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  PROM 12 - Elgar, Delius and Holst: Rebecca Evans (soprano),Toby Spence (tenor),BBC Singers (chorus master: Stephen Betteridge), BBC PhilharmonicOrchestra,Sir Charles Mackerras; Royal Albert Hall, London, 25.7.2009 (BBr)

Overture: Cockaigne (In London Town), op.40 (1900/1901)
Delius: The Song of the High Hills (1911/1912)
Holst: Suite: The Planets, op,32 (1914/1917)

A bright and breezy, but ultimately too light, Cockaigne got things off to a start tonight. Sir Charles didn’t seem to be “with” the music here and although the lovers were suitably tender and the Sally Army band raucous I felt no real involvement with the music.

Delius’s Song of the High Hills was an entirely different matter. Although a short work, playing for about 30 minutes, Delius achieves the remarkable feat of making time stand still and this work seems much bigger than it is. Sir Charles and his players threw themselves into the score and achieved a perfect performance. This is nature music in the course of which mankind appears but is ultimately overtaken by the natural surroundings and disappears into them. Does Delius’s musical journey take us up the mountains – as Strauss does in his contemporaneous Alpine Symphony – or are we already at the summit at the start taking in the glorious vista? No matter, this is Delius at his greatest.  Is High Hills his masterpiece? Probably – and with music of the utmost restraint and beauty he paints a picture which is second to none. The wordless chorus is used sparingly entering gradually and after an unaccompanied section of great tenderness Delius unleashes a gigantic climax where man and nature are one and, for a single moment of two bars, the choir (mankind) sing the most joyous music: but it’s too little too late and nature takes over again. Sir Charles allowed the music to speak for itself, letting the drama unfold before us, emphasizing the infinite variety of life and the natural world. I wrote one word in my programme – PERFECT. And it was.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the performance of The Planets which we heard after the interval. Sir Charles seemed quite willful in his approach to Holst’s star gazing masterpiece and although Mars was given a very fast, but truly frightening, reading too much was rushed and detail glossed over. However, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (Holst’s, and my, favourite planet) was a real highlight and with the inexorable tread of the music I could feel my own bones calcifying with every beat. Uranus was a really malevolent magician but the space sirens of Neptune were far too earthy and well fed, not to mention too close to us ; they were within the hall and not placed at a suitable distance.

That said, to hear Delius’s Song of the High Hills in this huge acoustic, and in such a fine performance made the trip to South Kensington well worthwhile.

Bob Briggs


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