After ten days of safe but dull Proms, at last something splendid: Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC SO. Ralph Vaughan Williams's incidental music is far from incidental. William Alwyn wrote a lot of incidental music, but hearing his symphonic work with Vaughan Williams's incidental music puts it into context
Oramo conducts Vaughan Williams with an intensity that makes one appreciate the depths in RVW, often missed by the emphasis on the pastoral aspects of his work. The Overture to the Wasps dates from the same period as On Wenlock Edge, and marks RVW's creative breakthrough Maurice Ravel liberated Vaughan Williams from himself, so to speak. No longer is he constrained by the comfortable certainties of Charles Villiers Stanford. He'd learned "to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines", to be an artist foremost and above all. Having faced that baptism of fire, he would go on to become a true original, reimagining the English experience in his own unique way.
Although The Wasps was written before the start of WWI, its subject is war. These aren't bucolic wasps buzzing around a nest, even though the composer depicts them figuratively. The famous Overture comes from a much larger piece for voice and orchestra, based on Aristophanes' The Birds. The Birds mock man's obsession with war, and the wasps protest. When wasps are disturbed, they attack. In Germany, Walter Braunfels (who served at the front) would soon begin Die Vögel, a work sadly misunderstood by conductors like James Conlon. Oramo emphasizes the suppressed violence in RVW. A lyrical melody hovers, harps suggesting peaceful reverie. The mood is soon broken. Sharp, crisp ostinato, an almost "Russian" angularity, whirring figures like a march. Are the wasps flying upwards in attack?
If only the BBC could have given us the full Wasps, rather than the disembodied Overture. It's utterly relevant this year when we remember 1914. Instead, we had William Alwyn's Symphony no 1. Alwyn is hardly obscure, even though he's not been heard at the Proms for 50 years. His work is well represented on recordings, and familiar to those who enjoy the Golden Age of British cinema. Like many other composers of his period, Alwyn wrote for film. Alwyn's Symphony no 1 is ambitious, part of a grand scheme of related symphonies. Allusions to technicolor panoramas are approrpiate because the piece unfolds in a series of attractive vignettes which translate easily into visual images. Low, growling basses, giving way to open spaces, sudden surges of strings introducing changes of scene. It's picturesque and relaxing, so its appeal is easily appreciated. On the other hand, it's illustrative, amiable rather than thought-provoking. RVW can say more in ten minutes, almost without trying. It's totally irrelevant that Alwyn lived in Blythburgh while Britten lived in Aldeburgh. There are sections of the British music audience who need heroes for their own reasons, and don't necessarily do their heroes any favours. Alwyn is not an incidental composer, but he's more genial than genius..
RVW's The Lark Ascending, however, is a true masterpiece, a work of such brilliance that it defies category. It is so beautiful, and so transcendent that it's almost pointless to analyze. Perhaps RVW is describing a bird in flight, but that bird is escaping from the world into another more rarified plane of existence. It's exquisite, but also inexplicably, heart breakingly sad. It's much more than an "English Idyll", since it appeals to so many, and in different cultures. Janine Jensen's performance was good, though there have been other, more powerful interpretations. Oramo's clear focus on the details in the orchestration brought out the connections between Tle Lark Ascending and The Wasps. Interesting insight.
Vaughan Williams's Job : a Masque for Dancing (1931) was written to be danced to, yet it's no more a conventioinal ballet than The Pilgrim's Progress is a typical opera. Dancers need more rests than orchestral players, so much music for dance evolves in scenic episodes. This also suits RVW's taste for the formality of Elizabethan music. Although I don't have the programme notes to quote from, and I don't feel like digging up a CD, I'm pretty sure, from memory, that Oramo was conducting the full score, rather than the version for dancing. It's not a symphony, though the sound is full and rich, because it evolves in a series of scenes. Thus, however, it made a satisfying conclusion to the Prom, following as it did from Alwyn's Symphony. Listen how RVW defines "cinematic" climaxes. Even as audio, one imagines visual and dancers. And from this emerges a solo violin, playing an elusive, nostalgic melody. The Wasps, The Lark Ascending and Job: a Masque for Dancing have been heard together before, but Oramo reminds us why the combination is so good.