Tintagel. Photo: Chris Gunn. Wikimedia Commons
STUART MILLSON enjoys a super-orchestra’s seasonal offerings

The re-formed Sinfonia of London (a recording and film-score orchestra of the 1960s) appeared at the Proms on Saturday 16th July under the baton of the ever-popular John Wilson, for a concert of music by British composers. The programme was made up of Vaughan Williams’ 1910 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Welsh composer, Huw Watkins’s new Flute Concerto, the Partita by Walton, Bax’s 1917 Arthurian tone-poem, Tintagel, and Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ of 1899.

The Sinfonia is a handpicked, super-orchestra – a superior “scratch-band” of top freelancers, players drawn from existing orchestras and even members of string quartets and chamber groups, dedicated to reviving the idea of “demonstration sound quality”, i.e. dazzling, virtuoso performance, chiefly in a studio setting. A previous example of this type of ensemble was the old National Philharmonic Orchestra, which appeared on the RCA label and notched up some notable recordings, often under conductors such as the suave American, Charles Gerhardt. But to have real life and vigour, an orchestra must play in public, so what better arena for publicising the dynamic stage presence of your orchestra than at the Proms on a Saturday evening, right at the beginning of the season?

Thomas Tallis

And what finer non-ecclesiastical setting for a cathedral-inspired piece, such as the Tallis Fantasia, than the Royal Albert Hall, in which John Wilson cleverly created antiphonal special effects by placing part of his string band in a line, high on the right at the rear of the platform? The two bodies of strings answered each other: the music moving across the centuries, from Tallis’s Elizabethan sound-world of church voices, to the well-upholstered, romantic early 20th-century string writing of Vaughan Williams. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1898. British Library. Wikimedia Commons

The one new work in the programme, the Huw Watkins Flute Concerto also suited the hall’s great acoustic – a beautifully air-borne thing and (for this reviewer) strangely reminiscent of a scene from the Ken Loach film, Kes, about a boy from a deprived background, spiritually rescued by a chance ownership of a hawk. In the film, there is a moving scene where the boy takes his kestrel to a field at the edge of the northern town in which he little more than exists, and flies him with all the skill of a mediaeval falconer. The bird takes to the wing, accompanied by flute music, neither tuneful nor atonal, which seems to represent freedom, air, longing, space. All of those qualities were to be found in the Huw Watkins piece, played by distinguished soloist, Adam Walker.

The great (literally) landmark work of the evening was the 1917 tone-poem by Englishman and also Celtic enthusiast, Arnold Bax, Tintagel. The composer visited the dreamy north Cornwall coast with his mistress, fellow musician Harriet Cohen, and found deep escapism and solace in the ancient surroundings of rocky coast and the ever-present gentle, heaving breast of the sleepy Atlantic. The work begins in pure, clear-blue summertime, but as Bax pointed out in an explanation of the piece, not a windless day.

John Wilson’s orchestra began their evocation with gentle, dreamy woodwind conjuring a feeling of sea-birds and distances. The growing swell of the sea against the rocky sentinels of Cornwall’s headlands was beautifully executed in the surging, strong, cohesive orchestral tide of sound created by the Sinfonia. But just as quickly as the physical setting of Cornwall has been established, Bax then begins to dissolve it all, with the supernatural drama of the ancient kings, Arthur and Mark, and the destructive, legendary love of Tristan and Isolde – the latter, a symbol of Bax’s own romantic entanglement. The composer wrote several Celtic-folklore-inspired pieces and seven impressive, well-orchestrated symphonies (the Fourth being the most radiant and most-often played, although an outing for a Bax symphony is still a rare occasion). 

What Tintagel represents is a (nearly) fifteen minutes-long condensed symphony – a clear, concise distillation of some of the more long-winded ideas which all long symphonic structures have, but which in the case of this piece are assembled with utterly persuasive and spellbinding cohesion and power. Not a note is wasted in Tintagel: there is a beginning, middle and an end, and like Sibelius’s The Oceanides (a tone-poem of some ten minutes), a listener or concertgoer can instantly know the composer just from this one calling-card piece.

With instantly recognisable pieces in mind, the concert concluded with Walton’s shimmering, Italianate Partita, written in the Mediterranean sun and siesta of the late 1950s – and Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, (‘Enigma’), penned at the end of the 19th century, but looking forward with masterful confidence to a new century and (for Elgar) new successes and untold honours. Again, the Sinfonia of London matched the mood, its players responding with great physical commitment to the scores of these British giants; men whose music, in different ways, captured the spirit of our native music.

Skara Brae on the Orkneys. Photo: Daniel Bordeleau. Wikimedia Commons

Yet what really is our native music? – as BBC Radio 3’s Tom Service (a Scot) asked in the evening’s programme notes. Slightly dismissive of the insularity of the land “sandwiched between Hadrian’s Wall and the South Coast” (his words), the writer nevertheless correctly noted the way in which our music has transcended the country’s physical boundaries. However, metropolitan observers should not be so quick to dismiss country cottages and “folky-wolky melodies”. As Vaughan Williams pointed out, all great universal art is rooted in a place, whether Bach’s Lutheran northern Germany, or the Spain of Velazquez. And as Tom Service should know, modern composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who settled in the Orkney Islands, immersed himself in a Scottish island identity, garnering, like a beachcomber, every conceivable Orcadian cadence, myth into his music, showing just how powerful “insularity” can be as a creative inspiration.

The capacity audience at the Royal Albert Hall, not a bit dissuaded by the Met. Office’s red-alert, heat-wave weather warnings, gave the performers a typical Proms ovation. And John Wilson gave them in return, one more piece – an encore from Eric Coates’s Summer Days suite, a nostalgic, innocent waltz. Judging by the overflowing applause, it is a world that still means something to so many.

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