BBC Proms 2014: Gurney, Beamish and Walton
Prom 20 marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War
This was an evening of misfortune and serendipity. I’d originally put Prom 20 in my diary for the chance to hear the London premiere of Sally Beamish’s Violin Concerto performed by Anthony Marwood.
The Prom, which marked the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, was a musical exploration of the conflict and Beamish’s concerto, which was written in reaction to the war, was to be the centrepiece. However, illness forced Marwood to drop out and only a couple of days before the Prom the Violin Concerto was replaced by another work by Beamish: The Singing, a concerto for accordion and orchestra. But banish any ideas of French café music played on a ‘squeezebox’ – this was a multi-faceted piece which proved to be both a brilliant showcase for soloist James Crabb and an eloquent tribute to fractured communities.
Beamish, who has lived in Scotland since 1990, was inspired by the story of the Highland clearances, which took place over 100 years from the 1760s. Communities of crofters (small-scale farmers) were forced off land to make way for sheep farming. ‘Many starved, or died from disease on the boats as they emigrated across the Atlantic,’ explains Beamish in her programme note. ‘The Highland communities were decimated and the landscape was altered forever.’
The work opened not with music but with the whoosh of the accordion being pushed and pulled in an eerie echo of the sound of breathing or an evocation of the wind blowing across the Highlands.
Next came an imitation of birdsong that led into a lively opening movement. The mimicry didn’t end there, though: the second movement opened with the sound of bagpipes – close your eyes and you would have sworn there was a piper in the Hall. But no, this was just another voice conjured from Crabb’s accordion. The spiky defiance of the second movement led to a more openly emotive finale crowned by some brilliant accordion playing, supported by Martyn Brabbins (pictured above) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
It was no surprise that the audience wanted an encore and Crabb treated us to a breath-taking performance of Rameau’s Conversation of the Muses. Framing this work was Ivor Gurney’s War Elegy, a ten-minute orchestral work threaded through with martial rhythms. The BBC Symphony Orchestra relished Gurney’s lush string writing and Vaughan Williams-esque ear for soaring melody.
But it was only in the second half of the programme – Walton’s masterful First Symphony – that Brabbins (and the orchestra) really sounded at home. Walton’s rich, filmic and intellectually challenging score was written between the wars and from the first note it was clear that Brabbins would be an impassioned advocate for the symphony. The performance captured the maelstrom of emotions in the piece and swept the Proms audience along with every change of mood and new idea.