PROMS / The senses and the spirit in harmony: Anthony Payne on Vernon Handley's programme with the BBC Concert Orchestra

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The Independent Culture
WITH AN insistence one rarely sees on the podium, Vernon Handley begged his audience to redouble their applause for the BBC Concert Orchestra at the close of Thursday's Promenade concert. They had clearly impressed their conductor mightily; and the playing throughout this programme of English 20th-century music had been of the highest calibre.

Elgar's first Wand of Youth suite yielded its secrets with a poetic intensity not often heard in the concert hall. When Elgar adds or subtracts instruments from his melodic lines and harmonic textures, it should be as if sunlight and shadow are dappling the landscape, and no technical problems of balance or weight must be allowed to interfere with the moments of vision. It requires more than a conductor's understanding to bring such poetic revelations to light, the players must also possess the right instincts, and this the BBC CO did in abundance.

Tempo was also treated with the utmost subtlety, and the flexibility in rubato which is crucial to the shaping of an Elgarian paragraph. Handley reined back his players with finesse for the Overture's second theme, after setting out at a speed that seemed initially almost dangerous but was in fact perfectly judged. The range of sonorities which the orchestra brought to Elgar's exquisite score was comprehensive. Wind solos captured the composer's vision, and a palpable hush stole over the auditorium as the strings introduced the heart-warming central episode of 'Fairy Pipers'.

The poetic sensitivity and command of style which characterised Delius's Cello Concerto were no less impressive. This is not the kind of music that can be guaranteed to make its effect in such a large auditorium as the Albert Hall. Eschewing the kind of dramatic interplay that powers most concertos, Delius interweaves soloist and orchestra in a dream-like sequence of events, and it takes playing of the kind of inner intensity that the soloist, Alexander Baillie, provided to reach out to a big audience.

Delius's is an almost private music, and no rhetoric disrupts the improvisatory flow of poetic ideas, yet Handley, Baillie and the orchestra effortlessly shaped and externalised its visions.

The final Allegramente, which was taken faster than we have sometimes heard it (rightly so, according to Delius's amanuensis Eric Fenby), brought the discreet musing to a perfect conclusion, dying away with those allusions to the life of the senses and the spirit that are unique to Delius. This was an exquisite performance of a work difficult to bring off, and drew a deserved ovation.

In the orchestral version of Vaughan Williams' song cycle On Wenlock Edge, Robert Tear was a committed and passionate tenor soloist. It's a matter of some surprise that this dramatic and colourful extension of what was already a most intense and atmospheric chamber work has not been heard more often. It made a splendid impression, and the orchestra encompassed its autumn gales, summer hazes and wintery funeral procession to powerful effect.

The orchestra brought an invigorating flair and virtuosity to A Colour Symphony by Arthur Bliss. If this music seems to make its effect through a generalised range of feelings and gestures rather than sharply focused perceptions, it still possesses an appealing ebullience, and Handley drove it to a powerful conclusion while nurturing its calmer and more introverted moments.

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