An orgy of British music greeted an appreciative audience at the Barbican last night courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by British music enthusiast John Wilson. But it certainly wasn't all Land of Hope and Glory, or indeed The Lark Ascending, with three contrasting pieces – all now sadly neglected in the concert hall.
Walton's Scapino overture really set things in motion with a bang. Surely, this is the ideal opener for any self-respecting orchestral concert: bright, concise, full of good ideas, fun with an edge – all adding up to a wonderful warm up for the orchestra and the audience. So why is it so rarely programmed?
And so to York Bowen – a composer almost forgotten now outside the recording studio. All credit to the BBC for resurrecting his Viola Concerto, written for Lionel Tertis in 1908. Let's start by saying that the performer Lawrence Power, whose wonderful Tertis-like richness of tone suited the piece to a T, did his considerable best to make us believe that this was a forgotten masterpiece. Sadly, despite having listened to it a few times again online, I am not convinced.
The first movement starts energetically enough, but the main theme is hard to grasp and seems to fracture off into irrelevant subsidiary themes (one of which sounded like the theme tune for the 1960s Star Trek), and the lyrical secondary material doesn't offer enough contrast. The movement then rambles into a long development section leading to an ending that does fizz for a moment. The slow moment has a decent initial tune that eventually finds some real atmosphere, when it returns unfettered in the final pages. The finale has some spirited writing for the soloist, and quirky orchestration, but like the first movement, it seems to outstay its welcome. The abiding memory was of Lawrence Power's larger-than-life presence and his thoroughly idiomatic playing. So perhaps Bowen achieved his goal of writing a showpiece for Tertis, even if he failed to find much to say in the process.
It's odd to think, though, that when the concerto was premièred in 1908, York Bowen was better known and more appreciated than Ralph Vaughan Williams. Little could he have known that by 1910, RVW had become the most important British composer in the generation after Elgar, thanks to the huge impact of his Sea Symphony and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, both heard for the first time in that year. In fact, Vaughan Williams was to maintain this towering position for the next 40 years, and when his Five Tudor Portraits were first performed in 1935 he was pretty much at the apex of his dominance. However, RVW put the cat amongst the pigeons, as he had so often done, with these ribald settings of the early 16th-century poet John Skelton, which were a million miles away from the high-minded mysticism of his William Blake-inspired ballet Job or from the rage of his Fourth Symphony, which had been premièred in the years before. But make no mistake: in its way, Five Tudor Portraits is as great a work as either of those acknowledged masterpieces.
Technically, it is as accomplished as anything Vaughan Williams wrote – amply demonstrated in the brilliantly scored first portrait, "The Tunning of Elinor Rumming". This affectionate portrayal of an overripe, permanently pickled matron was superbly brought to life by mezzo-soprano Rosie Aldridge in her genuinely comic interlude, capturing the mock-serious, tipsy mood perfectly. After the short, touching "Pretty Bess", sung sensitively by Neal Davies, we find ourselves in the land of Carmina Burano, with a patter-song in Latin, "Epitaph in John Jaybeard of Diss". Not that RVW was copying Hitler's favourite composer, as his own work pre-dates Carmina Burana by a year. Next, we meet "Jane Scroop, Her Lament for Philip Sparrow", which is nearly as long as all the other movements put together. An infinitely touching scena, the initially humorous tone of high tragedy for a mere dead pet Sparrow, later becomes more serious and one is left with a sense that every loss, however small, should be given its due. Again, Rosie Aldridge found just the right tone and showed us a beautiful rich tone in her voice as well. The final scherzo movement, "Jolly Rutterkin", brings out an unusually extrovert tone in the composer and succeeds in rounding off the piece with a wonderful flourish.
And what a gift for choruses Five Tudor Portraits is! The BBC Symphony Chorus certainly relished every note of it and ended up as the stars of the show. Again, I was left thinking, why is this tremendous piece so rarely programmed? How can such an incredibly entertaining and tuneful creation languish in near obscurity in the concert hall? Let's hope it finds the regular place in the repertoire it deserves – helped by this exemplary performance.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS