This concert seemed to be an object lesson as to why Vaughan Williams is a great composer. It contained three contrasting pieces, each one demonstrating the composer’s ability to create atmosphere and capture the attention of audiences by the scruff of neck. Alongside this came a major work by a younger English contemporary, William Alwyn, which despite all its skill and emotional punch, only emphasised the older composers effortless ability to communicate.

Sakari Oramo © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Sakari Oramo
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The programme kicked off – or rather buzzed off – with Vaughan Williams' perfectly formed overture to The Wasps. Surely there is no better concert opener in the English repertoire, on a par with Smetana’s to The Bartered Bride and Bernstein’s Candide in their ability to raise expectations for what’s to come, not to forget it possessing one of those great tunes that once heard is never forgotten. Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO gave a satisfyingly pert account of the work.

Next came Alwyn's First Symphony from 1948–49. Criminally neglected in the concert hall, as are all of his concert works, this is a confident work, rich in melody, colourfully orchestrated and organically conceived. Its only sin is the occasional looseness in structural control, particularly in the Scherzo, not that this slight weakness does much to impede the enjoyment of the work on repeated hearings. The yearning first movement was passionately played by the BBCSO and it soon became evident that Oramo was already comfortable with this new idiom. The second movement Scherzo is a little discursive and I felt could have been driven harder to get the best out of it. The orchestra seemed a little unsure of its direction, but definitely came back on track for the glorious slow movement that followed. The luxurious main theme of this movement was built up into a splendid climax and a beautifully played horn solo rounded things off quite magically. In the finale, everything leads to the brilliant conclusion, but it’s not plain sailing, with some troubled moments counterbalancing the blazing brass in the coda.

This is certainly a work which should be in the repertoire of orchestras in this country, as should the composer’s other four symphonies, particularly the Fourth. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be programmed instead of Walton’s First Symphony, once in a while. In many ways it is a more complete work, though maybe not as striking in its material.

Janine Jansen © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Janine Jansen
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

After this blaze of brassy colour, it seemed unwise to programme The Lark Ascending before the interval, but the hypnotic power of the piece and the performance blotted out all that had gone before it. Janine Jansen seemed to the manner born as the soloist, trilling sweetly for all she was worth in the surprising hard to bring off solo part. The wonderfully hushed strings of the BBCSO cushioned her flight and through the more animated passages the pacing and tasteful dynamics set by Oramo were spot on. The audience was spell-bound.

After the interval came the towering work of the evening – Job, A Masque for Dancing. For fear of overdoing the superlatives, this piece is surely the composer’s greatest orchestral work, combining as it does so many of his styles and strengths and it must also be the most important ballet score written on these islands, ranking alongside the best to come out of Europe. Oramo’s account certainly aimed high, not worrying about bringing out its theatrical pacing, but concentrated on the mystical power of the overall conception and giving every tableau time to breathe. He wasn’t frightened to linger over the over the most ravishing moments and bring about rapt Lark Ascending-like moments, he was equally successful bringing out the biting rhythms of Satan’s music and to emphasise some of the daring bitonal and even tritonal harmonic languages the composer uses. The wonderfully arching form of the piece was brought out splendidly with the final banishment of Satan and vision of God on his throne truly climactic. The BBCSO responded to Oramo’s vision of the work with sensitivity and vigour and the pause between the final melting string chord and the applause was one of the longest I can remember. 

*****