MUSIC / Such immortal harmony: Edward Seckerson reviews the Proms Tribute to Henry Wood

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The Independent Culture
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music / Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony.' Just so. When Vaughan Williams found Shakespeare in Act V of The Merchant of Venice, he finally put to rest that tired old notion that only second-rate poetry can find enhancement in music. To Vaughan Williams, the words of Lorenzo and Jessica on that balmy night at Belmont were music, a Serenade to Music in all its myriad reflections: music of love, music of the night, where rapture and contentment mingle with apprehension and uncertainty. This extraordinary work was written in response to an extraordinary occasion: an elaborate jubilee concert celebrating Henry Wood's 50 years as a conductor. That was 1938.

At Friday's Prom, 50 years to the day since Sir Henry's death, we celebrated his life and legacy, and Vaughan Williams's small, perfectly formed masterpiece was again the centrepiece. Serenade to Music is unique. Unique in that it was custom-made for the talents of 16 internationally renowned singers of the day. That's a hard (not to say expensive) act to follow. But on Friday they did, and the arrival on stage of the cream of at least three generations of largely British and Commonwealth singing talent was something you had to pinch yourself to take in. Just imagine the backstage banter, the mutual admiration, the dressing-room allocations. But they didn't sing like 16 soloists, this motley but distinguished crew; they sang like a well-endowed choir. And at full-stretch, voices raised as one to such climactic lines as 'Such harmony is in immortal souls', the collective depth and breadth of tone was enriching.

Everyone has a fleeting moment of stardom. Nancy Argenta got to recall her predecessor Isobel Baillie in the pure, high- flown sigh Vaughan Williams makes of the words 'of sweet harmony'; Heddle Nash breathed again in Anthony Rolfe Johnson; Yvonne Kenny braved the soaring Eva Turner line; our reigning Wotan, John Tomlinson, was a magnificant anchor to the harmony, and golden oldies John Mitchinson and Heather Harper rose heroically to their solos, Harper finding the high A, if not quite the bite and radiance of her prime with the key phrase, 'And draw her home with music'. But what music. Harmony doesn't come any riper, modulations were never more heart-easing. And even Vaughan Williams's much- beloved solo violin undergoes a magical transformation: from lark to nightingale.

That and other instrumental voices came courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, leader Michael Davis (the eloquent nightingale), and conductor Andrew Davis. And very impressive they were.

An especially accomplished first clarinet, pale and interesting, emerged from echoing fanfares and glazed strings to lead the cortege in a rare outing for Elgar's handsomely attired Funeral March from 'Grania and Diarmid'. Then there was the dazzling exhibition of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, cryptic, bejewelled, not without its touches of sweet harmony, albeit with a twist. But all roads led to Beethoven, and Davis played out the obsessive rhythmic energy of the Seventh Symphony on a well-upholstered orchestra (double wind, lots of strings), reluctant even to pause for breath between movements - thus catching the frisson of that major to minor key switch from the first to the second. At his headlong tempo, the great stamping finale graduated from the 'apotheosis of the dance' to the delirium of the dance. But nobody missed their footing and all heads were reeling.