Prom 31 seems to have been loosely based around a royal theme, with two of several nods at this year’s Proms to the Coronation anniversary: explicitly, in the case of William Walton’s Orb and Sceptre march, which he wrote for the 1953 ceremony, and obliquely by way of Edmund Rubbra’s Ode to the Queen, which the BBC commissioned for the Coronation celebrations. Another tenuous link to royalty (see below!) was provided in the second half by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp. The concert also saw Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang’s Proms debut, alongside the BBC Philharmonic and conductor John Storgårds, in Max Bruch’s popular First Violin Concerto.

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at Prom 6 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at Prom 6
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, though an instantly recognisable tune, receives less airtime than its predecessor, the Crown Imperial march, written for the Coronation of King George VI. One wonders why – they share a similar structure, serve similar purposes, and have an Elgarian pomp-and-circumstance flavour to them. Perhaps one such march was enough fuel for public consumption. Orb and Sceptre got this Prom off to a disappointingly sluggish start, sapped of vim by John Storgårds’ choice of tempo.

Rubbra’s Ode to the Queen fared better. At the time of being commissioned to write the Ode, he was busy writing his Sixth Symphony, and had to withdraw from working on Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, a project spearheaded by Britten for the 1953 Aldeburgh Festival, in order to complete these works. Structurally, the Ode is a song cycle; whilst it is not the only one in his output, it is the only one set with full orchestral accompaniment. The three songs are, of course, designed to be sung as a set, but unlike many other song cycles the poems set to music were each written by a different poet (Crashaw, D’Avenant and Campion, respectively), and each concerns a different royal. The three vary greatly in style, too – the first, “Sound forth, celestial organs”, is a blaze of fanfare and fantasia; the second, the beautifully tranquil “Fair as unshaded light”, seems far more subdued and introspective; and the “Yet once again, let us our measures move”, returns to the boldly celebratory mood of the first movement. Susan Bickley was an obvious choice as the mezzo-soprano soloist for this piece: that she has recorded the piece meant that she knew it well and was able to give an assured delivery, and, without sounding too forced, she was able to produce a shimmering sound across the rather wide vocal range that the work demands. With one voice against a symphony orchestra, it was good not to lose her voice or superb diction beneath the sea of rich orchestral scoring and playing.

27-year-old Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang here made her Proms concerto debut with Max Bruch’s ever-popular Violin Concerto no. 1. Whilst this concerto has received countless recordings, radio plays and concert performances, Frang managed to put her own spin on it; it certainly seemed as though she knew exactly what she wanted to get out of the piece. From an almost-nervous, yet ultimately passionate vibrato in the opening stretches of the Allegro moderato and her confident handling of the fast-moving arpeggios and extensive passages of double-stopping in the same, to a delicately songlike interpretation of the middle Adagio and a frisky Finale, this was a mature and considered performance – and, importantly, it remained enjoyable. That she was capable of feistier playing was proved when she returned to the stage to play her encore, a dark and eerie Norwegian folk song.

The second half comprised Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp – its first Proms outing – which was written in 1952 and dedicated to the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Having spent eleven years in Hollywood (his film music output is considerable), he changed tack and wrote this symphony, intending it not to stir up memories of the Second World War and bloody battles, as some commentators have said it does, but as absolute music. It is impossible, though, to ignore these evocations or the filmic qualities of the score, with its sweeping crescendi, dramatic energy and moments of exquisite quiet; indeed, he subtly weaves in a theme he had written for the Bette Davis and Errol Flynn romance The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (the tenuous royal link I mentioned earlier). The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra thrived on the symphony’s contours, providing some excellent shaping and the tight ensemble that the piece demands in order to realise fully its character(s).

Overall, this was a successful concert, and one I am glad I saw. A shaky start failed to ruin the evening, and it was a treat to see Vilde Frang and Susan Bickley backed by an on-form BBC Phil.

****1