This was an emotional moment for the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle, as well as the audience connected to them via technology, to open their first appearance at the BBC Proms or indeed anywhere with its Music Director since March, with the otherworldly brass incantations of Giovanni Gabriel’s Sacrae symphoniae ringing around the abandoned Royal Albert Hall. Using the vast space like a cathedral, celebratory sounds here sounded ghostly and detached from all fleshly things. The segue to the Elgar Introduction and Allegro jarred somewhat, but somehow worked in the context of this dislocated event. Rattle found the ideal balance of swagger and musing here, with the LSO strings lustrous as ever.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida and the LSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Dame Mitsuko Uchida and the LSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The addition of Dame Mitsuko Uchida to the stage certainly created a new sense of musical intensity. Her performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s "Moonlight" Sonata (quasi una fantasia) found a note of sadness and a seamless line which raised it way above the simple piece aspiring pianists can massacre, its function being as a prelude to the mini concerto by György Kurtág .... quasi una fantasia.... Written in 1989, the composer asked for the players to be separated from each other, “so they could moan about the piece” at its first performance, hence its inclusion here. It starts and finishes in simplicity with Uchida etching out delicate lines. In between, a procession of eccentricity is by turns touching and disturbing. There was not much for Uchida to get her teeth into, but her mere presence added something musically electric to proceedings.

Another Gabrieli Sacrae symphoniae introduced the first performance of Dawn by Thomas Adès. A short, but very moving and hypnotic chaconne based on a four-note motif, it rises to an ecstatic climax. It made a strong impression by itself, while also acting as a fitting prelude to the Fifth Symphony by Vaughan Williams that was the glory of the concert. 

RVW's symphonies speak way beyond their notes and personal significance. His “London” Symphony from 1914 seems to herald the loss of the burnished confidence of the Edwardian world, foretelling the horrors to come, while his 1922 Pastoral mourns the loss of that world and the millions who had died. The Fourth Symphony from 1935 echoes a world turning sour and the brutishness that was taking root. The Sixth (1948) finds little consolation from victory and only sees the pain and suffering that had been and the devastating destruction that remained.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Symphony no. 5 in D major from 1943, written mostly during the worst years of the Second World War, is a work of such direct powerful sadness and calm resignation that the audiences that heard it at the first performance were reported to have been overwhelmed. Vaughan Williams became a much-loved national figure, with the realisation that such music could only have been written by someone with greatness in his heart. 

A visibly moved Rattle and the LSO gave the work their all. The result was the performance one has been waiting for since André Previn recorded the work so brilliantly with the same forces in the 1970s. The pacing was spot on in every movement with the satisfying structures fully realised. The sheer beauty of the string sound created a luxurious bedrock for the most exquisite woodwind playing. The brass added a rounded weight to the ecstatic climaxes and an edge to the few moments of anxiety that occur in each of the movements. The sublime epilogue moving finally to an unhindered D major was played with such precise simplicity and lack of sentimentality, that it left me a blubbering wreck.

A wonderful, if disconcerting way then to resume some sort of effective and entertaining live orchestral music from the Proms, but hugely sad as well that so much of the industry and so many individual musicians are suffering hardships with little support and an uncertain future. Whatever fleeting consolation the RVW gave, there still needs to be more in the way of positive action if the cultural life of the nation is going to recover and audiences can return to the Royal Albert Hall.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

*****