Proms 2010: Prom 23: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Runnicles

Donald Runnicles
The Telegraph (UK)

By Ivan Hewett

It fell to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor, Donald Runnicles, to give us the most purely English concert of this Prom season. And what a fine job they made of it. The music was all composed between 1908 and 1938, a period when English music is often pictured as mired in pastoralism and nostalgia.

But, as this concert reminded us, English music of that period could be surprising. It began with a piano concerto entitled Dynamic Triptych by John Foulds, a determinedly free spirit with a passionate interest in non-Western music. The first movement bristles with jagged figures in a self-invented, oriental-sounding mode, their irregular pounding rhythms despatched by pianist Ashley Wass with great bravura.

After this, the Romantic melody of the second movement came as a surprise, but the shimmering orchestral palette and strange, side-slipping quarter-tones were a reminder of a different world. It’s a fascinating piece, touched with genius, and if it didn’t entirely cohere, that wasn’t the fault of this brilliant and tender performance.

The sheer mastery of Elgar’s First Symphony may seem worlds away from Foulds’s compellingly odd piece. Still, there are turbulent forces pulling this way and that under the grand, “nobilmente”, surface, and the great virtue of this performance is that it made us keenly aware of them. The scherzo was especially fine. The bustling energy of the opening one expects, and also the bucolic charm of the second section, but the tranced magical quality in the orchestral sound is something that rarely registers so vividly.

These big-boned pieces, complicated in feeling, came at either end of the concert. In between came two pieces where we could simply surrender to an uncomplicated, blissful vision of Albion, with a cathedral spire glimpsed through hazy distances. Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music seemed to glide into being like a memory, the 16 voices from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama ardent but never overbearing, the clarinets drowsy as a summer afternoon. And in The Lark Ascending, Nicola Benedetti floated her trilling line above the orchestra with unaffected grace.