was thoroughly exciting.
The two soloists, Stacey Tappan and Anthony Gregory, were well chosen for the work. Tappan’s specialism in contemporary music was evident from the fluidity and direction she brought to the angular vocal lines, and the sweet power of her soprano voice remained consistent in tone across her range. Anthony Gregory’s tenor was well matched in weight, albeit not always in intensity (but then, his passages were often pitted against bigger forces); their final duet was the perfect contrast of light and dark.
Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode, which supplies the words to Elgar’s The Music Makers is not the most elegant of texts, the poet tending to prioritise rhyme and voluptuousness of phrase over sense. And it is almost as if Elgar, by grafting quotes from some of his existing works onto new material, is deliberately leaning on O’Shaughnessy’s obvious emotional buttons – the mezzo soloist breaking into Nimrod for “But on one man’s soul it hath broken…” being a case in point. But somehow the piece works, and listeners are carried along through an experience that might otherwise be trite, but which, in the hands of a musical genius, moves them, even in a more pragmatic, post-Empire world, without shame.
Directing Elgar comes as naturally as breathing to Davis, and the performance was masterly, containing all of Elgar’s trademark shifts in dynamic and speed: the sudden diminuendo for “pale moon”; the grandiosity of the ‘Egyptian’ march for “Built Nineveh…”; the accelerando for the truly terrible line “With wonderful deathless ditties we build up the world’s great cities”. There could perhaps have been a little more nebulousness in tempo for “unearthly, impossible-seeming” and a tad more breadth for the grand statement of “and the multitudes” for the full-on experience, but these are quibbles.
The BBC Symphony Chorus was precise and co-ordinated, following Davis’ directions to the letter. Dame Sarah Connolly fitted into the mezzo solo part like a hand into a glove, delivering soft keening and powerful declamation by turns. Many years ago, one would have thought that only Dame Janet Baker could add this kind of perfection to Elgar; Connolly disproves this.