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Music: OPENING NIGHTS OF THE PROMS Royal Albert Hall, London

  • @seckerson
Veni, Creator Spiritus - "Come, Creator Spirit", or rather "Come, Creative Spirit". The opening night of the Proms, the second leg of the centenary celebrations, and Mahler bestriding the new season just as he did the turning of the century. He was an end and a beginning, he was fulfilment and he was prophecy. The Eighth Symphony stands now just as it did in 1910: on the threshold. And as the Veni, Creator theme returned at the close, its interval of a seventh transformed into a major ninth, it was indeed as if the trumpets from high in the Albert Hall dome were reaching into an unknown future. "Mahler and Beyond." All will be revealed in the next eight weeks.

In the meantime - an impressive start? Impressive, yes. Authoritative? Absolutely. Transcendental? If only. That Andrew Davis has the measure of this piece cannot be doubted. That he took us "beyond" that which is practical into the realms of "planets and suns rotating" (Mahler's words) ... I think not. For my own part that maddeningly elusive inner light, that extra-special something - so easy to recognise, so hard to define - was there only sporadically. It was there for one precious moment in the early stages of Part 2: a single line of text - "Heiligen Liebeshort" ("Love's holy sanctuary") - which Davis and the altos, tenors, and basses of his first chorus shaped into something quite magical. It was there as the Mater gloriosa floated into view, the violins of the BBC Symphony finding the serenity at the heart of the score's purplest passage. It was there in the shimmering orchestral preface to the Chorus Mysticus.

Davis took courage in that final chorus, the hum of massed voices truly filling space, the etemal crescendo beautifully judged. But perhaps the key to "the whole universe beginning to ring and resound" is to be found in an even greater breadth of vision. Just as the ecstatic Gloria of Part I demands almost reckless abandon, the choral scales going off like shooting- stars (and that was the spirit in which Davis entered the fugue here), so the closing measures of the piece should know no bounds - or at least feel that way. In practical terms, we're probably talking a hair's-breadth slower. But in Mahler, it's always the extra distance that makes the difference. Even so, Davis's combined choirsmade a joyful noise, bright and bouncy in the heavenly high-jinks of Part 2, fearless and incisive in the big Beethovenian double-fugue at the heart of the Veni, Creator Spiritus setting.

Decent soloists, too. It's not often that a mezzo dominates like Jane Henschel, or that a tenor proves as secure in the testing tessitura of Doctor Marianus as Kim Begley (though, strictly speaking, he doesn't have the heroic timbre for the role). Faye Robinson was radiant on the top line, save for one disastrously flat high C (her single most important, alas) as the music finally soars upwards to meet the Redeemer's gaze. A cruel business, singing. I doubt she'll be listening to the broadcast tape.

So, "beyond" the first night to the second. And "niente" - "nothing" - the last word to appear on the score of Vaughan Williams' troubled Sixth Symphony. He had seen the future and nothing would come of nothing: just etemal sleep without rest, quiet without peace. Bleak. Vernon Handley (directing the BBC Concert Orchestra) has a special feeling for the very particular sensibilities of this music: where others would make a meal of that defining moment where the glorious second subject of the first movement at last finds body and soul in the major mode, Handley treats it with circumspection, like a husk of hope in an ill wind. Gordon Jacob's orchestral transcription of Elgar's Organ Sonata No 1 in G was the novel curtain-raiser, grandly, rowdily thumbing its nose at the redundant Albert Hall organ.