BWW Review: PROM 35: ENIGMA VARIATIONS, Royal Albert Hall
Conductor Martyn Brabbins celebrated his 60th birthday in fine fashion: with a new commission for 14 composers to create their own set of orchestral variations on an anonymous theme, mirroring the shape of Elgar's Enigma Variations. Programme notes from the composers illustrated a genuine fondness for the great conductor, and their perceptions of him - energy, warmth, generosity, humour and virtuosity - shone through in an impressively unified work.
Among the highlights of Pictured Within: Birthday Variations of M. C. B. were: Sally Beamish's bluesy take, making great use of Brabbins' own instrument, the trombone; Judith Weir's engaging flickering woodwind variation; percussionist Wim Henderickx making full use of that section, particularly the powerful timpani; Gavin Bryars' witty take on a meeting between Elgar and Charles Ives; Sir Harrison Birtwistle's inspired response to 'Nimrod'; and John Pickard's effective closer, including an Elgar-esque burst of the organ.
Notable, too, was the way the piece as a whole created a tangible atmosphere, with nods to film noir and - in the use of everything from eerie violin glissandos in Iris ter Schiphorst's melancholic variation to exuberant xylophone and wooden clappers - almost a sense of watching Foley sound effects created for Hitchcock's latest.
While perhaps not the most memorable work - the sense of it accompanying unseen action also suggests a lack in the piece itself, certainly in contrast to the rest of the programme - it was nevertheless a touching tribute to a conductor who has nurtured so much new British music.
Closing the first half was Ralph Vaughan Williams' 1938 Serenade to Music, which premiered at Proms maestro Sir Henry Wood's jubilee concert at the Albert Hall. It uses, as a basis, a section of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice that - appropriately enough - features a passionate and poetic discussion of music.
Vaughan Williams' piece reportedly moved Sergei Rachmaninov to tears, and if this version wasn't quite that stirring, it was still a gorgeous rendition, gently evolving under Brabbins' patient baton - a sense of something strange and beautiful rising from the deep. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's leader, Laura Samuel, showed wonderful sensitivity and expression here, as did soprano Nadine Benjamin; the latter's final exquisite phrase handed over beautifully to the ENO Chorus.
Impressive, too, was Brahms' Song of Destiny, showcasing the combined discipline of singers and orchestra in providing both the might and spiritual nuance of this rich piece. An a cappella section illustrated the singers' cohesive phrasing, and - thanks to Brabbins' care - shifting moods were conveyed as subtly as ripples on a pond.
It was the perfect lead-in to the big event: Elgar's own Variations. Under Brabbins, the orchestra gave a master class in textured performance, taking their time in capturing every detail of this beloved work - from spine-tingling softness to stirring surges, wry playfulness to questing introspection and evocative lamentation. We were left with the strong sense that all of life is here.
While difficult to single out just one player in the magnificent Elgar, praise must be given to the superb clarinettist Yann Ghiro. This Prom was pleasurable in highlighting such talented individuals, as well as celebrating collective achievement.
An evening to lift the spirits and feed the soul.
Prom 35 will be televised on BBC Four on 8 September, and you can listen to Radio 3's broadcast here
Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou, BBC