live The Proms Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
While torrential rain flooded the gutters of the Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday's Prom opened to the solemn measures of "Bach arranged Elgar" - a Gothic Cathedral to contrast with, say, the Buddhist temple of Anton Webern's Bach. Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic ushered in the C minor Fantasia and Fugue, where a plangent oboe and sweetly expressive strings heralded a brand of orchestration in the best traditions of the House - ornate, Romantic and tastefully extravagant. The ensuing fugue was rich in swirls and curlicues (harp glissandos, sudden bursts of brass and percussion), though Sinaisky's vigorous exegesis more suggested power than pomp. It was a telling insight into an Edwardian's view of Bach and a colourful trip among cherubs and demigods. In fact, the whole programme was something of a musical clothes show - Bach dressed by Elgar or Brahms (ie, in his Fourth Symphony), Paganini by Rachmaninov and Hartmann by Henze.

Sinaisky's UK Premiere performance of Henze's brand-new Three Pieces for Orchestra based on Piano Pieces by Karl Amadeus Hartmann traced the Mahlerian resonances of "Pieta" (muted brass and ardent strings being especially effective), before driving the "Marcia funebre" towards a ferocious climax and allowing the closing "Reveille" its equivocal victory. Three Pieces is a strong work that grew out of Henze's disgust at the Nazi corruption of German musical culture - a culture that has a noble representative in Brahms's mighty Fourth Symphony. And although Sinaisky opted for swift tempos and lean contours, he made some telling observations along the way - mostly with respect to secondary thematic material. Woodwinds excelled, though the strings' statement of the Andante moderato's glorious second theme had a lustre that would have done full justice to the Philharmonics of Vienna or Berlin. This was Brahms with a purpose: assertive, lissome and goal-orientated.

Hartmann-Henze and Brahms were separated by Rachmaninov, a deftly dispatched Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in which the young Nikolai Lugansky exhibited formidable finger velocity but precious little sensitivity to the more reflective aspects of the score. Still, the orchestra played well and the fast final variations prompted a dazzling display of pianistic fireworks.

A quite different manner of fire provided aural illumination in Wednesday's Prom when Mark Elder conducted the BBC Symphony in the Festival's first ever presentation of Bax's Spring Fire. Cast in five separate movements that play without a break, this "symphony" serves as a masterly example of Bax's individual brand of musical Post-Impressionism, being suggestive - at one time or other - of Ravel, Debussy, Delius, early Strauss or early Stravinsky. Elder directed a worthy performance that faired best where the music was at its most evocative. Furthermore, by having violin desks divided, cellos centre-placed and, most unusually, eight double-basses split into two groups of four, he created a spatially varied sound-stage.

Prior to Bax, we heard soprano Christine Brewer give a confident, bright- voiced account of Strauss's Four Last Songs, routinely accompanied save for a beautifully sustained ending to "Im Abendrot". The programme had opened with Wagner's Tannhauser "Overture and Bacchanale", a mixture of nobility and cautious revelry with a Bacchanale that seemed decidedly non-alcoholic. Elder was at his best in the dreamy closing sequence where, beyond an orgiastic climax, the Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir women's voices - accompanied by harp and woodwinds - sounded angelically from the high-flung gallery opposite the stage.

Between Wagner's Bacchanale, Strauss's swansongs and Bax's rustic ramble came one of Dvorak's most bracing inspirations, his concert overture In Nature's Realm. Here again, spontaneity and animal vigour were conspicuous by their absence. The playing was spirited enough, but there was no "lift" to the phrasing, none of the crispness or sense of outdoors that seasoned Dvorakians habitually bring to the piece. There was no encore either, whereas on the night before Vassily Sinaisky had treated us to a vivacious reading of what he announced as "Brahms arranged by Brahms", a dashing Hungarian Dance.

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