sun 23/01/2022

Prom 72: Berthaud, BBCSO, Litton | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 72: Berthaud, BBCSO, Litton

Prom 72: Berthaud, BBCSO, Litton

A concert of English music that moved beyond pastoral stereotypes

Lise Berthaud, Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in last night's PromAll images Chris Christodoulou/BBC

A Prom billed as “English Music” sounds like a restful sort of affair – probably pastoral, definitely tuneful and potentially restorative after a day in the office. In practice however this concert from Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was – thankfully – altogether more bracing, pairing Vaughan Williams at his most combative with vintage Birtwistle.

Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves felt like the sugar to help the musical medicine go down – a pacifying opener to reassure anyone nervous about the half hour of Birtwistle to come. Litton underplayed it exquisitely, coaxing a first orchestral entry so dispassionately quiet as to wrongfoot anyone expecting Albert Hall-scale lushness. It set the tone for the whole performance, letting the BBCSO’s co-principal flute Daniel Pailthorpe do what little emoting there was to be done, and allowing these two glorious folk melodies and Vaughan Williams’ own deft orchestration to do the talking.

Harrison Birtwistle at last night's PromApparently Harrison Birtwistle, attending rehearsals yesterday and pictured left last night, didn’t revisit his 1998 Exody with pleasure, stating that he didn’t think it worked as a piece. I’d beg to differ. This orchestral tone poem unbends further than much of the composer’s music, suppressing his urge to melody less violently. Heard immediately after the Vaughan Williams, it was striking that it felt more continuity than contrast – and not entirely thanks to an attractive modal solo from the flute.

Colouristic and densely textural, this musical journey (“journey” is, apparently, one meaning of the title) unfolds in swathes of sound that delight in the extreme of the orchestra – from painfully high, denatured string harmonics, to low percussion and muted tubas. Without a score in front of you it’s a structural labyrinth, but surrender and the progress is filled with interest and sensation, not least from the orchestration. In this space the work’s large-scale gestures had the scope to breathe, and it held the Proms audience with greater attention than I’ve yet heard a contemporary work get this season.

Walton’s Viola Concerto saw the Proms debut of BBC New Generation artist Lise Berthaud (pictured below). Having heard her recent Harold en Italie for Naxos I was keen to see her perform live for the first time. Unfortunately, charming and engaging musician though she is, it wasn’t a performance that ever fully settled. Intonation was wayward throughout, and details were scrappy, particularly in the first movement.

Harrison Birtwistle at the PromsBalancing the concerto’s introverted tendencies with its underlying intensity and urgency is a battle for all soloists, but here Berthaud played it a little cool, waiting until the closing Allegro moderato to really give her all. Perhaps it was the hall’s bizarre acoustic, but this just didn’t feel like a concerto that was being performed with conviction. Using the music didn’t help; neither did breaks in the tension between all movements. I look forward to meeting the same violist I’ve enjoyed so much on disc in the concert hall on another occasion.

Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony gave the BBCSO another chance to show off their pianissimos – charged and implausibly electric for this stage of the Proms season. It really is a pleasure to hear them play for Litton, a conductor who seems to get the very best from them. Here that generated an unsettling and restless performance (though not an especially fast one), delighting in the music’s rhythmic and harmonic instabilities. Wind solos were once again a highlight, but laurels go to the brass, setting up the martial menace of the Finale with perfectly pitched ferocity.

Before the relentlessly primary coloured nationalism of the Last Night it was good to be reminded that there’s so much more to English music than "Rule, Britannia".


Further to your opening comment, I remember when the RPO advertised a Cadogan Hall programme of English music as 'green and pleasant land'. What a shock the Ukippers and Little Brits must have got when VW's Fourth Symphony arrived with a scream.

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