| Royal Albert Hall, London
|Royal Albert Hall, London, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP, United Kingdom|
Tuesday 31-Jul-12 07:00pm
Tadaaki Otaka, a notable enthusiast of British music, opens with Vaughan Williams’s muchloved classic before revisiting a BBC commission that has fallen into neglect in the half-century since its composer’s death: Ireland’s These Things Shall Be is a mini-oratorio with a utopian text. The massed choirs and the commanding bass-baritone of former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist Jonathan Lemalu return after the interval to animate Walton’s brazen Old Testament tale, but first we hear from another anniversary composer, here at his most poignant.
Prom 23 served up a menu of English music from the first half of the 20 century in all its variety, with impressionism by Delius, the lush strings of Vaughan Williams, heroic brass from Ireland, and jazzy, sophisticated excitement from Walton.
The programme opened with a warmly affectionate performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The theme in question comes from Tallis’ setting of a metrical version of Psalm 2 (“Why Fum’th In Fight”). Tallis puts his melody in the tenor line, and Vaughan Williams echoes this with the tune coming mostly in the violas and cellos. Conductor Tadaaki Otaka and the strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales eschewed the spookiness of Tallis’ original piece in favour of a more gentle approach, as was clear from the softness of the first pizzicato entry on the lower strings. Vaughan Williams scored the piece for three groups: the main orchestra, a separate string ensemble, and a string quartet, all of which, he specified, should be positioned apart from each other. Although the orchestra and the quartet were together on stage, the small ensemble were up in the heavens of the Royal Albert Hall gallery, creating a magical effect, first as we tried to work out where the sound was coming from, and then as we enjoyed the feeling of being enveloped in the richness of the music, and despite being so distant the ensemble’s timing was immaculate. The solo viola passage had a lovely improvisatory feel to it, and the diminuendo to nothing that ends the piece was perfectly controlled.
A much less well-known work followed. John Ireland composed his cantata These Things Shall Be to a commission from the BBC for a concert to mark the coronation of King George VI in 1937, although the programme notes, and the piece itself, suggest that Ireland was inspired not by the royal occasion but more by the BBC’s motto “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”. The text is a rather heavy-handed poem by John Addington Symonds, but it speaks of a romantic vision of socialist brotherhood – which Ireland alludes to by dropping in a hint of the Internationale after the seventh verse. The combined choir of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales created an impressive sound, particularly in the unaccompanied passages, although at times their extremely disciplined diction sounded a little mechanical. Like some of Ireland’s other works, the piece builds up to a tremendous climax, before a suddenly calm ending, heralded in this case by a beautiful muted trumpet, playing low in its range.
The big sound of the brass in the Ireland would have led in well to the excitement of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast but before that came a calmer interlude with The Walk to the Paradise Garden by Frederick Delius, from his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. After some lovely fluid solos in the Ireland, the woodwind shone again here, particularly the reeds, but all in all, this piece felt like a filler.
If the choir had at times sounded a little unenthusiastic during the Ireland, there was certainly none of that in Belshazzar’s Feast, where they put great effort into bringing out every nuance of the text. The choir are called upon to enact not only the lament of the exiled Jews and their anger when the Babylonians despoil their sacred vessels, but also the triumphalism of the Babylonian court, their horror at their fall, and the final rejoicing of the Jews, and the effectiveness of their sudden changes of emphasis added to the drama of the work. The great lament as the Jews weep by the waters of Babylon was delivered in almost a whisper before suddenly becoming hysterical as they call for Babylon’s destruction.
Tadaaki Otaka kept things at a steady pace, which lent an arrogant swagger to the boasting of the Babylonians, and he let the powerful brass section give the piece their full weight. Once again, the galleries of the Albert Hall were put to good use to house the offstage brass in the central march. The one disappointment was bass-baritone soloist Jonathan Lemalu, who lacked power, particularly in the lower register, and didn’t seem very engaged with what he was singing.
The night ended in triumph, for the Jewish exiles, and for the orchestra and choir, as the piece builds to its magnificent climax: again Otaka took his time, letting us savour the long unresolved cadence passage before unleashing the final cry of victory.
Note: This review was altered on 2 August to correct the description of the placement of the ensembles around the hall in the Vaughan Williams.