It’s taken Herbert Howells’s ‘Hymnus Paradisi’ 62 years to reach the Proms, but the wait was worth it. Written in grief over the death from polio of the composer’s nine-year-old son, and at the same time an elegy for his fellow-composer Ivor Gurney, it was so painful a document that for ten years he couldn’t show it to anyone.
Only when his hero Vaughan Williams urged him to go public with it, did he decide to have it performed, and it became an instant hit. The big-boned writing of this one-off creation is modal rather than tonal, and the effects have a bold simplicity, with the soprano and tenor soloists set like jewels against their choral backdrop. Its leitmotiv is the ‘lux eterna’ of the Requiem Mass, and insofar as it relates to any other work, it’s to the ‘German Requiem’ of Brahms.
It had a fair wind for this performance, with the BBC Symphony Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir under Martyn Brabbins’s direction, and Miah Persson and Andrew Kennedy as soloists. The gently-stressed dissonances of the opening choral section had sensuous grace, and when Persson added her voice, it soared with lovely clarity over the massed choral-orchestral sound.
And this long work didn’t feel so, thanks to the intensity with which it had been forged, and the beauty of the effects which Brabbins drew from his performers. Elgar’s First Symphony, which followed, was delivered with spacious assurance, but for all Elgar’s craftsmanship and lyrical invention, it still lacked the divine spark.
Britain’s new love affair with choral singing may partly explain why Eric Whitacre got a full house, but this American choirmaster has armies of fans. And does he know it: there were whoops and shrieks as he sauntered onstage, lovingly smoothing his long blond locks. He’s got great control, but is he really a composer? The five works of his own in the programme suggested he’s more of an effects man: when he essays a Renaissance pastiche, it’s like Monteverdi with the spine removed, and his ‘Olympic’ premiere was a feeble piece of gimmickry.
The most deranged part of this concert was his guest Imogen Heap’s ‘The Listening Chair’ - less coy than downright creepy - but the audience loved that too. It takes all sorts.