The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo (Vilde Frang violin, Lawrence Power viola, Silja Aalto soprano, Morgan Pearse baritone and the BBC Symphony Chorus) perform Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, Britten’s Double Concerto and an enchanting, newly uncovered late work by Oliver Knussen in the Barbican Hall on Friday, 24 May 2024. Photo by Mark Allan

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is reasonably shipshape as we launch into the Proms Season with itself leading the fleet of BBC ensembles and other national and international ensembles. At the end of May, we cruised through a programme of British twentieth century works skippered by Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo who steered a first half of delicious sounds and thrilling rhythms but slightly overdid the orchestra’s power-play as he whipped into a heaving salty swell the post-interval seascape. 

We embarked with the late Oliver Knussen’s Cleveland Pictures, a set of vividly detailed musical responses to seven paintings and sculptures in the Cleveland Museum of Art à la Musorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition with which it bears favourable comparison though it was left unfinished at the composer’s death in 2018. Oramo brushed and carved with his baton the movements to reveal artworks as clearly as if they had been photographed for the programme (they weren’t). Six were performed including two as fragments; one was omitted being only in sketch form. In Rodin’s Thinker twin harps conjured the marble’s musing; in Velazquez’s Calabazos the bass clarinet parped a court jester’s irreverence; in Gauguin’s Dans les Vagues, percussionists sparkled the post-impressionist spume with a range of scintillating metallophones; in Two Clocks by Fabergé and Tiffany, low strings elbowed an ominous tick-tock; in Goya’s St Ambrose contrasting light and dark timbres illumined the papal white against black; and in Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Parliament intense string heat was interspersed with percussive firecracks until an abrupt conclusion emphasised Knussen’s sudden and much mourned disappearance. 

Oramo fetched the twin soloists for Britten’s Double Concerto for Violin and Viola while the orchestra reduced, the percussionists shrinking to a single tympanist. The world premiere was in 1997, twenty years after the composer’s death. He had written it as a student at the Royal College of Music in 1932 and then, as if embarrassed by his own precocity (‘fatuous’ he called it), hid in a drawer for posterity to discover. I was among the discoverers back then and reported to the Evening Standard of his unselfconscious use of current trends – folksong, urgent thirties jazz rhythms – and it’s finale, a wonderfully original top-speed tumble for impassioned soloists and subtle tympanist. It was that again and more last Friday. Vilde Frang’s sweet, bright violin echoed Lawrence Power’s warm, dark tenor on the viola both at the octave and in unison, in argument – bows like swords – and in agreement – bows parallel. In the rhapsodic second movement their radiant tone beamed through the orchestra like a message from beyond the grave, a reassurance that the memory of an artist lives on in their music.      

Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony filled the second half, his first and longest symphonic essay from the first decade of the twentieth century, stretched with late Victorian long-windedness. The BBC Symphony Chorus tenderly sang Walt Whitman’s 1855 poetry though a little over-reliant on the laser display which presented the lines phrase by phrase for the audience. This is mainly a positive innovation, but one does like to reflect on the lines of a poem and not simply read it like prose. Vaughan Williams sets the text in all in all four movements (not just the last kike Beethoven) and rather too literally much of the time – or maybe it was Oramo’s rollicking face-value interpretation that obscured some of the subtlety and poignant nostalgia in Whitman’s lyric. The musicians responded accordingly and did all that Oramo acquired while the powerful soloists – soprano Silja Aalto and baritone Morgan Pearse – cut through the orchestral tumult like a ship’s figurehead through waves. Full speed ahead for the Proms next month!  

Rick Jones 

Hon Gen Sec