Prom 23: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Runnicles, Royal Albert Hall

Donald Runnicles
The Independent (UK)

By Edward Sekerson

Questions may be raised in the Scottish parliament about the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra bringing an all-English programme to the Proms (one dear soul even felt compelled to wave the Scottish flag) but no one is likely to be arguing about the quality of the music making. Predictably Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending pulled in a massive crowd but it was the concert opener by John Foulds (a Proms first) that really raised curiosity levels.

Dynamic Triptych can never quite make up its mind whether or not it wants to be a fully-fledged piano concerto. The very able bodied pianist Ashley Wass seemed to be splashing on keyboard colour but little of real pianistic interest for much of the opening movement: a fiery toccata-like romp with pile-driving rhythms and flaring horns. There was an air of filmic underscoring about it (The War of the Roses?) and even the cadenza – a hair-raisingly assertive reprise of the two key thematic elements – didn’t really hint at much beyond out and out rhetoric, albeit with a twist of individuality.

But then a quiet dynamism took hold and the opening rumination of the slow movement found the soloist musing on a perfectly beautiful and searchingly harmonised melody prompting strangely erotic quarter-tone slides from the lower strings. The textural ripeness of the piece now grew rather startling and even the imploding climax of the finale was genuinely unexpected.

Enter, then, Vaughan Williams and not one but two masterpieces: Serenade to Music, where the “touches of sweet harmony” proved more happily suggestive of the blend rather than the individuality of the 16 young soloists; and The Lark Ascending whose songful chirrupings – beautifully inflected by Nicola Benedetti - drew 6000 pairs of ears into its confidence. Space – even one as large as this – truly enhances this piece.

But this sasonac Prom will be remembered most of all for Donald Runnicles’ hugely impressive account of Elgar’s First Symphony. The challenges of this mighty piece – not least the precarious tension between tenderness and tumult – can never ever be underestimated. But Runnicles and the orchestra chronicled its multi-layered narrative with great accomplishment. The transition from blustering scherzo into contemplative slow movement was like a door opening onto an altogether kinder world. Each return to the main theme was more healing than the one before and the clarinet’s final inflection seemed to echo the words of Gerontius’ Angel: “softly and gently”.