Musical splendour on a day of mourning

Music played an important part in the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales. The selection was iconoclastic and movingly in tune with the occasion. By Anthony Payne
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The Independent Culture
In what was the most deeply impressive and, indeed, harrowingly emotional public event any of us are likely to experience in our lifetimes, it was touching to observe the part that music played in the proceedings. The Westminster Abbey funeral service, which had been designed to reflect Princess Diana's special significance for all of us, assembled an iconoclastic sequence of pieces drawn from sources as widely contrasted as the grand, formal and traditional Purcell and Croft, 19th-century hymnody, the romantic and modern choral traditions, and contemporary pop in both hymn and song.

It was populist, but never cheap, in content, and it was the reworking of Elton John's famous "Candle in the Wind", bravely sung by its composer under great emotional stress, that captured the imagination of most of the people interviewed after the event on BBC1. This was understandable, but no less movingly in tune with the occasion were the closing sequence from Verdi's Requiem, John Tavener's Song for Athene, whose incandescent, almost Holstian climax brought the service to a majestic close, and Holst's own I vow to thee, my country, one of the Princess's favourite hymns. The music director Martin Neary deserves greatest credit for the musical splendour of the service.

Later in the day, a change of programme, which must have chimed in with the mood and feelings of music lovers everywhere on a deeply stirring day, brought Faure's Requiem to Saturday evening's promenade concert, a tender and intimate tribute to Princess Diana. The broader dramatic canvas of the final section of Verdi's Requiem had provided a fitting contribution to her funeral service, but now Faure's touching masterpiece exerted its extraordinary power to salve and transfigure.

Galvanised by the poignancy of the occasion, David Atherton, with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and soloists Judith Howarth and Neal Davies, drew a marvellous performance of the work. This is music whose subdued poetry is never passive, and its glowing spirituality stems from a position of creative strength. Atherton and his forces responded with that paradoxical combination of mildness and forthrightness, reticence and passion, which reveals the heart of Faure's vision. A powerful drama could quickly erupt out of lyric gentleness in the middle of the "Libera Me" and just as swiftly retire into civilised mourning. The interpretation as a whole gripped the imaginations of those many listeners who might have felt they had little more to give after the day's highly charged events.

Nor was there to be any let up after the interval, for the electrifying intensity of the young Rachmaninov's First Symphony drew playing of overwhelming onset and emotional directness. This is an astonishingly original work, and that perceptive analyst Robert Simpson made a convincing case for it being the greatest of the composer's symphonic works. Its wild unorthodoxes - a scherzo which magically opens as if it is a slow movement, an apparently triumphant final coda which turns on its axis to become a tragic calamity and a first movement of unexpected yet superbly controlled contrasts - kept us on the edge of our seats. And so did this commanding interpretation.

John Tavener's `Song for Athene' is available on the CD `Innocence' (Sony Classical SK66613)