BBC Proms 35 and 36: Grieg and Sibelius; Ivor Novello

BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds; Halle/Mark Elder

Royal Albert Hall, 12 August 2012 3.5 stars4 stars

Mark ElderThe central, almost insurmountable problem of this Scandinavian-themed Prom was its length.
Whilst the programme, the first for Finnish conductor John Storgårds in his role as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, felt cohesive from the perspective of style, at three symphonies, one piano concerto and one orchestral song in length, it was simply too long.

Three hours for a normal evening Prom can be taxing at the best of times, but in this context of blazing heat and a packed, sweltering house, the size of the programme meant that concentration and thus enjoyment inevitably dipped at times.

The strength and commitment of the performances did much to militate against audience malaise. Whilst a lack of finesse was detectable in Storgårds and the band’s efforts throughout the evening, particularly in the sometimes cluttered (although often richly-dramatic) opening Sibelius 6, those efforts were always marked by both a depth of feeling and a sharp musical intelligence. Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Delius’ Cynara, the first bolshy and charged up, the second more sculpted and perfumed, were each conveyed with a sense of tonal variety and, though a little heavy handed, effectively realised profiles of argument. The soloists for both pieces - a sturdy Roderick Williams in Cynara and an alternately full-pelt and exquisitely lyrical Steven Osborne in the Grieg - ably complemented the orchestra’s efforts with original but sympathetic contributions of their own.

The performance of Per Nørgård’s seventh symphony, which was here receiving its UK premiere, was typical in the fact that its jaggedness of line ultimately mattered little in the face of the sheer excitement and perseverance that were on display. Storgårds’ touch felt a little rough and ready in the bustling Rihm-with-a-dash-of-Stravinsky-of-the-Rite opening movement, where much energy and movement was generated without ever quite being allied to any overriding sense of purpose.

We were on safer ground in the more rhetorically-defined second movement, now absent the centripetal fourteen tom toms. By the symphony’s enigmatic closing pages, with the hall hushed and the music inscrutably turning over fragmented versions of its own material, Storgårds seemed to have the measure of the piece, which, like the Grieg, ended up affirming an odd, personal vision of musical argument. Proceedings were brought to a close with a rampant performance of Sibelius’ third symphony, featuring at its heart a glistening and meltingly evocative reading of the Mahlerian slow movement.

The late evening Prom changed tack completely for a celebration of the life and work of matinee idol, composer, playwright, songwriter and theatre actor Ivor Novello.

The tribute, which took the form of a condensed, musically illustrated biography, was led by a warm and commanding narrator, Simon Callow, whose humorous, well-observed and tonally pitch perfect script provided the backbone to the Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder’s spirited renderings of many of Novello’s most enduring songs.

Needing no incentive other than the fact that Novello’s music and shows have been unjustly neglected for so long (whilst the reputation of his old rival Noel Coward is burnished anew by ever-popular revivals and retrospectives), the Prom shone a timely light on Novello’s impressive musical gifts.

Blending operetta influences from Gilbert and Sullivan and Lehár with gentle touches of British and American jazz age popular song and bel canto opera, Novello’s musical voice was more antiquated than even Coward’s, but rich enough in melodic invention and sentimental appeal that many of his songs, perhaps less so than the dated shows (though many of these deserve revival and preservation, and not just for their historical importance), retain their power to move.

Covering the more familiar material, such as ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ and ‘And Her Mother Came Too’, alongside highlights from Novello’s biggest musicals, Glamorous Night, The Dancing Years and King’s Rhapsody, the concert ridiculed Novello’s neglect time and again.

Whilst I had major problems with Toby Spence’s voice here, which came across as effortful, stodgy and shrill at its top throughout, Sophie Bevan was incandescent. Her ‘My Dearest Dear’ and ‘I Can Give You the Starlight’ were achingly beautiful, the voice natural in its grace and relaxed in its tonal splendour. The duets, meanwhile - such as ‘Why isn’t it you’ and ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ - rather drastically exposed the gulf between the two singers, with Bevan sweet and Spence straining. However, despite my qualms regarding Spence, the show on the whole proved a fittingly elegant and warm tribute to a composer whose time seems to be forever in abeyance or past.

By Stephen Graham