review details
 •  7 August 2008 - BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London
Ulster Orchestra

Ferguson Overture for an Occasion, Stanford 2nd Piano Concerto (Finghin Collins, soloist), Smetana Má Vlast - Vitava, Dvořák 8th Symphony

  • The Belfast-based Ulster Orchestra is a semi-detached member of the BBC's family of ensembles, which perhaps explains why it is a relatively rare visitor to the Proms. Not as rare, though, as its principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery, who last conducted here in 1977, an absence made even more inexplicable by the crisp and purposeful performances in this thoughtfully assembled Irish-Czech programme.


    The calling cards came first. This year is the centenary of the Belfast-born Howard Ferguson, better known now as a musicologist and close confidant of Gerald Finzi than as a composer in his own right. Ferguson's Overture for an Occasion, written for the 1953 coronation, obviously fulfilled its feel-good function to the letter, bouncing along in a jaunty style that owes a bit to William Walton and a lot more to Eric Coates, and throws in some pastoral Vaughan Williams for good measure.


    Stanford's Second Piano Concerto was a more substantial proposition altogether. It was composed in 1911, apparently after Stanford had been swept away by Rachmaninov's Second Concerto, though the occasional Russian touches in the piano writing and moments of lyrical introspection are outweighed by the influences of Brahms and Schumann in more of the concerto. It is garrulous (perhaps 10 minutes too long), and lacks memorable ideas, but Finghin Collins' beautifully structured, transparent piano playing was the real delight of the performance.


    Dvorak's Eighth Symphony followed Smetana's Vltava in the second half. Montgomery showed his confidence in this able, quick-witted orchestra with a performance that went for broke in the outer movements, and invested the central ones with convincing local colour. It was all perfectly to scale, and seemed just as fresh as the unfamiliar music that had preceded it.

    Andrew Clements / The Guardian, 9 August 2008

  • One of the most outrageous and least well-known pieces to be heard at the Albert Hall this summer has come, somewhat unexpectedly, from the pen of Charles Villiers Stanford. The Ulster Orchestra presented the first Proms performance of his Piano Concerto No 2.


    Stanford's work is a far cry from his Songs of the Sea and his renowned Anglican canticles. In fact, for the first ten minutes at least, the innocent ear might well think it was listening to Rachmaninov. And no wonder: Stanford had conducted the Russian composer's Piano Concerto No 2 in 1910, with Rachmaninov himself as soloist. Fired by its brooding lyricism, he had set to work immediately on a concerto of his own.


    The young Dublin-born pianist Finghin Collins gave a performance of his compatriot's concerto that released the intense white heat of its inspiration. In the first, almost ludicrously Rachmaninovian, movement, Collins's crystalline accompanying figures and octaves had just the measure of Stanford's recreative homage: both panache and poetry sang out. The harp of Erin seemed to be sounding in the slow movement, and the finale was boisterous with a distinctively Irish brogue. Could this be the start of an overdue rehabilitation of this fascinatingly bilingual work?


    Stanford's concerto had been heralded by the work of another Irishman, the Belfast-born Howard Ferguson. And this was another Proms first: his Overture for an Occasion (that occasion being the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) was a dapper period piece, its polite pageantry recreated with delight by the Ulster Orchestra's principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery.


    It was Stanford who had encouraged Dvorák to come to Cambridge to receive his doctorate in 1891: cue for a Czech second half - though, alas, with all too few Bohemian inflections. The orchestra played both Smetana's Vltava and Dvorák's Eighth Symphony with a will, and with a generalised bucolic folksiness, rather than with the rhythmic lilt, tug and tension of their native musical language.

    Hilary Finch / The Times, 11 August 2008

  • The Ulster Orchestra under its principal conductor Kenneth Montgomery brought works by Irish born composers, Howard Ferguson and Charles Villiers Stanford.


    Only 20 of Ferguson's works were published but they include some notable specimens. The Overture for an Occasion is no masterpiece but has genuine inspiration and is well crafted. Reminiscent of Walton in its lively rhythms, the character of the Overture was perfectly caught.


    Stanford's Second Piano Concerto in C minor could easily be mistaken for an apocryphal Fifth of Rachmaninov's. (It even shares its tonality with the Russian's No 2.)


    He may not have quite the consistently dark colouring and melancholic undertow of Rachmaninov but his melodies have a comparable epic-heroic sweep, and a tendency to unfold their long-breathed phrases over rippling arpeggiated accompaniments.


    Finghin Collins dispatched the prolific figuration with effortless control, while orchestral blends were impressively realised.


    There was more quiet mastery in evidence from the orchestra in both items by Smetana and Dvo?ák. The bubbling source of the mighty river that flows through Prague was beautifully evoked by overlapping woodwind semiquavers at the beginning of Smetana's tone poem Vltava. The frolics of a pair of liquid flutes were particularly delightful.


    Impeccable blending, geniality and charm characterised the account of Dvo?ák's Eighth Symphony, while another delightful Ferguson piece as an encore meant we had experienced 10 per cent of his oeuvre in less than a quarter of an hour.

    Barry Millington / Evening Standard, 8 August 2008

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