Beyond Jerusalem: Under Roger Wright, the Proms have rediscovered British music
The Proms is the greatest British music festival. In recent years, under the direction of Roger Wright, it has also become the greatest festival of British music. Mr Wright's immediate predecessors — Sir Nicholas Kenyon, John Drummond, Robert Ponsonby and William Glock — were not known for their interest in British music from the period of its great rebirth after the 1880s, unless they had commissioned it. Sir Nicholas deserves credit, though, for his programming of John Foulds's Three Mantras during the 1998 season, after Foulds had suffered decades of unjust neglect in the concert hall.
Mr Wright understands the British musical renaissance, and loves many of the works produced during it. More to the point, during his tenure of the Proms he has, with great success, lured many of the finest under-performed works out of the cupboard and put them on at the Proms. They include a definitive performance of Moeran's Symphony in G (which, since the compilation by Martin Yates of sketches for a second symphony by Moeran, we had better get used to calling Moeran's First Symphony); an electrifying performance — during an electric storm — by the hugely talented Ashley Wass of Vaughan Williams's Piano Concerto in C, the first time the revised and completed work had been performed at the Proms; and a first Proms performance, two years ago, of the Dynamic Triptych, John Foulds's masterpiece. Perhaps most important of all, Mr Wright has reminded Proms audiences that Sir Hubert Parry was a composer of true greatness who wrote more than just "Jerusalem", with performances two years ago of his Symphonic Variations and Fifth Symphony, among other works. Yet for all these and other imaginative programmes, much still remains to be rediscovered.
This season, which begins on July 13, includes a number of exceptional concerts, but two British programmes especially that have a historic resonance in the context of the Proms. On August 16 Mr Wright undertakes the daring experiment of presenting the middle three Vaughan Williams symphonies — the Fourth of 1935, the Fifth of 1943 and the Sixth of 1948 — in the same programme. This has been done before — the greatly missed Richard Hickox did them at the Barbican one evening a decade ago — but never at the Proms. The Fourth broke the mould of Vaughan Williams's symphonic writing: it is a work of aggression and violence that shocked contemporary audiences, and was attributed to the composer's reaction to the rise of fascism in Europe. However, whether mischievously or not, he told friends that his anger was provoked by a decision about the siting of the Dorking by-pass. The Fifth is a supreme, but at times tense and melancholy, pastoral; and being premiered when the composer was over 70, it was taken as a swansong. However, there were four more symphonies to come, and the next, the Sixth, had the effect of a bomb going off in the musical consciousness. Vaughan Williams denied that it was about the war, but the saxophone solo in the scherzo reminds us of the death of Ken "Snakehips" Johnson and members of his West Indian Dance Orchestra when the Café de Paris took a direct hit in the Blitz in 1941. To hear these three symphonies one after the other is to relive the most turbulent years of 20th-century Britain. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under Andrew Manze, has performed these works superbly in recent months — this will be unmissable.
However, the high point of the season for lovers of this repertoire will come on August 29. A performance of Elgar's majestic First Symphony is always special, and Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra can be relied upon to do it justice. However, in the first half of the concert the soprano Miah Persson, the tenor Andrew Kennedy, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir join the orchestra for the first performance at the Proms of Herbert Howells's Hymnus Paradisi, a work made for the Albert Hall, with its capacity for a huge choir: some of us have been waiting years for this.