This was a concert of two moods. The first half saw two distinctly gloomy works by Tchaikovsky and Anthony Payne, while the second half had an air of optimism and hope that lifted the spirits. Opening the proceedings, Tchaikovsky's symphonic fantasy The Tempest is a rather jumbled assortment of not very inspired thematic material loosely relating to the Shakespeare play. One of the composer's least played large-scale works, its moribund opening leads eventually to a tame depiction of the storm by way of some not very convincing love music. Sir Andrew Davis and the BBCSO did the best they could, but in the end it was all too easy to see why the piece is rarely performed.

Ray Chen © Julian Hargreaves
Ray Chen
© Julian Hargreaves

Next up was the first performance of Anthony Payne’s Of Land, Sea and Sky, a BBC commission to celebrate his 80th birthday, which turned out to be a sort of symphonic poem for chorus and orchestra. Using his own text, based on a number of disparate ideas, including a film about Camargue horses, Walt Whitman, Joseph Conrad and a painting of the Somme Valley by Arthur Stretton, this was the first work the composer had written for this combination of forces.

And the cracks did show. The structure of the piece was baffling, seemingly being pulled, like the Tchaikovsky, from one idea to another without a logical over all vision or a final destination. The orchestral writing was more successful than that for the chorus, with some atmospheric interludes between the sections that were impressive. The main problem rested with the choral setting, which sounded at times too much like those British composers Payne is so drawn to, namely Elgar and Vaughan Williams, but without the polish and inspiration of either. The text didn’t help, with some of the words seeming to hark back to Whitman, but as with the choral writing, not able to compete in that league.  An ambitious piece then, which disappointed on a number of levels, leaving one wanting to explore more of the composer's large scale orchestral works again and find the truly impressive voice of this distinguished composer.

Max Bruch’s evergreen Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor is just the piece to inject energy and warmth into a concert programme, and with a performance like this one by Ray Chen it did so in spades. Starting as he meant to go on with grand dramatic gestures in the opening “Prelude”, Chen filled the hall with his big sound and extrovert stage presence, demonstrating throughout total command of his technique and a wide range of expression. In the delicious slow movement Chen was beautifully poised with exquisitely phrased moments, bringing out a passionate response from the BBCSO. The finale was everything you could want it to be, a lively showpiece with a well-rounded symphonic sweep, culminating in the thrilling presto coda. Responding to the warm reception Chen treated the audience to a wonderful showpiece encore – Paganini’s Caprice no. 21 – which he somehow lifted above the purely virtuoso.

A hard act to follow indeed − nevertheless the concert ended splendidly with Vaughan Williams' tricky to programme but potent early work Toward the Unknown Region. This was the first work by the composer to show the true visionary scope of his creativity. Liberated by the loose-limbed poetry of Walt Whitman from a Germanic formality that haunted Elgar, the piece has a unique presence from the outset. From a mysterious opening it builds up gradually to a harmonically daring climax which seems to open the door to that unknown region, both metaphorically and creatively for Vaughan Williams. In this performance the BBC Chorus were clearly enjoying themselves more than they had done earlier in the evening. The effective choral writing, so admired by Payne, was vibrantly presented here with excellent diction, and was matched by Sir Andrew's perfect pacing and the BBCSO's spirited playing.

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