Elgar, Delius, Holst

Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Sea Drift
The Hymn of Jesus, Op.37

Thomas Hampson (baritone)

BBC National Chorus of Wales
The Bach Choir
Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This well-planned programme – Delius and Holst sandwiched between two of Elgar’s finest pieces (all the composers passing away in 1934) – attracted a full house. It turned out to be something of a curate’s egg, very good in parts and frankly poor in others. Fortunately, the good predominated.

Particularly welcome was the opportunity to hear Delius’s Sea Drift and Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus in more than adequate performances. The concert opened promisingly with an excellent Cockaigne, light on its feet, far more affecting than usual in the quieter passages and notably lacking in bombast. Elgar’s ‘postcard from London’ went off in one elegant sweep.

Like Malcolm Sargent, Hickox is a fine choral conductor. Sea Drift, a difficult piece to bring off, did not linger unduly and was none the worse for being given with a steady forward momentum. This was virile Delius, not the adjective that normally springs to mind with this composer. Having Thomas Hampson as the soloist was a huge plus – the baritone’s demanding role doubles as the boy observer and the male bird of Whitman’s poem; Hampson’s singing of the final paragraph “O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!” as the work reaches its becalmed conclusion was infinitely touching and the combined Bach Choir and BBC National Chorus of Wales gave the choral part with just the right large-scale cushion of sound, if without the ultimate in finesse.

In the Holst, apart from some rather ragged singing from the choristers of St Paul’s, all went well with this highly original music until the most magical and quietest moment – at which point there was a disruptive mobile phone. This threw the choir, some of whom came in one bar early immediately thereafter, and although Hickox rapidly got things back on track the spell had been broken: a real tragedy in music where atmosphere is everything.

Sadly, Enigma Variations was an anti-climax and a real disappointment, and was shoddily played, not that Hickox’s lugubrious direction helped. There is a tendency to moon over Elgar these days and which has nothing to do with Elgar ‘tradition’. The theme and first variation were notable casualties – and what was particularly lacking was that sense of being drawn inexorably through the variations to the final culmination; ‘Dorabella’ was symptomatic, being preceded by a long pause after ‘Nimrod’, which completely dissipated onward flow. There were fine things, though, a notable hush at the beginning of ‘Nimrod’ and a magically withdrawn clarinet solo from Robert Plane in Variation 13. At the work’s very ending – as well as in Cockaigne and the Holst – we were treated to subterranean contributions from the hall’s newly restored organ.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 21 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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