BBC Proms 2012: Elgar \ Delius \ Turnage \ BBC Symphony Orchestra

I’m battling with this picture. Cute as seeing conductors Brabbins, Gardner, Elder and Norrington posing for their First Night ‘relay concert’, the picture doesn’t stir me particularly. Should it?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on jolliness. Far from it. Everyone seems to be having a good time in the picture. That’s terribly important and lovely. Hurrah.

For me, the four different conductors in this concert seemed like an irrelevance. It was the composers in the concert who were more interesting.

Delius, Elgar, Tippet and Turnage. All of them monuments to ‘Englishness’ (whatever it is that actually means).

Our perception is that Elgar is the epitome of Englishness. Many of his rousing tunes make his music and him instantly recognisable too. Elgar is England. He represents ‘us’ (well, those of us who live in England). He is Englishness. And yet I wonder whether the very accessibility and popularity of his mainstream works skews our objectivity. Is his music really that ‘English’? And does it still represent England now?

Hearing Elgar’s at times nauseatingly sentimental Cockaigne Overture and his achingly establishment Coronation Ode, during the first night concert, I couldn’t feeling a little short-changed. Elgar feels irrelevant to me now.

I shouldn’t feel this way. Cockaigne was a key work for me as an orchestral player. One of collection of pieces I played when I first joined country youth orchestra. I should think more of it. But hearing it now in this most important of years for London, I’m struck more by the tiresome repetition of largely irrelevant musical depictions. Elgar doesn’t strike me as a man who was comfortable with melodic invention. Repetition was the way forward for him. Give ’em more of what they can easily digest. A big finish after that and they’ll cheer like mad things. Was Elgar composing by numbers? Was he a lower-grade Rachmaninov stuck in the regions, composing about a capital’s prowess slowly petering out?

If all four composers in the first night of the BBC Proms were alive today and looking for some feedback from me (as if!) it would be this, in this order:

  1. Elgar, your sound seems anachronistic today.
  2. Mr Tippet – your birthday music for Prince Charles initially disappointingly pays homage to Mr Elgar, but later movements do something entirely different. Well done sir. Nice work.
  3. Turnage, you turn in a consistently impressive and exhilarating wall of sound.
  4. But it’s you Mr Delius – you from German stock, born in Yorkshire and temporarily based in Florida and various European locations – who miraculously paint an elegant and sometimes stark image. A glorious concoction of simple melody underpinned by haromonic development. Your work still sings nearly one-hundred years on.

The first night of the BBC Proms didn’t seek to represent English music in its entirety. It couldn’t. But it did pick out three key players over the past 100 or so years. And it prompted questions about identity as a result. I just find myself increasingly dissatisfied with Elgar. Is that a bad thing?

No. It’s not. I rather like the idea of deliberately putting one well-loved composer from the past through the mill a bit. It is as though Elgar’s music should be road-tested just a little more rigorously.

Is his output robust enough for repeat listens in the same way that a symphony by Beethoven or Mahler is? Or is it that Elgar is only at his most satisfying in larger scale works that afford him the space and time for greater development?

I have my doubts on Edward’s output and that’s one very good reason to start listening to more of his works to find out the answer.

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