The River Severn supposedly flowed through the three 20th-century English works in tonight’s Prom, seeing Sir Andrew Davis back with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. So, as the programme informed us, “the Severn washes past the city of Gloucester”, where Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was premiered in 1910. And at Davis’ flowing tempo, the Severn theme was perhaps not entirely far-fetched, with the musical surges taking on a definite watery feel. Vaughan Williams splits the string orchestra forces into different groupings, and here, the small group of nine were placed up the staging, in front of the organ loft. This provided an ideal spacing to create the desired effect of interplay and echo between these players and the main body of musicians. Vaughan Williams adds further contrast with a string quartet, formed from the leaders of the main string sections. Given the distance between the small and large groupings, the RAH acoustic could have presented significant ensemble problems. However, Davis kept the players together well, with the only lapse of ensemble occurring right at the end before the final tutti in an otherwise richly warm and affectionate reading of this well-loved piece.

Sir Andrew Davis © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Andrew Davis
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus could not have provided much more of a contrast, with its 12-tone theme, angular lines, and psychologically charged orchestration. Milton’s Lady, lost in a “wilde wood”, is kidnapped by Comus, and ultimately rescued by Sabrina, a nymph of the “smooth Severn”. There is a huge contrast in Wood’s partial setting between the spoken and unspoken – the soprano and tenor soloists voice the initial phase of the tale, and the call on Sabrina for the final rescue, but Comus’ “fantastick round”, a wild, orgiastic dance, is purely orchestral. Here, the rhythms begin somewhat jauntily and get progressively wilder, and Davis was positively swinging with the offbeats and frequent beat changes.

By contrast, the pace of the vocal passages is steadier, the tension built through slow, high violins, ominous brass fanfares, and jumpy woodwind figuration. In fact, there is so much going on orchestrally early on that the soloists here struggled to be heard in places. Soprano Stacey Tappan delivered her spiky, angular lines with great precision and command, but the brass in particular needed to be more controlled to allow her brightly incisive tone to come through. Tenor Anthony Gregory faired better, his declamatory style cutting through more, although he too suffered at the hands of an over-enthusiastic brass section. However, when the soloists duetted to call on Sabrina, where the orchestration is somewhat lighter, with some striking Britten-esque piano arpeggios in the accompaniment, their entwined lines came through beautifully, and Tappan’s final “I am here” had great dramatic effect. An intriguing work, then, receiving a well-deserved revival some 54 years following its premiere in 1965, and Davis singled out the 87-year-old composer in the audience for well-deserved applause.

Dame Sarah Connolly and the BBC SO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Dame Sarah Connolly and the BBC SO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Elgar’s The Music Makers is hard to place in some ways – is it an autobiographical reflection on Elgar’s own musical life, or an attempt at a grander statement about the artist’s lot? Setting the emotionally charged (if moderately self-indulgent) text of Arthur O'Shaughnessy's ode, Elgar draws on a great deal of self quotation, including The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures, both his symphonies, the Violin Concerto, as well as the Enigma Variations. Davis exploited the rich orchestral textures here, managing the rapid tour through extremes of dynamics with rhythmic energy and drive, yet keeping the recognisable ‘themes’ subtly integrated within Elgar’s writing (otherwise this can become a bit of a ‘spot the tune’ exercise). The same forces recorded the work on Chandos just over a year ago, and it was clear from the outset that the BBC Symphony Chorus had this well under their belts. As in their recording, they delivered the text with excellent precision, and flawless tuning throughout.

There was a palpably collective pleasure in the audience to see Dame Sarah Connolly on the RAH stage so soon after she had to withdraw from an earlier Prom this season. She gave an impassioned and commanding performance here, owning the stage, with no problems rising above the orchestral and choral textures. Her “Yea” was a heartfelt plea, and her final lines, once again drawing musically on Gerontius brought a tear to many an eye. Following a soft chorus reprise of “We are the music makers”, and a beautifully calm conclusion, Davis held the moment hanging in the air, before allowing the Proms audience to show its appreciation, the warmest applause being deservedly reserved for Dame Sarah.

Oh and the Severn connection? Well, Elgar named his house in Hampstead 'Severn House'...

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