1934 – Delius, Elgar & Holst (2)

Holst
First Choral Symphony, Op.41
Delius
Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody
Elgar
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Susan Gritton (soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC National Chorus of Wales

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
David Atherton


Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: 26 July, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The weekend’s final concert of music commemorating the triptych of British composers who died in 1934 once again combined the popular with the unfamiliar. The Royal Albert Hall’s high occupancy may have owed much to Elgar’s Enigma Variations, but Holst’s “First Choral Symphony” was no doubt an attraction, a work almost as unusual as The Planets is popular.

The “First Choral Symphony” consists of a prelude and four movements for soprano, choir and orchestra set to the poetry of Keats. It was premiered in Leeds in 1925 when Holst was 51, seven years after the appearance of The Planets, conducted by Albert Coates, and was well received, but a performance in London a few weeks later was less successful. After this setback, the work failed to receive another performance in Holst’s lifetime and he abandoned plans to produce a companion piece.

Susan Gritton. Photograph: Tim CantrellThis Proms performance under David Atherton was a notable achievement, chorus and orchestra evoking reverence in the prelude and the second movement (a setting of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) whilst bringing vigour to the first movement’s Bacchanal and projecting awe in the final movement. It would also be difficult to imagine a more spiritually conceived and beautifully phrased soprano solo than that provided by Susan Gritton. Does the symphony deserve its neglect? Well, some of Holst’s other choral works – such as “The Hymn of Jesus” and “Choral Fantasia” manage to achieve a greater profundity in more focused way – but this persuasive performance revealed that it has much to offer.

Delius’s Brigg Fair comprises 17 variations on the English folk song of the same name. Atherton presided over a languorous and songful interpretation that benefited from a series of characterful solos (especially horn) before rising to a joyously ardent climax.

Such quality was also apparent in Enigma Variations, here given a reading combining clarity and freshness with warmth and poetry. The faster variations were played with panache, notably Variation VII (‘Troyte’), which featured an outstanding contribution from the timpanist, while the finale took advantage of the Royal Albert Hall organ to surge towards a triumphant conclusion.

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