Pigeonhole John Wilson at your peril. Yes, he may be recognised as a self-styled light-music specialist, but that is only half the story. Bringing Broadway to town is one thing, but performing orchestral and symphonic repertoire is quite another. Fortunately, Wilson does both. And what’s more, he brings the same musicologist’s scrutiny to Copland or Turnage as he does to Rodgers and Hammerstein. With the combined effect of the programme and Wilson’s concert hall draw, it came as no surprise that this Prom was one of the first to sell out, even before the Vienna Philharmonic, and while his own orchestra will perform Oklahoma! later in the season (so devotees can rest easy), this concert marked Wilson’s first Proms appearance as new Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, performing English music with which he has a particular affinity.

John Wilson © BBC | Mark Allan
John Wilson
© BBC | Mark Allan

First performed in 1958, a few months before his death, Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 9 in E minor was his last symphony, another in a long line of final symphonies infected by the famous “Ninth Symphony curse” which also plagued Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák, Mahler and Bruckner. Although not performed as much as his other symphonies, some consider this to be his finest. Wilson gave the symphony a respectful airing, cultivating a fine web around its mature workings of theme and melody, its subtly complex metres and its mixing of tonal and modal structures. The BBCSSO was sparkling and refined as Wilson forged through the turbulence of the first movement with purpose, although slightly rushed and muddied in places.

There were some fine moments, particularly leader Laura Samuel’s glistening solo, the nostalgic flugelhorn and the haunting fate-like motto from the saxophone trio, which permeated the whole work. The two central movements were shaped with care, Wilson creating waves of activity that ebbed and flowed from the colourful palettes and macabre “ghostly drummer” of the slow movement to the grotesque, Dukas-like Scherzo, which had a satirical edge but lacked acidic sharpness. The finest playing came in the fourth movement: everything was in perfect balance and the orchestra absolutely nailed it. This was a performance full of searching and nuance, with Wilson masterfully coaxing fine solos and ensemble-work out of the players and building up to a gloriously life-affirming climax, with the echo of the saxophone motto creeping in hauntingly at the end.

John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Mark Allan
John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

Written during the First World War, Holst’s suite The Planets, originally entitled “Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra”, is one of the most vivid and well-known pieces in the repertoire, but is still incredibly striking when performed live. Wilson was in his element, getting the blood pumping immediately with plenty of anger and pent-up aggression in Mars, followed by a quite beautiful and serene Venus, with a fine horn solo and a wonderful sense of floating in the air. Mercury was suitably flighty with muffled murmurings throughout the orchestra, but felt a little too deliberate, and Jupiter was vibrant and stirring with nicely controlled accelerandos, albeit with a couple of timing glitches. Uranus was well-played and precise, but felt slightly heavy and laboured, and a curiously loud organ flourish took the audience quite by surprise, creating some quiet chuckling.

Saturn and Neptune, however, were the stars of the show. Intense strings, translucent winds and a particularly fine blend in the brass characterised these movements, with Wilson crafting gradual swathes of sound and texture that breathed in and out organically. Saturn’s sinister procession was full of tension, and its tranquil ending was exquisite, matched by Neptune’s ethereal air of mystery, enhanced by the impressive purity of sound from the female voices of the CBSO Youth Chorus echoing forlornly into nothingness.

***11