The premiere of Scenes from Comus at the Proms in 1965 was a breakthrough for Hugh Wood. This setting of passages from John Milton’s 1634 masque is as much a symphonic poem as a cantata, a fusion of the Schoenbergian techniques that are paraded from the very start, as the solo horn unfolds a 12-note theme, with sensuously romantic textures. Half a century on, it seems a quintessentially British work. Its third-ever performance in the Albert Hall fitted comfortably between Vaughan Williams and Elgar in Andrew Davis’s programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The orchestra is as much a protagonist in the drama as the soprano and tenor soloists, and an extended orchestral scherzo, depicting the monstrous Comus (son of the witch Circe) inviting his followers to join him in an orgiastic dance, forms the climax. That is when Wood’s score is most impressive, with an irresistible energy and sweep to the writing that the BBCSO conveyed brilliantly; soprano Stacey Tappan and tenor Anthony Gregory had to work much harder to make anything as vivid from the vocal exchanges that frame it, despite the delicacy of the nocturnal sounds in which Wood’s score envelops them.
Davis had begun with Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, sustained with velvety pianissimos from the BBCSO strings, and ended with more of a rarity, Elgar’s The Music Makers. The optimism implicit in the setting of Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s poem sits oddly against the disillusion implied by the score’s patchwork of quotes from Elgar’s earlier music, but with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Sarah Connolly as the mezzo soloist, Davis showed it is also a work of genuine, affecting beauty.
• Available on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until 14 September.