It’s rather unusual to find one Russian in a programme with three British composers, but Prom 16, with Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, brought together two of this season’s themes. The first in the 2013 Proms’ Tchaikovsky symphony cycle (no. 4) was presented alongside British works including one by the composer Granville Bantock, who is featuring in a total of five Proms. Soloist in the Bantock was cellist Raphael Wallfisch, who is celebrating his 60th birthday this year.

Jac van Steen © Ross Cohen
Jac van Steen
© Ross Cohen

Tonight’s programme started with Elgar’s Falstaff, a piece written as a portrait not just of this character, but also of human life more generally. The Shakespearean character Falstaff was described in Elgar’s time as “a man at once young and old, enterprising and fat, harmless and wicked, cowardly in appearance and brave in reality”. The last pair of attributes describes the piece perfectly. The way Elgar writes a huge, sweeping phrase, yet all of a sudden will go to pianissimo, with no prior warning, made me feel as though he was shying away from the peak of the phrase before it had chance to excel. The orchestra handled this very well, the strings in particular, they instantly transformed a powerful angular sound into an almost inaudible warmth in a split second.

The 92-strong orchestra was magnificent when performing at their most powerful, though there were few such moments. Van Steen kept their maximum fortissimo back for the moments where he really wanted them to let loose, and this approach worked superbly. I could feel the audience crave for a climax, and with the help of Elgar’s suspense-filled music and Tchaikovsky’s later in the programme, it made the few peaks all the more glorious.

Raphael Wallfisch then took to the stage for the first of this year’s Bantock pieces. On Wallfisch’s 253-year-old cello, with an estimated worth of $362,000, the Sapphic Poem (1906, orchestrated 1909) was beautifully intimate. The orchestra lost a few desks of strings for this piece, and also left only one trumpet, one oboe with the rest of the woodwind, and one percussionist on timpani and triangle.

Wallfisch’s sound felt like a warm summer’s breeze wrapping itself around the hall, and his interaction with the leader Lesley Hatfield was almost romantic. I could see both of them had such passion for the music they were making. His use of vibrato seemed very carefully thought out, and what was even more impressive was when he just let a note lie with no vibrato, accompanied by enchanting harmonic progressions – moments like this made me melt inside.

As an encore, Wallfisch and the orchestra performed Hamabdil, another piece by Bantock, written for cello, strings and harp. If you had thought Wallfisch’s sound couldn’t get any warmer than in Sapphic Poem, you were mistaken. He melted the hearts of everyone in the audience during that performance, as did harpist Valerie Aldrich-Smith.

After the interval, BBC NOW performed two movements from William Walton’s film score to Henry V, telling the story of the English army crossing the Channel to confront an enemy and ending with the unfortunate death of Falstaff. The meltingly beautiful harmonies expose Walton’s lyrical writing at its best. It takes an incredible amount of control and a very good orchestra to perform works as delicate as this, and they definitely did it justice.

The Tchaikovsky symphony saw the return of the eight-strong double bass section, so I was expecting big things. Lesley Hatfield’s leading was spectacular, for such a complex piece that has so much going on, she pushed the orchestra hard, which was particularly noticeable in the second movement.

The opening theme of the first movement, with the horns imitated by the trumpets shortly after, sounded piercingly warm, if that’s possible. Sat on opposite sides of the stage, the horns and trumpets whistled around the corners of the hall like gale-force winds on the top of a mountain, and the strings imitated splendidly in their entry as well. The second movement was delicate, with a feeling of reminiscence. Tchaikovsky himself described this movement as “blissful moments when our young blood seethed and life was good”. The Scherzo’s three separate themes blended together very well. The string and woodwind themes matched perfectly in the staccato tonguing of the woodwind and the pizzicato of the strings. Tchaikovsky moves into the finale very abruptly, just as the third movement is simmering down, and the bold, quick entrance of this movement seemed to come as a shock to a lot of the audience. The symphony was brought to a majestic end.

Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales created an admirable partnership throughout this evening’s performance. High commendations in particular go to principal bassoonist, Jarosław Augustyniak, who was splendid in the various solos he had throughout the programme; he is an inspiring talent, both in his spectacularly warm sound and his polished technical ability.