For some reason I wasn’t expecting much from this concert. Perhaps it was something to do with the relatively non-starry line-up: the National Orchestra of Wales (i.e. one of the BBC’s orchestras that isn’t the BBC Symphony orchestra), and a non-European conductor, Tadaaki Otaka. Coming almost immediately after the much hyped about Barenboim Beethoven cycle, it would have been so easy for this concert to have passed me by, completely unnoticed.
But I’m certainly glad it didn’t. What Prom 23 ended up being was one of the most successful celebrations of British music that I’ve heard, that’s including some of the naff patriotism found in last night (and rather disappointingly in the first night of this season too). Otaka, apparently a noted champion of British music, reveals all that is beautiful and unique about British orchestral music of the twentieth century. Forget about Elgar, and all his pomp, but instead turn to Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Delius and Walton.
Otaka certainly uses the space to his advantage, and I could quite easily believe that all of these works were composed with the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic specifically in mind. This is particularly true of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which divides its string orchestra in two: a ‘string quartet’ of ten players, and the larger string ensemble. For this concert, the smaller ensemble was placed high in the gallery, while the main body of the ensemble remained on stage. It results in something rather ethereal and entirely beautiful, with the quartet sounding as though they’re from another world. This is thanks in part to the beautiful string sound crafted by the orchestra. What is rather remarkable the sheer range of colours they achieve within this single timbre. Williams’ quirky Englishness makes a refreshing change after the strictures of Beethoven’s classical symphonies. This is beautiful music than can be felt straight away. It doesn’t need to be understood to be felt.
After this sublime opening led by the strings, it was going to be a hard act to follow. But with the intrusion of the BBC Symphony Chorus in John Ireland’s These Things Shall Be, the momentum was successfully maintained. The high sopranos are exceptionally sweet, but it is the brief moments of unaccompanied choir where they are become their most sublime. It reminded me why live choral music in a space like the Albert Hall is a difficult experience to beat. It has this transcendental perfection which makes one feel like it can’t possibly be real.
It’s definitely safe to say that the concert ended with a bang. There is no denying that Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast is loud. It doesn’t do much in the way of subtlety, so only works when orchestra and choir are willing to go at it full pelt. And boy, do they. Belshazzar completely suits the hall’s massive space. The forte sections with full choir and orchestra sound absolutely magnificent due to the relentless energy which they manage to maintain throughout, right until the all-important final alleluia. The reverberating chords on the organ, as the work draws to a close verge on the ridiculous, but somehow are totally in keeping with the work’s almost farfetched grandiosity. Here is a work that must be played with absolute conviction or it’s certain to disappoint. But I don’t believe the rapturous applause, the only thing that could come close to competing with the huge sound of full orchestra and chorus, expressed anything like disappointment.