The Proms Hears Vaughan Williams’ Impassioned Plea for Peace

14/08/2018

Proms

PROM 41Lili Boulanger, Elgar and Vaughan Williams: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Alexandre Duhamel (baritone), Neal Davies (bass-baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.8.2018. (AS)

Lili BoulangerPour les funérailles d’un soldat

Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85

Vaughan WilliamsDona nobis pacem

The programme note revealed that Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem had only been performed at the Proms once before, under Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1964. As listeners to the new performance were able to hear, it is a very fine work, passionate in its condemnation of war in all its forms. As a medical orderly and then an officer in France, Vaughan Williams had been powerfully affected by his experiences, and in the mid-1930s it seemed possible that fresh widespread conflict would again take place sooner or later. And so, the composer decided to raise his own voice against that eventuality in the form of a cantata, setting texts by Walt Whitman, John Bright, the Bible and the Latin Mass for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and fairly large orchestra.

The soprano speaks for the terrified individual, the chorus represents anxiety and sometimes expressions of hope, as does the bass-baritone. Sophie Bevan was placed above and behind the orchestra, and her voice rang out beautifully and dramatically into the auditorium. Neal Davies generally sang reliably, his diction was excellent, and he also brought pungent expression to his texts, but his voice faltered a little in Bright’s ‘The Angel of Death’. The chorus was in better form than it had been in Brahms’s rather more difficult German Requiem a few nights previously, and Gardner managed a fine, eloquent account of the work, though occasionally, as in Whitman’s Beat! Beat! Drums! his tempi were a little on the brisk side.

To begin the concert Gardner had conducted Lili Boulanger’s depiction of the funeral ceremony for an army captain, the words taken from part of Alfred de Musset’s dramatic poem La coupe et les lèvres.  This student work is scored for chorus, orchestra and a baritone soloist who has such a tiny part that one felt sorry for Alexandre Duhamel: his contribution could have been sung by a chorus member. The dominating funeral march music quoted the ‘Dies Irae’ with seeming inevitability: the piece was quite effective in a rather conventional French early twentieth-century fashion.

Jean-Guihen Queyras set the seal on his performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by playing his opening recitative rather smoothly. With Gardner and the orchestra providing attentive support Queyras continued to pursue the first movement’s solo line in a lyrical, but somewhat gentle fashion. The playing was certainly beautiful, but not terribly decisive. The Allegro moderato section of the second movement duly bustled along, but the playing was a little underpowered.  Only in the third movement did Queras allow much full-bodied expression, and that only for a brief phase.

Again, the last movement needed more vigour, more forthrightness, more character from the soloist, so that at the end one was left with the impression of a pleasant, but slightly bland account of the concerto.

Alan Sanders  

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