wed 22/09/2021

Prom 15: Chen, BBCSO, BBCSC, Davis | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 15: Chen, BBCSO, BBCSC, Davis

Prom 15: Chen, BBCSO, BBCSC, Davis

Mixed-bag Prom yields strong young soloist but some weak choral singing

Ray Chen: the young Taiwanese-Australian violinist made an extrovert Proms debutChris Christodoulou

Programming a concert is a tricky business. Programming an entire Proms season almost unthinkably difficult. But even allowing for the odd evening of leftovers, those artists, anniversaries and concertos that just can’t be fitted in anywhere else, last night’s Prom 15 was a muddle.

A first half of Tchaikovsky and Anthony Payne might look reasonable on paper, but in practice two nature-driven, symphonic tone-poems for chorus and orchestra – variations on a theme – offered too little contrast and no discernable emotional or narrative arc, leaving us much where we began, and not in a Four Quartets kind of way. To then tuck Bruch’s bill-topping concerto in after the interval, with Vaughan Williams’s masterly choral miniature Towards the Unknown Region following it as a sort of coda did neither work any favours – the Bruch too rich to digest so quickly, the Vaughan Williams too modest in scope to be a convincing closer.

Chen is an old-school virtuoso with plenty of technical razzle-dazzleIt all started satisfyingly enough with Tchaikovksy’s Fantasy Overture The Tempest – a B movie-esque romp through Shakespeare’s play, complete with magical storm and youthful romance. Andrew Davis set waves rolling in the strings and brass, punctuating their rocking movement with crisp flurries of seabird cries from the woodwind, before releasing the ferocious storm. The love theme sang ardently in the cellos, delicate but never too fragile for the space.

Composer Anthony Payne (pictured below) turns 80 this year, and the Proms have marked the occasion with a large-scale commission for chorus and orchestra. Of Land, Sea and Sky is a delicate, reflective work – a fitting tribute to a career of quiet success and serious scholarship, still inevitably crowned by Payne's realisation of Elgar’s unfinished Third Symphony. Over the course of six continuous movements the piece explores a series of evocative land- and seascapes. Nature is sometimes benign and beautiful, as we hear in “Horses” and “The Great Fold”, sometimes violent (“Cliff Turned Cataract”). But most compelling is its indifference to man. The hazy summer heat of the Somme valley, glinting in harps and strings, urges calm and contentment, with only the side-drum offering a nervy reminder of the “gunsmoke and explosions” the landscape conceals.

Although much of the work’s interest is to be found in the deft orchestral textures, the greater dramatic emphasis is on the choral parts. Under-rehearsed and woefully underpowered (why so few singers?), the BBC Symphony Chorus struggled to project either tone or text, snatching at the coat-tails of entries and often approximating vocal lines. Both Payne and the Proms deserve better, and while the Vaughan Williams provided more melodic certainty, despite Davis’s best efforts to galvanise his forces it didn’t come close to achieving either the heft or colour a performance in this space requires.

Much more exciting was the Proms debut of Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen. A fixture on the Australian and Asian concert circuits, Chen is now beginning to find his footing in Europe, and this performance of the Bruch will have won him many new friends in London. Chen is an old-school virtuoso, with plenty of technical razzle-dazzle, but if the opening movement tried too hard to please, emoting too obviously with rather over-wrought vibrato, the concerto blossomed into a ravishing, surprisingly understated, Adagio, before releasing into mischievous, unfussy abandon. Just a little more rubato would have been welcome, but this was a secure Proms debut, with a spectacular encore in Paganini’s Caprice No. 21. Some Bach might have showed another side to this extrovert young soloist, but we’ll have to hope for that on his next visit.

Didn’t come close to achieving either the heft or colour a performance in this space requires


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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However poor your opinion of the choral element of Prom 15 (at odds with critical opinion virtually everywhere else, for what it’s worth), it’s doubtful whether any similar choral group in the UK could have done as well even on double the rehearsals allowed – and I use that word intentionally. 

Journalistic rigour would see you researching the “why?” in your penultimate paragraph.  However, to deal with the “under-rehearsed” aspect, the Radio 3/BBCSO management last year dismissed a choral director of 26 years’ standing who was never afraid to insist on adequate rehearsal time and fit-for-purpose rehearsal scores, and the results justified this.  Their action begins to explain the “why?”.

 I know that as a reviewer you can only deal with what you hear – and the wide-open spaces of the RAH are often nobody’s friend, and less suitable for tricky new repertoire than the much-maligned Barbican – but it would be wrong to let this swipe at the unsung footsoldiers of the BBCSC go unchallenged.


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