Friday, July 27, 2007

Prom 18: Delius/Tippett/Vaughan Williams (RAH)

Ah, Delius, the syphilitic old fascist. There are those who go into raptures about his music, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. " A Song of Summer" meandered along in a turn of the century, sub-Debussy sort of way, all very lush and ripe but lacking in much substance. A nagging thought kept knocking in my skull that I'd heard it somewhere before, which coalesced into a realisation that what it really reminded me of was "By the Sleepy Lagoon" without the tune. So, Delius: a poor man's Eric Coates.

I mentioned Tippett yesterday in comparison to Henze, and, serendipitously, here is his Triple Concerto. Tippett's an idiosyncratic composer, to put it mildly; depending on whether you're in the mood for him he can seem luxuriantly rhapsodic or rambling; there are many gestures that sound appealingly knotty when you're feeling sympathetic, and clumsy when you're not. And then he floors you with something of such breathtaking beauty that you have to forgive him. But in a time when so many composers are turning out expertly crafted, glowingly orchestrated and timidly empty scores, Tippett stands against the cult of fetishistic surface perfection and insists on music as a social force that can attempt to say something.

And so to Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony. It's such a shame that such transcendentally beautiful music as this gets dismissed as "cowpat music", and it makes me wonder what it is about the English that makes them unable to believe that one of their own might produce something worthy to stand alongside the greats, which this symphony undoubtedly does, in my view. It's elegant pastoral skin conceals an underlying muscular system that is as steely as the tumultuous fourth and sixth symphonies that stand either side of it. And in Andrew Davies you couldn't hope for a better guide through this music. In fact the experience reminds me just how good the BBC Symphony Orchestra were when he was their principal conductor, before he left and they fell into a dreadful slump (I recall a performance they gave a few years ago at the Proms under Jukka-Pekka Saraste of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra that I still remember as the worst performance I have ever heard a professional orchestra give). They have turned the corner, and Jiri Belohlavek has certainly raised their game, but they still have more work to do to return to their former heights. They played wonderfully tonight, and they should always play this well.

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