On paper, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche seems a non sequitur to choral and orchestral works by Elgar and Grainger. In Proms 24, Elgar’s part-song There is sweet music and Violin Concerto in B minor were at home next to Grainger’s setting of Londonderry Air and likeable In a Nutshell suite. But Strauss’ fifth symphonic poem dwarfed the rest in its capacity to excite, a much-needed dose of exhilaration.

Sir Andrew Davis © Dario Acosta
Sir Andrew Davis
© Dario Acosta

Elgar’s forward-thinking use of polytonality and gift for melody made There is sweet music an interesting prospect. The BBC Singers evoked the uncanny in the opening lines from Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lotus Eaters’; typically preoccupied with life and death, and drowsy with the weight of an otherworldly consciousness. But still, the concert’s first half was a slow burner. After this opening, something with more fire in its belly would have been welcome.

The Violin Concerto in B minor doesn't quite deliver that fire; there’s no getting away from the fact that is long and languorous, its three movements each comprising a substantial sonata structure. Sir Andrew Davis made every effort to encourage liveliness in his band, but they frequently overpowered the violin soloist. Moody playing from Tasmin Little did not equate to brilliant stage presence, and the orchestra’s sympathy to the various emotional stages of the work were not enough to give it any sort of special edge. However, the final movement was impressive. With the energy that Little injected, both cadenza and coda were all-encompassing, and the double stopped passages spectacular.

If the opening Elgar part-song had displayed the subtle brilliance of the BBC Singers, Grainger’s ‘Irish Tune from County Derry’ (the tune we know as Londonderry Air) showed their sound at its most full-bodied. The choir indulged in Grainger’s ability to lead our ears several times around a popular tune in several different ways, colouring it differently each time. Their timing was impeccable – although some individuals stood out at moments of over-exuberance, one tenor in particular.

We commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Grainger’s death this year, so it was apt that one of his works of greatest original orchestral writing should feature in this Prom (which was followed by the late-night Prom 25 dedicated to the legacy of Grainger’s folk music). The four movements of In a Nutshell are richly diverse, distinctive and inventive in their orchestration. An array of percussion including glockenspiel, celesta and harp, decorated the score, especially in the swaggering Pastoral. It was anything but what we might expect from a pastoral, possessed of an ebullience and folky character that pre-empts the confident tribute to the composer’s roots in the final Gum-Suckers’ March. More engaging than the preceding choral works, Davis and the BBC SO seemed to enjoy this bold suite as much as the audience did.

Spirits had been lifted since the slow Violin Concerto, but the best was to come in Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. The BBC SO brought out the mischievous character of symphonic poem, capturing the spirit of an old jester’s journey through public pranks and love, before a clash with authority and the subsequent dying away. The piece pivots on the second subject, a cheeky melody in the French Horn that returns to reassert Eulenspiegel’s character before his final demise. The bombast and natural spikiness of the work resulted in the first really satisfying fortissimo peaks of the evening, bringing it to a satisfying close. As the strings gave their final flourish, we could have been in a different concert altogether from the opening half hour.