One glance at the programme for this concert told you that that it was never going to be a straight-forward affair, but the BBC Proms is often at its best when it seeks to do something rather different from the norm. Carl Nielsen and Charles Ives make unusual bed-fellows, though not disagreeable ones. Add to the mix a selection of four American hymns and then preface the whole lot with Gordon Jacob’s brass-laden and ceremonial arrangement of The National Anthem, to mark the day on which Her Majesty became the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch, and there’s no doubt that many might wonder if this strange assemblage could be more memorable than the sum of its parts.
The National Anthem was predictably and suitably given with gusto by the assembled soprano, tenor and bass soloists, choirs and chorus, orchestra, all backed by the mighty Royal Albert Hall organ. Then, almost without a break, it was straight into almost an hour of Nielsen’s music, with two highly contrasting works.
The cantata Springtime on Funen (1921) finds Nielsen at his most delicate, atmospheric and resolutely tonal, rejoicing in the place and people of the Danish island of Funen. Although calling for large and varied forces, a lightness of touch in execution was evident throughout. The three soloists, soprano Malin Christensson, tenor Ben Johnson and bass-baritone Neal Davies all made telling contributions, though Johnson stood out not only for his pliancy of tone but his imaginative use of the text. The boys’ and girls’ choirs of Tiffin School brought childish innocence and a sense of fun to a work that drew its inspiration from the composer’s own happy childhood. The adult voices of the BBC Singers rounded out the tapestry to pleasing and uplifting effect, finding some humorous character in the rustic celebrations.
Nielsen’s violin concerto, written a decade before the cantata, is a work that throws aside the conventional concerto structure. Instead, it is individually formed of two distinct parts, each effectively containing a slow movement and then a faster one. Nielsen’s own experience as an orchestral violinist weighs heavily on the piece and he makes considerable demands of the soloist, who is pitched in from the start with the first of three intricately woven cadenzas. In this hugely enjoyable and approachable performance Henning Kraggerud proved a forthright soloist whose confident playing integrated ornamentation and burnished tone into a pleasing whole. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton’s clear direction kept up the forward momentum during the first part, judging issues of instrumental balance keenly as the work proceeded. The second cadenza proved a fervent moment in which some lapses of tuning were heard, but they hardly distracted from the emotion of the moment.
As an encore Henning Kraggerud offered up one of his own compositions, a rather mournful and meandering postlude in B flat minor that relied heavily on double-stopping until its final few passages, when a flash of pure tone secured a memorable conclusion.
After the interval four American hymns were given as a ‘way in’ to Charles Ives’ daringly original fourth symphony. Heard in their pure form with Richard Pearce accompanying on the Royal Albert Hall organ, the Crouch End Festival Chorus sought to inflect the settings of In the sweet by and by (set by Joseph Webster), Ye Christian heralds, go proclaim (Charles Zeuner), Jesus, lover of my soul (Simeon Marsh) and Nearer, my God, to Thee (Lowell Mason) with both appropriate accent and a near reverential feeling.
Charles Ives was nothing if not his own man musically speaking, and no single work states the point more clearly than his fourth symphony. Beyond the four movement structure, virtually nothing can ready the unprepared listener for what unfolds before them. The opening Prelude is questioning in nature, drawing dissonant lines from across the large orchestral ensemble and chamber sized sub-ensemble positioned stage left, and here led with confidence by assistant conductor Fergus Macleod. The second movement allegretto bears the title ‘Comedy’, and can even lead experienced listeners to a sense of bewilderment as it increasingly revels in its deliciously disjointed construction, layering and overlaying instrumental and vocal material to capture several experiences simultaneously. A prominent piano role was given sterling advocacy by William Wolfram, buried deep amongst the violas and second violins. In conclusion though the mayhem of Ives’ imagination was stilled, before the ensuing rather formal fugue made its impact felt as much through the contrast with the preceding movement as the richness of the string tone.
Ives, as ever, had the last laugh in taking the audience by surprise – the closing passages of diminuendo ending in a peremptory manner with just a bell left ringing in the air. The BBC Symphony Orchestra threw everything they had at this performance and Litton’s belief in the work spoke for itself, yet if the sparsely filled Royal Albert Hall audience responded with rather stunned applause only Charles Ives is to blame. That said, it’s a truly life-affirming work that everyone should hear at least once in their lives.