CLASSICAL MUSIC: New Queen's Hall Orchestra; Barbican Hall, London

The New Queen's Hall Orchestra has spent the past five years trying out piston-valve horns, narrow-bore trombones and other items from the inventory of obsolete instruments in the hope of reviving an early 20th- century orchestral sound. While the likes of Roger Norrington have removed the varnish from Brahms and Wagner, the NQHO has focused on English romantic music, the repertoire in which their earlier namesake excelled. In a message of birthday greeting on Saturday that was itself a touch of authenticity, Sir Edward Heath recalled the playing of that original pre-war Queen's Hall Orchestra, which he had heard. In a rather more offbeat way, the presence in the band of a female clarinettist named Marie Lloyd gave another authentic twist to the sense of occasion.

Up in the gallery of the Barbican organ loft the women of the Philharmonia Chorus were on hand for the wordless singing in the last movement, "Neptune", of Holst's Planets suite. Already recorded by the orchestra to much acclaim, it occupied the second half as a showcase of what could be achieved. Unlike some revivalist ensembles, the NQHO has no rigidly scholastic agenda, maybe because many of the leading players in its ranks are themselves the students once or twice removed of the actual players who'd have told them how the music sounded first time round. "Judge for yourself" seems to be their motto, with the proviso that you might indeed prefer the posher finish of the modern symphony orchestra.

In The Planets, however, as in the cool opening of Delius's Brigg Fair heard earlier, there was no doubting the distinction brought by wooden flutes to phrases of quiet music. French horns stage right and trumpets, less brazen than their modern kind, stage left added flair to the aural drama of "Jupiter" and "Uranus", with older-style percussion (small cymbals and drums with animals skins) drier and harder than their brethren of the Glennie generation.

Through all the contrasts of Holst's masterpiece, conductor Roy Goodman drove a firm and confident course. No less steady in the Delius, he also directed two classics of English music: Elgar's Introduction and Allegro and The Lark Ascending of Vaughan Williams. Soloist Robert Gibbs gave a warm, intimate reading of the latter, whose generous string strength may have been authentic yet felt less comfortably blended than that of more modern ensembles. Sebastian Bell's flute solos in the gentle folk- dance sections were a special feature. The triangle here was presumably authentic too. Before the final cadenza, the slow procession of drooping chords for wind and strings seemed like luminous shapes glimpsed through the Cotswold mist.

The dividend in the Elgar was the placing of violins either side of the rostrum - especially effective in the "devil of a fugue" - and the gut strings and portamento playing that delivered a resonant final pizzicato and a majestic moment when the main tune returned in the sobbing tenor register. This is certainly a romantic work, yet its heart belongs to the 18th century, solid and zealous and full of Handelian swagger as Elgar imagined that period to be. That's how the NQHO played it; in an oak-panelled reading, and solid at that, not veneer.

Nicholas Williams

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