MUSIC / Reaching for bright stars: Anthony Payne reviews the Proms tribute to Constant Lambert

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The Independent Culture
Constant Lambert, brilliant iconoclast, arbiter of taste, composing wunderkind and outstanding conductor, set his seal on three decades of English music before dying at the age of 46 in 1951. His book Music, Ho] (1934) remains a scintillating and provoking exposition of ideas which infuriated many during the Sixties and later, but seems far from wrong-headed now, while his conducting, whose verve and dramatic colour speaks vividly to us from old recordings, made him the ballet director of his age. It is his creative achievement that we should cherish most, however, but until comparatively recently little had been done to keep his work before the public.

His output was not large, and towards the end of his life his invention seemed to flow more fitfully, victim of his conducting activities and poor health, but there are an appreciable number of pieces which exemplify an impressive creative integrity and touchingly direct emotion. Just such a work is the ballet Horoscope, from which four items were selected by Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Concert Orchestra as part of a Proms tribute to the composer / conductor last Friday. The music is clearly of its time, and forges links with such figures as Holst and Walton, but there is a clear-eyed romanticism and a natural simplicity of manner which will always mark it as Lambert's work.

The grace of the Gemini waltz and the ecstatic serenity of the 'Invocation to the Moon' were as beautifully characterised by Wordsworth and his players as the incisive vigour of the other two movements, and a score which remains among Lambert's most appealing made its full enchanting effect. The rest of the programme reflected his very strong tastes as conductor and musical commentator, focusing on the French tradition together with music by his English contemporaries and Sibelius, the composer which Lambert, like many of his generation, felt to be the most important of the age. Although there was no more ballet music, dance played an important part, and Ravel's La Valse received a rumbustious if not particularly elegant performance along with Warlock's Capriol Suite. This suffered from being performed in the full orchestral version, a rather unsatisfactory alternative to the perfect string orchestral original, and it reminded us that for all his poetic vision, Warlock never became a fully experienced composer.

Earlier we heard Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Sibelius's Karelia Suite, and the programme would have been rather lacking in music of a grittier substance if it had not been for Rawsthorne's Concerto for Two Pianos. Like Lambert, Rawsthorne is commonly reckoned to have fallen away in creative vigour towards the end of his life, and this late work has not escaped criticism. In a strongly etched interpretation by Piers Lane and Kathron Sturrock, however, it made a darkly aphoristic and fascinating effect.

Almost Bartokian in its evocation of nocturnal unease and in its sometimes densely clustered chordal writing, the work nevertheless pursues a most original course, and its three tightly structured movements, continuous and unpredictable in argument, focused thought and feeling from first to last.

(Photograph omitted)