PROMS BBC Singers; BBC Philharmonic A mixed bag from the Singers, plus some great French Spanish music. By Adrian Jack

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The Independent Culture
It will take a lot for the BBC Singers to shake off the image of working nags. They tackle such a variety of music, the agility and reading skills required by new works are so daunting, that character and beauty of tone inevitably get pushed from the top of their priority list. Yet in Tomas Luis de Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday, which threaded their way, two at a time, through last Tuesday's late-night Prom, they made a good, straight sound for their conductor, Stephen Cleobury. The sopranos were not vibratoless - and why, if women are to sing this music at all, should they be? In the solos, surely a bit of flesh in the voices is allowable, and we got it, though it was actually the steadiest, the fourth girl from the left in the front row, who pleased my ear best.

But then, she wasn't asked to climb to unreasonable heights like two of her colleagues at the end of James MacMillan's Mairi. It was a bit of a disaster, though if there had been two clones of Yma Sumac, it could have been sensational. MacMillan is a shrewd ear-tickler. Winsome little phrases emerging from and receding into drones, sweet harmony and even a bit of humming towards the end are sure crowd-pleasers.

The Singers' other newish piece was The Hollow Hills, by 28-year-old Andrew Simpson. This was a multi-layered, dramatic account of the last days of King Arthur, and worth every penny of the commission fee (it was written two years ago for the Singers' 70th anniversary season). But you couldn't call it original, and Simpson was guilty, at several points, of the harmonic greyness into which non-tonal vocal polyphony easily blurs.

The BBC Philharmonic's Prom on Wednesday could have been designed to prove the wisecrack that the best Spanish music since Victoria has been written by Frenchmen. It didn't include the greatest "Spanish" work of all, Debussy's Iberia, but Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole contained more invention than Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain and two suites from The Three- Cornered Hat put together. Joaquin Achucarro, the piano soloist in Nights, was almost as demonstrative as conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier gyrating on the rostrum, but the music is all atmospheric background. Nothing happens. And although The Three-Cornered Hat makes an exuberant ballet, it does too little to exercise the mind as concert music.

It was a relief to hear something more tangible in Roberto Gerhard's arrangements of Pedrell's folksong settings. At least there were words to follow, and the soprano Jill Gomez (who else?), in good voice, costumed like a flamboyant parasol and projecting for all she was worth.

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