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  PROM 14: Holst, Delius and Elgar: Susan Gritton (soprano), BBC National Chorus of Wales (chorus master: Adrian Partington), BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, David Atherton, Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.7.2009 (BBr)

First Choral Symphony, op.41 (1923/1924)
Delius: Brigg Fair – An English Rhapsody (1907)
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma, op.35 (1898/1899)

Just because you call a work a Symphony doesn’t make it a Symphony. This is the big stumbling block with Holst’s First Choral Symphony because, for all its pretentions to symphonic form, it isn’t, and can never be, a Symphony. It is scored with Holst’s customary clarity of aural vision – every strand of the orchestral texture is clearly audible – and the orchestral writing is truly remarkable, but  it is the word setting which lets it down! There is too much chanting, and, in the slow movement – a setting of the Ode to a Grecian Urn – there are times when one could be listening to a selection of Holst’s unaccompanied part songs with occasional interjections from the orchestra. Holst too often falls back on his well tried slow march rhythms: the section beginning Who are these coming to the sacrifice! seemed old hat. The scherzo is too much Mercury and not enough folly and fancy and is without the fleetness of foot he was obviously aiming for.

Was this a good performance? I haven’t heard the work for many years and I haven’t looked at the score for nearly as long so I can only write about what I heard. As far as I could tell this performance was good, well thought out, well rehearsed, well presented, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was all worth it. The piece seemed to be too long and far too ponderous – which is the memory I have from previous hearings. With the best will in the world the audience tried hard to enjoy the work but from the feeling of restlessness I perceived in the hall towards the end, not to mention the less than enthusiastic reception, one felt that whilst we should be grateful for the chance to hear the work,  it didn’t set the blood boiling. One final thought: a couple of years after this work Holst wrote Egdon Heath – a masterpiece of concision and this kind of clear lucidity is what he said he was aiming for. Could it be that, without realizing it, he was already thinking of this and thus the overblown Symphony didn’t turn out as it might have  done, had it been shorter? Holst says more in the 28 pages of orchestral score in Egdon Heath than in this whole work.

The second half brought more familiar fare. David Atherton is a conductor for whom I have a lot of respect; he has his own ideas and is not afraid to put them into practice. Sometimes, however, they don’t always work, and this performance of Brigg Fair was one such occasion. Although there was much to enjoy in his interpretation he sometimes lost the sense of the music – most noticeably in the funeral march variation where, inexplicably, he upped the tempo after the initial brass statement of the theme. This was unnecessary and brought about an uncomfortable change in atmosphere. That said, in general this was a well thought out performance with some gorgeously sumptuous string playing and a very well built climax.

The Enigma likewise suffered from some wayward tempi – indeed a couple of the faster variations seemed scrambled, but Nimrod – and performances of the Enigma, as I have written elsewhere, must stand or fall by how this section is built – was excellent; very slow and majestic with deep feeling and magnificently sustained orchestral playing. In fact from here to the end there was much to admire. The finale was well done with the Albert Hall organ adding much to the close.

A bit of a curate’s egg of a show but a full house was treated to some important English music and for that we must thank Roger Wright in his intelligent planning for this Proms season.

Bob Briggs


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