MUSIC / Only a light swell: Anthony Payne finds Andrew Davis misses the emotional heart of Delius's Sea-Drift at Sunday's Prom

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The Independent Culture
THE CORRECT analytical tools for the study of Delius's music have yet to be found. Its total reliance on subtly inflected chromatic harmony to generate freely improvisatory forms has so far defied elucidation in all but the most general and superficial terms. Yet anyone sympathetic to Delius knows that a surprising number of his works are structurally perfect, even if rational explanations of the achievement have yet to be formulated. This is an extraordinary feat given that much of his best work avoids all references to orthodox formal processes.

The sound of his mature music, which means in effect its harmonic syntax, is utterly unlike that of any other composer, as are the structural spans which seem to chart the life of the spirit and the senses from moment to intense moment. The luxuriant surface qualities of the music are easy enough to enjoy, so much so that critics of it have been lured into thinking that the music is one-dimensional and has nothing else to offer.

But the deeper layers of meaning articulated by the tonal allusions and ambiguities are more difficult to grasp, and are perhaps more readily available in a dramatic, narrative composition like Sea-Drift than in purely orchestral pieces. Here, the story told by the baritone soloist provides a structural analogue of the musical unfolding, and yields an immediate coherence. It is a work that can have a most profound effect.

The very striking text taken from Whitman might have been specially tailored to Delius's vision with its metaphors for human love and loss in a small boy's observation of two seabirds, first happily nesting then cruelly parted. Delius paints the backdrop of nature, the booming of the distant surf, the ecstatic calm of a starry night, with matchless power, creating parallels to the ebbing and flowing of human emotions, while the chorus provides diverse commentaries on the baritone's narration. These threads are interwoven in an elliptical structure of unique precision and emotional resonance, and the resultant tapestry poses its interpreters considerable problems of balance and movement.

Andrew Davis, who opened a programme of early 20th-century English music with it in Sunday's Promenade concert, seemed in full command of the work's flooding structures, and yet the transcendental emotion which Delius can evoke was somehow missing. The singing of the BBC Symphony Chorus was splendidly focused, but the crucial narrative was under- characterised by a rather light voiced Thomas Allen, and the orchestra sometimes needed to assume a more dramatic presence.

Later in Elgar's The Music Makers the heart of the music was more successfully revealed: with a forthright mezzo soloist in Jean Rigby and a command of both visionary inwardness and outgoing ebullience in chorus and orchestra, the composer's extraordinary personal revelations came dramatically to life.

Earlier we had heard a splendid performance of John Ireland's Piano Concerto, once a firm Prom favourite and now apparently re-establishing itself after long neglect. Kathryne Stott played it to the manner born with acute understanding of its emotional light and shade, now lyrically confessional, now darkly legendary. The bravura sparkled but always carried poetic weight.

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