MUSIC / Quick and the dead: BBCSO / Mark Elder - The Proms

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The Independent Culture
All this century, English music has suffered from over-promoting composers who are still called 'promising' at 39. Monday's Prom seemed as though designed to stand that lazy view on its head. George Butterworth died at 31 in the First World War, but A Shropshire Lad, which began the concert, is hardly the legacy of some nearly-there talent. It shows a highly personal voice, expansive and post-Wagnerian as it deploys long, freely evolving violin lines with a sure feeling for continuity - rather like Chausson. This, surely, was the Elgar succession, European in outlook and as fulfilled as you could wish.

If Nicholas Maw had stopped writing in his twenties, we would say similar things about Scenes and Arias. When it was new, more than 30 years ago, it shocked people. At a time when exploratory sounds were the convention, Maw let it be led by three lyrical female voices. The orchestra is colour, continuity and supporting argument. It isn't 'easy' music to listen to, but it radiates an unmistakable sense of enjoying the traditional means and materials of Western music in Maw's own way.

This, therefore, was music that wouldn't change the world. But, oh yes, it did. Hearing it now, you might think it had been written yesterday, apart from superficial touches of Sixties spikiness; it's the music from that time by Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle that sounds dated. Maw, trusting his instinct to go where others feared, turns out to have been the one who was on course all along.

Mark Elder, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, had the measure of its expansive paragraphs. For singers like Susan Bickley and Jean Rigby, it sounded a gift, and while Elizabeth Woollett sounded awkward at the high, florid opening, she soon became part of a serene, sensuous threesome.

We should really blame Beethoven. Only he ever reached the seasoned state that produced the symphonies and concertos of his thirties, and still went on developing. Is there a more perfect embodiment of it than his Fourth Piano Concerto? You probably won't think so if you heard Mitsuko Uchida's performance.

It took every opportunity to make expressive points at leisure, but so exact was the touch, so concentrated the guiding thought, that even the sometimes puzzling finale sounded a true and inevitable culmination.

Writing In the South at 47, Elgar must give heart to struggling oldies. Indeed he had only just got there: it can be done. (But maybe only by Bruckner or Janacek apart from him.) The music has the unstoppable energy of Strauss's early tone poems, for many of the same reasons. In the most polished orchestral performance of the evening, Elder brought a fetching light touch to the poetic episodes amid the prevailing athletic momentum.

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