Another Prom in the seasonal strand vaguely associated with the First World War began with Lili Boulanger’s prescient pre-War evocation of a funeral ceremony. Whether Boulanger’s neglect owes most to the corollaries of premature death, the prominence and longevity of her sister, Nadia, or the oppressive tendencies of men is not for me to say. Pour les funérailles d'un soldat is certainly a piece of considerable promise though it looks two ways: relatively generic French academic tropes rubbing shoulders with darkly glowering chant-based material. The Stygian despondency if not the involvement of the ‘Dies irae’ takes the music away from Berlioz, closer to Rachmaninov (the Boulangers were half-Russian) and on towards Poulenc. Some hear premonitions of Britten in the pizzicato double basses that imitate the marching beat of muffled drums. And there were shades of Britten’s War Requiem in the dispensation of forces in Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem, with the eloquent Sophie Bevan perched high in the big barn’s equivalent of an organ loft. The tummy-wobbling instrument was itself deployed – tactfully – in several movements.
Before the VW was Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the music re-imagined and refined by a soloist who is a spellbinding chamber player rather than a grand virtuoso. Introverted and Fauré-like, the performance might have sounded more natural in a less cavernous venue but, imaginatively partnered by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it came off remarkably well. In a reading so purged of indulgence and rhetorical excess, the foreground was sometimes ceded to unsuspected woodwind solos and details normally buried but there was no risk that Jean-Guihen Queyras would get swamped and no mistaking the dedication and sincerity of all concerned. Gardner had his violins seated on the left with the cellos hard right so that their brief declamatory alignment with the soloist in the Finale made a big impact before the slide back to hushed retrospection. The encore was not the usual Bach. Queyras played the first of Henri Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher (one of numerous commissions by Rostropovich, a musician of a very different stripe). Whether those in the Gallery could hear much of it is a moot point. Such self-communing, circumspect eloquence has its limitations.
Gardner’s take on the Vaughan Williams was typically vivid, fresh and forthright. There have been more emotive readings but few in which everything sounded so cleanly. Chorus and Orchestra were again on excellent form. I was not too keen on Neal Davies’s Benjamin Luxon-ish vibrancy (there’s now some lack of tone at the bottom of the range) but that is to nitpick. Unjustly neglected though it used to be, the fact remains that, for some of us, the piece doesn’t quite work. The interpolated ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ (Whitman), even earlier than the Boulanger, goes on too long and doesn’t sit well with the material written in the 1930s – the printed programme note was unhelpfully silent on this – while the affirmative element, queried as it is by the quiet closing plea for peace, didn’t seem any less facile here for all the perspicacity of Gardner’s direction. Partly because the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts were primarily orchestral entertainments which helped create a national taste for secular music at the expense of the choral, several major Vaughan Williams scores went unheard in his lifetime. Incredibly, Sancta civitas was not heard at the Proms until three years ago while this was only the second outing for Dona nobis pacem, previously given in 1964 when Malcolm Sargent’s BBC forces were joined by Heather Harper and John Shirley‐Quirk.
Fortunately a near-capacity audience was on what passes for its best behaviour these days and the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed no sign of the wear and tear that can sometimes afflict it by this point of the Proms season.