BBC Proms reviews

Prom 54: BBC Symphony Orchestra/A Davis @ Royal Albert Hall, London

26 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

Exactly 50 years after the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, this well planned Prom consisted of four varied but characteristic works from different periods of the composer’s life, performed by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in order of their composition.

The concert opened with Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which Vaughan Williams composed at the age of 38 in 1910. Davis has long experience of conducting this composer, and while the work’s mystery and fervour could have been more strongly projected, this was a beautifully shaped and highly refined performance.

The ballet Job is one of Vaughan Williams’s greatest works, a striking mix of pastoral tenderness, jaunty marches, stately dance measures and grinding dissonances. Davis led a memorable performance, notable for rhythmic incisiveness and superbly balanced textures, the brass and percussion playing especially fine.

Vaughan Williams wrote Serenade to Music as a present for Sir Henry Wood in celebration of his 50 years as a conductor. The setting of verses from the final scene of The Merchant of Venice involves some of the composer’s most luminous writing. We were fortunate here that it was presented in its original but rarely heard form for 16 soloists, ably performed by a group of younger singers especially assembled for the occasion.

The concert finished with the mysterious and brooding Ninth Symphony, completed in 1958 shortly before Vaughan Williams’s death at the age of 86. Often described as ‘visionary’, this searching work concludes with a sequence of climaxes which explode like distant supernovae before fading into rapt silence. Once again, the performance was distinguished by some extraordinarily fine playing.

There were times when I felt that Davis’s interpretations could have delivered a slightly greater level of tension, both the Ninth Symphony and in the earlier works. In particular, he didn’t quite manage to capture the full power of the extraordinary moment in Job when thundering organ chords and a grinding climax in the orchestra represent the appearance of Satan in heaven. However, the concert was overall a fitting tribute to the memory of one of Britain’s greatest composers.

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