Proms 33 & 34, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

In an increasingly sophisticated century, Das klagende Lied was quickly outmoded. Mahler later applied the red pen to his Gothick cantata: refining the last movement, excising the first in its entirety, and cutting an umbilical cord to the sombre choral blocking and rigid gender divisions of Brahms's Begräbnisgesang. Some say that the death of his brother was the reason for this. More prosaically, Mahler probably knew that Waldmärchen was the weakest movement.

Though the material was uneven, Runnicles approached it as though it were a mature masterpiece, with subtle shading, a purposeful arc, expertly controlled dynamics, and pianistically spread chords (which likewise humanised the sensuous angularities of Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra).

The BBCSO play better under Runnicles than any other conductor. They also accompany better under him. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers's rich, vibrant soprano, Michelle De Young's creamy mezzo, Johan Botha's clarion tenor, and Mark Delavan's capacious baritone soared across the hall: inspiring the boy trebles of King's College, Cambridge and the magnificent altos of an otherwise muted BBC Symphony Chorus. A very classy performance of a piece that perhaps does not deserve such minute attention.

Monday's programme from Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Prom 34) attracted a near-capacity audience. Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Holst's The Planets served as eggs and bacon to the grapefruit of Tippett's Piano Concerto and the marmalade of Colin Matthews's Pluto. (That's the planet, not the dog.) In atmosphere and content, it was an alternative model for the Last Night of the Proms: pacific, eccentric, and - somewhat oddly, considering the orchestra's provenance - profoundly English. Add a sing-along version of Fairest Isle and you'd have a perfectly acceptable post-Imperial patriotic finale. Not that this is likely to happen in my lifetime.

But back to the matter in hand. This was an ambitious programme for an orchestra whose strings - excepting their leader, the principal second violinist, and the principal viola player - are their least attractive asset. Uneven vibrato and a general smudginess of tone occluded the textures of the Fantasia, though Vaughan Williams's spatial separations were a clever foil to the delicate lyrical knots of the Tippett. Here the BBCSSO woodwind and brass sections excelled. As did celesta player Lynda Cochrane, duetting with soloist Steven Osborne through the glassy chinoiserie of what must be Tippett's most sheerly beautiful and clear-headed large-scale orchestral work. It tickles me that Beethoven was the model, when Schumann is so often the result. Schumann, Debussy, Schütz, and, perhaps accidentally, Wagner.

The Planets worked well, though Brabbins's concentration was stretched and the articulation of the pounding ostinato in Mars was rarely uniform. It's a performance-proof piece, but only in the uncertain tempers of Saturn did the sections of the orchestra wholly coalesce. The sopranos and altos of the New London Chamber Choir sang with unnerving exactitude and shimmer, despite being marched down from the gallery at the end of Neptune - turning the final "Ah!" into an "Ulp!" - and marched back up again for Pluto. The small handful of narrow-minded listeners who left before Matthews's sensitively scored addendum missed a treat.