On the back of Glyndebourne’s annual visit, which on Sunday saw it bring Dame Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers to the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Proms has taken the opportunity to programme a few of Smyth’s other works this summer. In August audiences can hear her Mass in D major resound in the Royal Albert Hall, while tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Kazuki Yamada focused on Smyth’s double concerto for the unusual combination of violin and horn. 

Elena Urioste, Ben Goldscheider and the CBSO
© BBC | Mark Allan

Programming to cheer? Well, yes and no. The Beeb will be patting itself on the back to be seen to include music by female composers, and it’s always interesting to hear works that are not part of the core classical canon. But delve into the online Proms performance archive and you’ll discover that Smyth’s music was a regular feature of the festival during Sir Henry Wood’s long tenure as chief conductor. Her overture to The Boatswain’s Mate was played 16 times between 1915 and 1942 (twice in the 1926 season), while Wood conducted the Concerto for Violin and Horn four times between 1927 and 1939, with Aubrey Brain as the horn soloist each time. Tastes change and interest in composers’ music can wane after their death. Smyth died in 1944, just a few months before Wood, and her concerto has only appeared once since then – Tasmin Little and Richard Watkins in 2008 – so there’s a lot of catching up to do to recapture pre-war levels of programming. 

Kazuki Yamada conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

It deserves to be more than a curiosity, at least judging by this fine performance by Elena Urioste and Ben Goldscheider. The two play together in the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective and there was a harmonious sense of dialogue to much of their account. The first movement glowed, hardly a raised voice in amiable conversation, Goldscheider ensuring that his golden sound never overwhelmed Urioste’s slender but beautiful violin timbre. The central Elegy was truly ravishing, pastoral in nature and caressed by both soloists. Smyth’s rebellious nature – she was a prominent suffragette who was imprisoned for throwing a rock through a window of the House of Commons – emerges in the rambunctious finale where Goldscheider negotiated the multiphonics of the cadenza, where he has to sing and play at the same time, with aplomb. 

This concert saw the Proms debut of Kazuki Yamada, the CBSO’s Chief Conductor Designate. He exuded boyish enthusiasm in a buoyant account of Glinka’s exuberant curtain-raiser to Ruslan and Lyudmila, but it was in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony after the interval that he really set out his stall. This was no lugubrious wallow, but a purposeful reading, warm in all the right places but without schmaltz and almost without portamenti. Yamada practically danced on the podium, light on his feet, bouncing away in the second movement’s Allegro molto

Kazuki Yamada and the CBSO
© BBC | Mark Allan

The woodwind principals were distinguished throughout, but special mention to Oliver Janes whose clarinet solo in the Adagio began at a daringly soft dynamic yet bloomed into a thing of great beauty. At one point in the ensuing string passage, Yamada stopped conducting for a good minute, merely beaming his approval and soaking up their silky sound. The finale was lively rather than white hot, with occasional sagging in momentum, but this was an impressive performance. It’s clear the CBSO players adore him and they signed off with an affectionate Chanson de nuit encore. This is going to be an interesting relationship to follow.

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