RPO / Davis, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

In terms of character, atmosphere and sheer indomitability, the Royal Albert Hall is a good fit for Elgar's Sea Pictures. The statuesque Catherine Wyn-Rogers certainly looked the part – a re-embodiment of a regal Victorian lady, though wisely she eschewed the mermaid costume that Clara Butt wore for the first performance. Andrew Davis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were attentive and in the setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sabbath Morning at Sea", we were afforded the luxury of the Albert Hall organ lending profundity to the noonday swell.

Yet, for all Wyn-Rogers' lovely, rolling tone and careful nuancing, it all seemed so remote from my seat at the rear of the stalls. That's the problem with this hall – it swallows all but the mightiest invocations. Granted, the words Elgar chose to set are not, in the main, worth hearing, but still one wants to feel the dramatic rasp of the text as Adam Lindsay Gordon's "The Swimmer" grows stormy.

I moved closer to the platform for Tippett's early masterpiece, A Child of Our Time, and felt immediately more a part of it. With the combined choruses of the London Symphony and London Philharmonic lending it a volume appropriate to the hall, Davis's reading felt a little cautious and under-rehearsed – maybe the size of the choir blunted its incisiveness? But it was honest enough to convey the economy of Tippett's word-setting and honour the austere beauty of the instrumental choices – like the two flutes and solo viola prefacing the baritone soloist's prophecy of persecution. David Wilson Johnson, as ever, made his words count.

But the real wonder of A Child of Our Time is the healing light cast by the Negro spiritual settings as the emotional climacterics of the piece, and the way in which they colour so much of the music around them. Gershwin is only a whisker away from the soprano's bluesy "How Can I Cherish My Man?" and when Nicole Cabell carried her aching melisma into the rapt opening of "Steal Away", the release was extraordinary. So, too, with the first stirrings of spring and the renewed hopes of the wordless solo quartet leading us to the other side of "Deep River". There isn't a living soul who can't relate to that.

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