Henry Wood richly deserves the laurel wreath with which his bust is crowned at the close of the Proms. Not only did he launch them, he held them on course for 50 years, and in the process introduced audiences to an array of new works. A prolific composer in his youth, he later satisfied himself with arrangements, of which his version of Bach's great Toccata and Fugue in D minor was the most popular.
Here it came courtesy of conductor Stefan Solyom and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Wood's opening passage moves from woodwind to brass to drum-rolls to the organ: the texture throughout is thick and muddy, with Bach's carefully calibrated organ effects all for nought. Not a whiff here of the "cosmic power and majesty" that Leopold Stokowski strove for in his more scrupulous arrangement. As if to ram the point home, we next heard Wood's arrangement of Rachmaninov's Prelude in C sharp minor: the semi-erasure of Rachmaninov's muscular figurations was completed by Solyom's rough rendition.
One of Wood's virtues lay in his championing of women in music: it was neat programming to include Ethel Smyth's Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra, which was dedicated to Wood. Smyth was the real suffragette thing: a lesbian who was infatuated with Mrs Pankhurst, and who penned "The March of the Women". Though a prolific composer, she was hardly a great one, and this piece is a mere curiosity.
Despite the best efforts of violinist Tasmin Little and horn-player Richard Watkins, the yoking of such incompatible instruments felt wrong – one wanted the fiddle up close, the horn at 100 paces. It was only when we got to the strange joint cadenza that one sensed why Smyth had written the work: she had wanted to honour two outstanding soloists, and everything else was just busy scene-setting.
After which, Rachmaninov's Second Symphony came as a blessed relief. This sublime product of a great mind and an equally great heart brought out the best in Solyom's band, who cherished every detail.
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