I had never before heard one note by Grace Williams, part of a group of British women composers who studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and were influenced by Elgar. This influence was evident in her five-movement work for strings, Sea Sketches, with which Tadaaki Otaka and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales opened their Prom.
Each movement was perfectly shaped – "High Wind" taking off with an excited susurration, and the second, "Sailing Song", following a graceful trajectory; the other three movements were equally engaging. Why are they so seldom played? I suspect because Williams presented them as "programme music". A more pretentious composer might have given them a gnomically obscure title, and thereby garnered more respect.
The five poem-settings of Elgar's Sea Pictures were written for the contralto Clara Butt. Her voice was famed for its foghorn force, and would have carried to every corner of the Royal Albert Hall. Christine Rice is essentially a lyric mezzo, and doesn't have the oomph of a Butt or a Ferrier, who also sang these songs. There were times when she teetered on the edge of audibility, and her words weren't always clear. But her voice had a steely beauty, so honour was satisfied.
To follow these works with Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony was to underline the strange insularity of English music at the turn of the century: while Elgar's music seemed to spring from a long-dead culture, this Russian masterpiece spoke with an utterly contemporary voice. Otaka and his players communicated its passion, though at times with rough edges.
If it's hard to listen to the Pathétique without remembering that its premiere predated Tchaikovsky's death by a matter of days, it's impossible to listen to Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time without thinking back to its premiere on a freezing winter's night in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1940. No praise is too high for the performers on this occasion: Martin Fröst on clarinet, Anthony Marwood on violin, Matthew Barley on cello and Thomas Larcher at the piano. Time stood still.
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