MUSIC / With the flow: Robert Maycock on the scrupulous English and the elusive French at the Proms

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The Independent Culture
WITH the thunderous splendours of the Saint- Saens 'Organ Symphony' and a quirky late-night encounter with Villa- Lobos, the season reached an early festive peak on Wednesday. The BBC Philharmonic had set it up, parading a month-old relationship with its principal conductor, Yan Pascal Tortelier, which shows a real zest for music-making: the sort of spirit that used to typify Tortelier's Proms with the Ulster Orchestra and has been rare among BBC orchestras, apart from the Welsh with Tadaaki Otaka. These players sound in good nick at the moment, and there is a suppleness and unanimity about the string sound that makes a firm basis for flights of the imagination.

Their all-English programme on Tuesday began with an uncommonly sensuous view of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. This may have been dawn on a Greek island rather than Britten's East coast, but more traditional interpreters would never think to look for the score's latent warmth. The Planets began scrupulously and got better as it went on. 'Saturn' reached a climax of agonised clashing harmonies, the bells of Edgar Allan Poe rather than a country churchyard; 'Uranus' showed a sustained menace and an ancestry in The Rite of Spring; and the women of the Holst Singers floated a luminous close to 'Neptune' from the gallery.

A packed house struggled to hear the premiere of Simon Holt's BBC commission, walking with the river's roar. However much flair Nobuko Imai lavished on a notably energetic viola line, the subdued orchestration could not project easily into the hall's spaces. Was Holt too careful to avoid submerging the soloist with stronger colours? Even for a deliberately grim piece, the resulting expressive range seemed narrow, the intended anger and violence a matter of faith. Yet the music is clearly shaped and full of subtle dialogues, and it deserves the chance to see whether a more intimate encounter will make it all sound less constricted.

Nothing stopped a sense of scale and breadth emerging from Henri Dutilleux's Tout un monde lointain . . ., the centrepiece on Wednesday. The cello personifies a sense of exploring from the start, and the orchestral colour often is the invention - balanced finely between the inheritances of Ravel and Roussel. Tim Hugh was the laid-back soloist, entirely to the advantage of its delicate, elusive core: this is music that reveals itself in oblique glances, not by confrontation. An elegance in the orchestra carried over to the Saint- Saens symphony, where Ian Tracey made the Albert Hall organ a touch obtrusive in the quieter moments but judged the massive chorale and coda just right.

There was no anniversary or contrived excuse for Villa-Lobos - just the enthusiasm of Odaline de la Martinez and her group Lontano in some vivacious performances. And who could not warm to the composer of a septet for eight performers, a quartet for 16, and a nonet for 34? Here is one of the great originals, not needing to invent his own language in order to speak with an unmistakable voice. In the Quartet, a flute and harp out of Ravel are transfigured by the chirps of a saxophone and a wordless women's chorus. The ninth of the Bachianas Brasileiras, with a bouncy pre-Swingle fugue for voices, made as big a hit with the promenaders as Anne Dawson's languid solo in the famous No 5.

The Nonet, again with chorus and a strong Brazilian flavour, betrays a touch of calculation to feed experimental tastes and tourist instincts. But self-consciousness is the exception; Villa-Lobos was prodigal with vivid ideas and could juggle them into satisfying forms with the minimum of contrivance, yet he had formidable technical skills to fall back on. It's enough to make most composers livid.

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