Prom 17: Hallé/Mark Elder – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Sancta civitas, Elgar’s Second Symphony

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Vaughan Williams
Sancta civitas
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63

Robin Tritschler (tenor) & Iain Paterson (bass-baritone)

Hallé Youth Choir
Trinity Boys Choir
Hallé Choir
London Philharmonic Choir

Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 July, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Mark Elder conducting the Hallé at the BBC Proms 2015.Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe Proms exploration of neglected British music continued with this rare revival of Sancta civitas (1925) by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Designated an oratorio, its brief duration (little more than 30 minutes) makes it a precursor to William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with which it overlaps in choice of text, but the present work could hardly be more different in concept – a contemplation of the ‘holy city’ whose evoking of the visionary and apocalyptic makes it the culmination of its composer’s existential searching in the aftermath of the First World War.

For all its relative brevity, Sancta civitas is a tricky and even impractical piece to bring off – requiring a trenchant contribution from baritone, here the forthright Iain Paterson, as ceases well before the mid-point; and a heady contribution from tenor, impressively taken by Robin Tritschler, which occupies little more than 30 seconds near the close. The contribution of the Hallé and London Philharmonic Choirs left little to be desired, though even such assuredness could not prevent the lengthy approach to the main climax from seeming diffuse; and it was the presence of the Hallé Youth and Trinity Boys Choirs, high in the Gallery and in ideal proportion acoustically, as facilitated the most memorable passages – not least that main climax, with its praising of a God whose presence Vaughan Williams knew had become more intangible than ever before.

Iain Paterson, bass-baritone, and Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé at the BBC Proms 2015.Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIf not the overlooked masterpiece as VW aficionados might have it, Sancta civitas remains a crucial work in its composer’s evolution and Mark Elder’s conducting, flexible though never unfocussed and with a sure sense of restrained grandeur, rendered it in the most positive light.It was a cunning ploy to open with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), as Debussy’s conception of music emerging rather than beginning and then ceasing rather than resolving was not lost on his English successors – even in a slightly too sentimental a reading as this.

After the interval, Elgar’s Second Symphony (1911), which Elder has championed over his tenure with the Hallé. The Allegro’s testing initial bars were securely despatched, yet what followed did not always locate the ideal balance between resolve and rumination as this movement headed securely if often self-consciously via its rapt central phase to a coda whose decisiveness was itself offset by inhibition. There were few such pitfalls in the Larghetto, yet this cumulative two-stage processional – despite its felicities (not least Stéphane Rancourt’s eloquent oboe cantilena) – lacked requisite intensity so that the searing climax and its desolate aftermath felt unduly reined-in. Nor did the ensuing Scherzo scintillate in its capricious outer sections, with the explosive central revisiting of previous ideas ominous but never shocking.

If the finale took a little time to hit its stride, the movement as a whole brought out the best interpretatively – not least in a lengthy development whose restless searching was imbued with a purpose as avoided any risk of diffusiveness, though the main climax (organ pedal not deployed) was lacking in impact while the epilogue felt enervated rather than transcendent. The burnished response of the strings (led by the always excellent Lyn Fletcher) was a pleasure: the performance overall satisfied but was rarely spellbinding.

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