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Holst, Delius and Vaughan Williams:   Tasmin Little (violin), Lisa Milne (soprano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley. Cadogan Hall, London 19.2.2008 (BB)

Gustav Holst: Ballet Music: The Perfect Fool, op.39 (1918/1922)
Frederick Delius: Violin Concerto (1915/1916)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.3, Pastoral (1922)

On paper, the idea of a concert of Holst, Delius and Vaughan Williams might seem to be a bit of cowpat overkill. But when you discover that the Delius is the Violin Concerto and the VW is the poor relation of his symphonic cycle, the interest stirs.

This evening, as part of its Green and Pleasant Land – Quintessentially English Orchestral Music series, the RPO did lovers of our own music a great service. And what a service it was. I realized that, although I have known all three pieces for many years, it is 35 years since I last heard the Holst in concert, and 28 years since I last attended a performance of the Delius. I had never heard the VW live until tonight. How badly we treat our composers, great or small.

Holst’s marvellous ballet music got things off to a rousing start. Exuberant brass in the invocation and the outer movements, gorgeous woodwind in the middle movement (special mention for the piccolo which has a most telling part here, praise for Helen Keen) and the strings rich and resplendent.

Things turned  more serious after this. Tasmin Little must be the only violinist who plays the Delius Concerto with any kind of regularity and she has made it very much her own. Like a lot of Delius this concerto can appear to meander round and round going nowhere in particular, but with Little playing with superb authority, knowing exactly where the music was leading her and drawing us into the magical web of sound, the work seemed more musically coherent than normal. Before the concert she said that she would be playing the “Regent” Stradivarius, which she has on loan from the Royal Academy, as it would make a bigger sound and be more able to cut through the, sometimes quite dense, orchestral textures. Handley certainly made sure the orchestra played the piece for all it is worth and didn’t hold back in the climaxes, making Little’s choice the correct one. A truly authoritative performance from two of the most committed Delians at work today.

After the interval we had Vaughan Williams’s 3rd Symphony – a most undemonstrative work, and not the kind of pastoral one might expect from this composer. VW said that the work was not to be a pastoral of the “lambkins frisking” variety, but rather an orchestral war requiem for those lost in the First World War. All four movements are basically slow, with very occasional faster sections, and there is a feeling of regret, lament perhaps, for what has gone. The first movement is a straight forward sonata form, two groups of ideas are developed and, as happens in this Symphony, they simply stop when all that can be done with the material has been completed. The slow movement includes a last post for a natural trumpet, played, perhaps, in the fields for the fallen. The “scherzo” lumbers along, no bucolic peasants here, leaden footed, and the finale is enclosed by a vocalise for solo soprano (sung offstage by Lisa Milne) and contains brass fanfares and a passionate climax, crowning the whole work. It must be said that climaxes are few and far between in this music, and when they do appear they don’t stay around for long.

Handley is, of course, the master of this repertoire and his well thought out reading of this difficult score was certainly masterful. Textures were always clear, the colouring of the music was deftly handled and there was never a sense of ennui (which could visit this score in less skilful hands). The RPO responded well to his leadership and I must mention the ravishing cor anglais playing of Leila Ward.

My only reservation about the whole evening was Lisa Milne; she sang the vocalises with far too fruity a voice. This Symphony needs a much more innocent voice – a naïve country girl not a city girl who knows more than is good for her.

A fairly full house was more than satisfied with what was heard and I can hardly wait for further entries in this Green and Pleasant Land series.

Bob Briggs

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