Classical: Tributes to hope and the human spirit

BRITTEN, HOWELLS

BBC SO AND CHORUS/ HICKOX

RFH, LONDON

IN A week overshadowed by Armistice Day, Richard Hickox and his BBC forces gave a programme combining three British works of the first half of this century, each in effect a requiem by another name.

Britten's rarely heard Ballad of Heroes of 1939 - in memory of the men of the International Brigade who fell in the Spanish Civil War - sets brilliant texts by W H Auden and slightly less brilliant ones by Randall Swingler. The solemn elegiac strain of the opening "Funeral March", with sombre offstage trumpets, heralded a piece of considerable variety, ranging from the wild and grotesque in the scherzo, "Dance of Death', to the poignant in the "Recitative and Choral". A direct and passionate work that really deserves to be better known.

The Pastoral Symphony of Vaughn Williams, is well known - but not necessarily for the right reasons. Since Peter Warlock's fatuous remark about a "cow looking over a gate", there has been an obtuse tradition of dismissing this and much of RVW's other work as somehow rambling and insipid. Interestingly, later (in 1926) Warlock hailed the symphony as "the highest point yet reached by a contemporary Englishman". And it sounded pretty much that way in this magnificent performance under Hickox, whose sensitive pacing found room for the ebb and flow of the long melodic lines, and space to relish the extraordinary multi-layered harmonies.

The amazingly varied dissonances, so beautifully understated, continue in the sublime slow movement - another distant trumpet (here a natural one in E flat) evoking "bugles calling from sad shires", and the battlefields of Flanders, where this music was conceived.

The conductor dealt deftly with the frequent changes of pace and metre in the scherzo, and Joan Rodgers's wordless soprano (another original feature in its time) ushered in a most warmly played "big tune" - that moment in the finale when compassion blossoms into transcendence. A dead silence of several seconds greeted the end of this great work.

The Hymnus Paradisi of RVW's pupil, Herbert Howells, was effectively his requiem for his son, Michael, who died aged 9 in 1935. The agony and bitterness reflected in the chromatic twistings of the "Preludio" are hard to beat, even now, but somehow, Howells manages to transmute personal grief into some sort of universal comfort through the words of Psalms 23 and 121.

Soloists Joan Rodgers and Anthony Rolfe Johnson were most eloquent here and throughout, and there was some fine singing of a taxing choral part from the BBC Symphony Chorus. Richard Hickox sorted out Howells's sometimes very thick textures with skill; heavenly voices recalled Christian faith in the "Sanctus", and the final radiant invocation of the "true light" was truly thrilling.

Along with the other two works in the programme, this was a moving tribute to the ability of the human spirit, out of squalor and terror, out of unbearable pain, somehow to continue to affirm, to hope.

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