Featuring works inspired by Shelley, the Kalevala and Nietzsche (with a piano concerto thrown in for good measure), the programme for Prom 64 was certainly wide-ranging. The theme for the concert was the development of the tone poem, with the Bantock, Sibelius and Strauss pinned together by the idea of nature and the supernatural. Vladimir Jurowski led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a mixed set of performances in which the brass came through as the unquestioned stars.

Anika Vavic © Marco Borggreve
Anika Vavic
© Marco Borggreve

Despite the central role he played in early 20th-century British musical life, the music of Granville Bantock is rarely heard in concert. Indeed, Friday was the first Proms performance of his 1902 tone poem The Witch of Atlas. From the delicate opening string tremors, the LPO transported the Royal Albert Hall audience into Bantock’s fantasy world. The piece is inspired by a section of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s epic poem describing the witch’s beauty, complete with mellifluous cor anglais solos and sweeping harp cadenza. The loveliness of the LPO’s playing cannot be questioned: the fault lay with the piece itself. There seemed to be a certain amount of depth missing: although nice, it was little more. The LPO’s performance reflected this: everything felt a touch reserved, as if the players were afraid to shatter the dreamscape. However, the tone poem certainly showed a number of orchestral soloists to their fullest potential, with leader Pieter Schoeman’s silky opening solo especially notable.

Next on the programme was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3. Worlds apart from the Bantock, the concerto saw Anika Vavic take to the Proms stage for the first time. Bustling passagework was dispatched with metronomic accuracy, and slow interludes were treated with cool contemplation. Vavic added a touch of melodrama to the proceedings to amusing effect, coming into her own in the Theme and Variations second movement. Unfortunately, the orchestral contribution was often lacklustre, seeming particularly restrained in the finale. The woodwind blend was less than ideal, and the section was frequently overbearing: at several points Jurowski struggled to keep them with him. There were some fine moments (particularly in the buoyant finale), but the orchestra seemed overly cautious for much of the piece.

Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter saw the LPO find the presence they had lacked in the first half. Jurowski’s interpretation quickly gathered momentum after Kristina Blaumane’s sonorous bardic invocation, lending a sense of urgency to the doomed heroic quest. Repetitive string cells pushed relentlessly onwards, with gracefully phrased woodwind melodies interrupted by firm (yet understated) brass fanfares. This was dramatic and colourful Sibelius, with the LPO garnering interest from the most tedious of ostinati.

It was in Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra that the orchestra truly excelled. The composer’s response to Nietzsche requires an appropriately probing interpretation, and certainly got it from Jurowski. After taking the Prelude at a brisk pace, the conductor maintained a sense of direction and resolve in even the more pensive moments. From the building intensity of the fugue in “Von der Wissenschaft” (“Of Science and Learning”) to the gay abandon in the latter section of “Der Genesende” (“The Convalescent”), Jurowski drew a range of colours and moods from his players. Woodwind arabesques were perky and strings were passionate, but the brass stole the show. Top trumpet notes rang out effortlessly, and the lower brass packed a punch while retaining a round tone. The horns were on fine form throughout the evening, with some elegant solos coming from the principal seat. Dubious woodwind intonation and messy entries at the end of the piece slightly detracted from the performance.

The LPO definitely saved the best for last, with the Strauss the clear highlight of the evening’s music-making. It was just a shame that the first half of the concert fell slightly short of the second.

***11