Proms diary: Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, Elgar, Bantock and Walton

Jac van Steen conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the BBC Proms


The BBC National Orchestra of Wales's fourth Prom of the season was the definitive curate's egg of a concert. The closing performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 felt audacious and thrilling and was surely the heart of the programme. But there were also some more unusual works on the menu: music from Walton's film score for Henry V and, intriguingly, Granville Bantock's Sapphic Poem for cello and orchestra.

The Prom opened, though, with Elgar's Falstaff, a more-or-less programmatic depiction of the life of Shakespeare's corpulent knight. In one half-hour movement, the work manages to capture the many facets of Falstaff: his merry nature, his penchant for revelling as well as his darker criminal side and his hurt when he's finally rejected by his Prince Hal (now Henry V).

Here, as in the Tchakovsky later, it was the brass section of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales that really shone, capturing the bombast of the military as Falstaff joins the army and creating his snorting snores after the jolly knight's drunk himself to sleep at The Boar's Head.

The work has been performed at the Proms 22 times, which comes as no surprise - the character of Falstaff is irresistible, and Elgar's musical portrait no less so.

Then came Bantock's Sapphic Poem for cello and orchestra. Raphael Wallfisch played the solo part with conviction and was a strong advocate for the work's lyricism and beauty. The work sprung out of a song cycle that Bantock wrote setting poems by the Ancient Greek (female) poet Sappho. Which makes it sound more interesting than it is. Wallfisch played gorgeously, making the most of Bantock's luxuriant Romantic melodies, but the work itself was broadly unmemorable.

Incidentally, Wallfisch performed Bantock's setting of the final prayer of the Sabbath service as an encore - a much more engaging work.

Walton's score for Henry V was a delight - and a particularly apt piece of programming given that the BBC announced its season celebrating film music, Sound of Cinema, the following morning, but once van Steen lifted the baton for the Tchaikovksy, the rest of the evening's programme seemed mere scenery. This symphony was the centrepiece and the orchestra came to life to perform it.

From the opening fanfare - which Tchaikovsky said in a letter was 'Fate, the force of destiny, which ever prevents our pursuit of happiness from reaching its goal' - through the pizzicato theme in the Scherzo to the tumultuous Finale, van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales powerfully communicated the extremes of emotion in Tchaikovsky's work (perhaps stressing the giddy whirl of life over the intransigence of Fate).

And the measure of the performance was that all but the most staunch sticklers couldn't wait to show their appreciation, and burst into applause after the first movement.

The BBC Proms continue until 7 September, with every performance broadcast live on Radio 3 and many broadcast on BBC Four. You can also catch up with concerts you've missed on iPlayer. This Prom can be heard again on the iPlayer website here.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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