Royal Albert Hall, London

Classical review: Prom 31 - Ravishing, adventurous and fit for a queen

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The music for the 1953 coronation, celebrated at the Proms, offers a bold precedent for future crownings

Probably not yet born, the composers of the royal music at the coronation of King George VII will not want for precedents. From Zadok the Priest to I Was Glad, English music is bolstered by the mighty anthems of Purcell, Handel and Parry. With broad, striding themes, William Walton whipped up Crown Imperial for Edward VIII, recycling it unused for George VI. His Orb and Sceptre for Elizabeth II is a masterpiece of Fifties musical iconography, with its lump-in-throat slow march evoking the past, and jazzy brass and rude percussion heralding a brisker future. As a curtain-raiser to Prom 31, with the BBC Philharmonic under John Storgards, it was a deliciously blousy bauble.

Rubbra's Ode to the Queen, commissioned by the BBC to mark the coronation in 1953, doesn't get out much. Settings of ravishing 17th century poetry, the three angular songs now seem remarkably adventurous for their time. Hard to imagine the Amazon Broadcasting Corporation funding anything as otherworldly in, say, 2083. Susan Bickley was the soloist, but it's easy to hear that the Ode was written with Kathleen Ferrier's darker, creamier sound in mind. She was too ill to sing by the time of the work's first performance, dying of breast cancer four months later.

Like Walton, Erich Korngold wrote film scores that took his music to a much wider audience than the concert hall, his curse as well as his salvation, for concert performances of his "serious" works are rare. With its questing opening movement, intricate Scherzo, and mighty Adagio, the captivating Symphony in F Sharp only ran out of steam in the fourth movement at its Proms debut. Some eyebrow-raising intonation apart, this was a memorable performance of a forgotten piece, a textbook Proms collector's item.

Bruch's Violin Concerto exhibited differences over tempi, and soloist Vilde Frang seemed a little overpowered emotionally and acoustically by the occasion, but this is an exceptional talent unfolding, and her wayward Norwegian folk tune encore was enthralling.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra was on absolutely scintillating form for Prom 32 (Royal Albert Hall, London ****), joined by Louis Lortie for Lutoslawski's exacting Piano Concerto. From its swarming, insect-like first movement and cat-and-mouse Presto to its hollowed and harrowed depiction of martial law in Poland and finale with its molecular structure, this was a captivating and pristine performance, forensically conducted by Edward Gardner and with outstanding solo work from all sections of the orchestra.

Proms favourite The Planets kicked off with a Mars that seemed more terrible and less foot-tapping in light of the Lutoslawki. Gardner went for big and bold, with only the women's voices of the BBC Symphony Orchestra magically receding to near-silence from a hidden eerie. Holst's Egdon Heath was a dull dish, if impeccably served, but the Lutoslawski Symphonic Varations, crisp and crackling, were a great starter.

I went to West Side Story primarily to hear Leonard Bernstein's suzzling score in a revival of the musical's 50th anniversary staging of 2008, the summer treat at Sadler's Wells. But every number was magnified by Jerome Robbins's brilliantly executed choreography in this spectacular and moving and topical production. The orchestral suite from the show is a concert hall staple, so it is a real thrill to hear these stupendous numbers and interludes from top to toe, Donald Chan driving an inexhaustible band. And while the male singing is at times imprecise, and the diction should be as crisp as the scintillating footwork, there's passion here that eludes many an opera. Solving the world's energy problems overnight is Penelope Armstead-Williams as Puerto Rican fireball Anita. Catch this for "America" alone: it's music's answer to sunshine. Fit for a king, in fact.

BBC Proms (bbc.co.uk/proms) to 8 Sept; 'West Side Story' to 22 Sept (sadlerswells.com)

Critic's Choice

East meets West in the Royal Albert Hall, London tomorrow at the BBC Proms when Nishat Khan is the soloist in his own Sitar Concerto No 1, The Gate of the Moon. David Atherton conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which also plays Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony No 2. Also at the Proms, Sir Andrew Davis conducts Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage on Friday. All Proms are also on Radio 3 and online.

 

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