Monday, 6 September 2010


5/8/10, Royal Albert Hall

2 hrs 20 mins. Ulster Orchestra with Paul Watkins and pianist Stephen Osborne. Orchestra all in black except for Watkins in a lounge suit with white shirt and tie. A good night for the brass, with fanfares and marches galore. But the hall very empty, despite the crowd-pleasing nature of the programme, perhaps because there'd been a free Prom all afternoon recreating (with the addition of a 2010 world premiere BBC commission!) the last night of Henry Wood's 1910 Proms. The arena in particular very sparsely filled. This programme all works which had been premiered (or at least introduced to British audiences) by Henry Wood at the Proms.

There was a fanfare by Arnold Bax (or Sir Arthur Bliss?) written for Henry Wood's 70th birthday in 1944, noisy and brassy, and then A London Pageant by Bliss (or Bax?). It's a piece of light music really, a march, very silly. It comes to a crashing brass climax twice, only for the violins to keep going underneath very quietly; there's a discordant shift to the minor halfway through but it doesn't last, it's purely for effect. At the end there's an enormous climax with all the brass, the kitchen sink and the Albert Hall organ (the organist was wearing ear defenders)! It made me laugh. The string sound very English (ie sub-Elgar).

Then we had Dorothy Howell's Lamia, premiered in 1919 when she was 21. I'd never heard of her. She lived until 1982, dying at the age of 84 after a blameless life teaching at the Royal Academy of Music. So why, on the evidence of this, did she not compose more? It starts very softly and discordantly with just two flutes. It ends very softly on a dying fall played by the strings, just after a rather haunting solo by the leader. In between some lovely string music and colourful orchestration, plus the odd melody. Passed 12 minutes very agreeably.

Then Osborne played Rachmaninov's first piano concerto. I don't know this, but I suspect it was a rather spiky interpretation of the slow movement, which I'm sure is supposed to be lusher and more tuneful than the version Osborne gave us. The slow movement is also very short, but then the final movement has a crashing false start followed by a thoughtful piano solo before the finale proper starts, so you get two slow movements in effect. D liked it very much. Osborne played with a score and a blonde page-turner: the first time I've seen a soloist using a score in a piece from the core repertoire.

Part 2 started with Sibelius's Karelia Suite. Not as driven as some performances I've heard, but in the finale there were numerous swoops and twiddly bits from the horns and the brass I've never been aware of in recorded or broadcast performances. One quiet bit was ruined by coughing.

Parry's Symphonic Suite was inoffensive and rose to a suitable climax (brass-heavy, of course, and rather Elgarian) but my quota of concentration available for unfamiliar music was exhausted.

Then Tchaikovsky's waltz and march from Eugene Onegin. Familiar, tuneful, noisy: what's not to like? (Hard to credit that this was "new music" in Henry Wood's time.)

The Prommers may have hoped for an encore, but Watkins marched on after two or three curtain calls, looked pointedly at his watch and dragged the leader off.

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