Prom 27: Folk Music Around Britain and Ireland, Royal Albert Hall, London, review: 'An uneasy hybrid of glossy orchestral folk-pop'

Julie Fowlis and the BBC Concert Orchestra performing Prom 27: Mark Allan
Julie Fowlis and the BBC Concert Orchestra performing Prom 27: Mark Allan

It was the moment halfway through John Ashton Thomas’s Iona Elegy - The Four Roads – a collage of Scottish folk-tunes smeared Hollywood-thick onto a symphony orchestra – when a single bagpiper, complete with kilt, sporran and bearskin, marched climactically out onto the Royal Albert Hall stage to a Hans-Zimmer-wants-his-score-back surge of cymbal and brass, that all became clear. This Prom was to folk music as Disney is to a child’s imagination: brighter, louder, larger and so much less than the real thing.

Perhaps it was the only solution to the problem of context. Anywhere further from the low-key intimacy of a pub or folk club than the Royal Albert Hall would be hard to imagine. All those things that give the genre its energy – the easy spontaneity, the intimate caress of an unamplified voice, the narrative urgency of ballads that place words not music in the foreground – were necessarily lost in this stadium spectacular, leaving us with an uneasy hybrid of glossy orchestral folk-pop which bore little meaningful relationship to its source material.

Drafted in to give the musical heft demanded by this vast space, the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Stephen Bell lurked like a persistent and embarrassing chaperone at the back of performances by virtuosic Welsh trio ALAW, charismatic Northern Irish multi-instrumentalist Jarlath Henderson and peerless Scottish folk singer Julie Fowlis, keeping their music rooted in sub-par, sub-classical arrangements, prevented from ever fully taking flight.

A programme designed to trace the “tradition, evolution and reinvention” of the genre didn’t seem much interested in tradition (though a brief set of Scottish mouth music by Fowlis was mesmerising and Henderson’s throaty uilleann pipes were a revelation), or indeed evolution. By far the heaviest emphasis was on the genre’s current popular reinvention, specifically its new crossover appeal in the hands of uncategorisable group The Unthanks. Whatever your take on their brand of haunting, ambient folk, it’s not music that lends itself to the kind of large-scale celebration the Proms here had in mind. Come back Vaughan Williams, all is forgiven.