To mark Malcolm Arnold's centenary, Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO produced a satisfying programme which included the Proms premiere of his masterly Fifth Symphony. The evening kicked off with a short overture by equally neglected composer John Foulds. Written in the 1921, the Overture to a French Cabaret is four minutes of fun, sometimes reminiscent of Chabrier in his short orchestral works, with a cheeky reference to Wagner’s Siegfried adding to the high jinx.

Timothy Ridout and the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Walton’s Viola Concerto was his first substantial orchestral work and, although it has some gawky moments structurally in the outer movements, its open-hearted emotionalism and inspired thematic material make it one of his greatest achievements. Early Walton was able to express himself with more freedom than later in his career. Works like the Violin Concerto of a dozen years later are more perfectly put together, but are more posturing than heartfelt. Timothy Ridout proved the ideal interpreter. Youthful and technically pitch perfect, he was also able to bring a sensitivity to his interpretation that emphasised a sense of fragility in the work that can sometimes be missed. The finale was particularly effective with its mix of high spirits and introspection, blended into a very satisfying whole. His fiendish Hindemith encore was stunningly played. 

Charlotte Bray’s music has two outstanding qualities, an ability to create potent atmosphere and a stunning control of orchestral colour. The UK premiere of her short piece Where Icebergs Dance Away perfectly demonstrated these strengths. Shimmering effects from the orchestra in a pleasingly modern idiom bookended the work, with more lively music featuring beautiful woodwind scoring at its core; a work that made an impact way beyond its five-minute duration.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO at the Proms
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The neglect of Malcolm Arnold (as a serious composer, at least) is one of the great mysteries of the musical firmament. He has so much to offer a modern concert-going audience: dramatic and exciting orchestral sounds, accessible and inspired tunes, as well as a complex emotional landscape, which is easily grasped. Of all the symphonists that emerged in the wake of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Arnold has the most to offer and should be given more of a chance to shine. 

Many experts believe that the Symphony no. 5 represents Arnold at his most balanced and effective and after hearing this outstanding performance, it would be hard to argue its quality. The first movement is a fascinating collage of thematic material, ranging from a glittering harp and celesta theme to furious brass music which speaks of pain and anguish. These elements were held together in a performance of consummate skill by Oramo. The wonderful slow movement features two of Arnold's greatest sweeping tunes, the first distinctly Mahlerian, the second pure Arnold. Oramo treated it with the respect it deserves and the result was something very moving indeed, with hardly a dry eye in the house. The ingenuity of the Scherzo is miraculous and the tricky rhythms and exchanges across the orchestra were brought off by the BBCSO with apparent ease. The Finale is again an uneasy mix of elements. The jokey, devil-may-care side of the composer, is represented by a military march in cheeky style. This theme is constantly shot down by more disturbing elements and eventually the mélange of ideas coalesces into a grand return to the slow movement's main theme. However, this victory is not to be had and very soon everything turns sours and fades away into a melancholy emptiness. Oramo and BBCSO delivered in every way and the work received the first-class account it so richly deserves.

*****