Prom 11, Royal Albert Hall, Radio 3/London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Pastoral way be this year's theme, but don't let that worry you.

Pastoral way be this year's theme, but don't let that worry you. The programmes keep coming up with oddball subtexts that run against expectations. You thought Benjamin Britten was a stage composer? Let's do a symphony. Gerald Finzi a miniaturist? That'll be a concerto, then. As for the polished, perfectionist Claude Debussy, what better than a speculative version of a lost score, based on two orchestrations he didn't do himself?

Saturday evening's line-up came courtesy of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, now under the anglophile direction of Richard Hickox. France must have got in because the choral reconstruction of Printemps was attributed to the late Christopher Palmer.

Usually this piece is played in an orchestra-only edition by Henri Busser, which doesn't sound an awful lot like Debussy thanks to a plonking piano part. Voices transform it: mostly used in the slow opening section, they give the music a heightened, sensuous sheen like the wordless choruses in Debussy's Nocturnes or Holst's Planets.

The BBC Singers found the right languid balance here, at least as heard on the latecomers' radio relay where a misappropriated press ticket had temporarily dumped me, and Hickox found the initial broad sweep though his robust rhythm made the quicker music like a British military march. But using Busser's orchestra as its basis, it still sounded only half-way to Debussy. Time to do something more radical.

A robust approach worked well for Finzi, belying the image of a small-scale talent attempting something big late in his life. His Cello Concerto packs a fair punch at the start, sustaining its unusual, powerful and restless character for most of the first movement, though the energy levels eventually dip – no fault of the expansive, committed Raphael Wallfisch – and the finale features weak themes that seem to be going nowhere. The heart is a solemn, songful Andante like distilled Elgar, with a surprising brassy climax and reflective close: orchestra and soloist shared a focused intensity.

Britten's Spring Symphony is about as unsymphonic as they come. Cleverly balanced masses of sound and good timing did the trick for him. An ever-changing, usually light selection from the massed choirs (four of them here), solo singers and orchestra makes sure the trees don't overwhelm the wood. The down side is that there's no sense of growth and culmination, just a big, rowdy ending.

But the journey is packed with colour and the poetic anthology it sets is absorbing, even if it does sweep aside Auden's warning against pastoral complacency from "Summer Night" in its eagerness to keep the kaleidoscope turning.

You can rely on Hickox to bring off pieces on this scale with flair, and there was plenty of fine attention to detail. The London Symphony Chorus and BBC National Chorus of Wales delivered power without stress, the Southend Boys' Choir and Colorado Children's Chorale struggled with the awkward setting of "schoolboys playing in the stream" (was that really the best they can whistle?) but had the gusto for their other numbers. Strong solos from Lillian Watson, the apparently ageless Philip Langridge and, best of all, Pamela Helen Stephen searing Auden into the memory.

This Prom will be repeated today at 2pm on BBC Radio 3. Box office: 020-7589 8212. www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Comments