O Albion! O Albertopolis! O Kensington Gore! It's so Victorian, so Elgarian!
O Albion! O Albertopolis! O Kensington Gore! It's so Victorian, so Elgarian! There is a little complication in that most of Sir Edward's influences were continental; that the Bradford-born Frederick Delius was a second-generation German immigrant who'd rather live anywhere but in England, and that Gustav (von) Holst's grandfather settled in Cheltenham from Sweden.
Still, they were all laid to rest in this land 70 years ago, and here, with the rejuvenated organ and the benign bust of Sir Henry Wood looking down, were the mighty ranks of the Bach Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Choir of St Paul's Cathedral and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Richard Hickox to commemorate the fact.
The concert kicked off with Elgar's teemingly inventive overture Cockaigne (1900), subtitled In London Town - and surely that stately second subject is Kensington Gore to the life! It got a spirited reading, with a natural command of Elgar's tempos by Hickox, apart from a momentary portentousness as the organist Malcolm Hicks made the first of several sonorous entries over the evening.
It was perhaps unkind to programme the more muted scoring of Delius after this. Yet, under favourable conditions, his Whitman setting Sea Drift (1906) can come over as something like his masterpiece. Here, despite fine singing from the Bach Choir et al, it seemed to hang fire; baritone Thomas Hampson's first entry was even tentative. Not until the heartbreaking final section "Oh past! Oh happy life!" did the performance grip.
The reading of The Hymn of Jesus (1917) by Holst was a triumph. The bright, fierce, visionary sound of this setting from the Apocryphal Acts of St John revolutionised British choral writing, deeply influencing Walton, Tippett and Britten. It is not a fail-safe structure; Holst's cross-cutting of various recapitulated bits towards the end can leave a sense of falling masonry, and Hickox's holding it all together was especially impressive.
But from the opening plainchant intoned by the trombones, through the Corybantic give and take of the double chorus, with the St Paul's boys floating ecstatically above, to the rapt close, the intensity was scarcely lost for a second. Perhaps this was why the pressure came off a little too much in Elgar's Enigma Variations (1899), with some sketchy ensemble and a curious displacement of the emotional centre of gravity away from "Nimrod". Still, a capacity Albert Hall loved it all.
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