If one was allowed only one word to describe conductor Richard Hickox, it would be avuncular. Beaming a welcome to the audience, he started the engine of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with Elgar's overture/tone poem In the South, written during a stay in Italy. I'm not a great Elgar fan: though like it or loathe it, there is no denying the anthemic quality of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1; or the serenity of "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations. For me, the Cello Concerto is spoiled by the eternal Diana-esque association of it with Jacqueline Du Pré. Unfair maybe, but that's the way it is. In the South seemed to have two faces: the one, more successful to my ear, looking back, towards Brahms; the other more experimental, in orchestral colour audibly
The only other music of Sir Arthur Bliss I have heard is the suite from the film score for The Shape of Things To Come, at the Proms in 2003. Or so I thought. Have you ever wondered what music the fanfare that introduces the BBC Proms on the television is? I can tell you, it is from the end of the second movement of Bliss' A Colour Symphony. In Dan Cruickshank's recent series Marvels of the Modern Age, he stepped out of a 1920s or 30s car, on the driveway of a 20s or 30s modernist house. As he did so, he made the point that the car now looks like "a classic", whereas the house looks just as unconventionally modern. Bliss had a reputation as an enfant terrible, and this symphony is still modern, but no longer avant-garde. The title derives not from psychedelia or synesthesia, but Bliss drew inspiration from Heraldic traditions, with movements Purple, Red, Blue, and Green. The lighting around the stage in the Hall obliged, unobtrusive but effective. As well as the fanfare from Red, I also particularly enjoyed the jungle rhythms of the double timpani in the final Green movement. This is definitely one for Listen Again.
Like Elgar, Walton's most famous short pieces, the Coronation Anthems Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre, and film music such as the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, are justifiably popular, and I always find myself under-rating him. In fact, the Walton was my reason for selecting this Prom, though the Bliss was the piece I preferred from the concert. Bryn Terfel didn't have too much to do as the soloist; but the massed choirs from Wales and London were deployed effectively, and the "off-stage" brass made full use of the Hall by appearing at either side in two of the upper boxes. Keeping the 1970s, or indeed the current troubles, out of your mind is not easy when the lyrics go "By the waters of Babylon,/There we sat down: yea, we wept./ ...". Quite obviously not a piece that is in accord with the original small-scale commission by the BBC in 1929, it is a dramatic and powerful retelling of the folklore of the Israelite slaves and King Belshazzar. Bryn Terfel threw his flowers to a female promenader in the front row; fortunately, though he was enthusiastically applauded, no underwear went in the opposite direction.