Handel's last proves quite a blast

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The Controller of Radio 3 flourished a few unfashionable notions about "the power of music to heal and bind us together"; the Chief Executive of the Royal Albert Hall announced that Diana, Princess of Wales had been his friend, the hall's friend andour friend; and between them it was agreed that Sunday evening's Prom - a programme of Sibelius, Britten and Stravinsky - would remain unchanged. Except, naturally, for the prefatory tribute from Sir Edward Elgar, "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations, which would make us sob just as his Cello Concerto had done on combined Radios 3 and 4 earlier in the day.

The role of national binder and healer is now incontestably Elgar's but belonged once to Handel, and there was a time when Handel's Jephtha, performed at the Proms the following day, would have flown the flag at half mast for all of us. Not now. The

oratorio, based on one of those arbitrary, perverse vows in which the Old Testament excels (Jephtha shall kill whosoever cometh first out of his house to welcome him home after battle) - is a curious farrago of divine providence, flinty moral uplift, and crooked sentiment. Inevitably it is Jephtha's daughter who rusheth forth to greet the triumphant hero first. Jephtha, in the Book of Judges, does with her "according to the vow which he had vowed". In the oratorio of the book, an angel drops in ex machina and lets him off.

A case has been made for Jephtha as an Enlightened response to the problems of divine providence. Was it Handel who insisted Pope's words from An Essay on Man - "Whatever is, is right" - were included in the text. Certainly it was he who set them with such crushing, hammered finality, ending a sequence of sharply characterised arias and one quintet that is among the composer's greatest achievements. But the oratorio is not an unalloyed success. One hates to blame Handel for it. A libretto whose second line is a parenthesis explaining just who exactly the tribe of Ammonites are, and which kicks off Part Two with a "Thus then in brief", is little help. Handel, like any self-respecting Baroque master, depended for his profoundest effects on the reworking of familiar images and musical cliches, and it's a good half hour into the work before he is given his head. Then he gets all the wafting angels, flowery farewells, and rev'rent awe he can comfortably cope with, and the result is magnificent.

Just months before writing Jephtha the 65-year-old Handel had seemed in good spirits, buying up Rembrandts, packing off crates of English plants to the composer Telemann in Hamburg. But, in the middle of the great, sunless chorus "How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees", his eyesight failed. Jephtha was to be his last oratorio. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson sang the title role with straightforward honesty; the Scottish Chamber Orchestra whisked efficiently through it under Sir Charles Mackerras; the New Company's choruses rang sonorously. But only Felicity Palmer's Storge - just the right side of operatic indulgence but hamming it up enough to convince one of her commitment to Scripture - seemed truly to have judged the oratorical temperature.

It was pianists who dominated the rest of week of at the Albert Hall. Alfredo Perl, a young Chilean noted for his impressive Beethoven, branched out on Thursday and played Mozart, the great rhetorical, operatic Concerto in C, K 503. Soloist and orchestra - the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier - had agreed their strategy. With classic loftiness they passed across the slow movement's emotional high ground; with romantic longing they dwelt on the finale's falling, dying scales. The

stylistic disjunction was oddly effective. In the first movement Perl played his own cadenza, larded with all the customary key and gear changes, trills and reminiscences. But it was a fantaisie too far.

If one lived by hype and stereotype alone, the other big pianistic event had promised hot Russian abandon, but ended up delivering astonishing coolness and restraint. This was the first concerto appearance in Britain of the Russian pianist Arkady Volodos. Born in St Petersburg in 1972, Volodos has been promoted in recent months without mercy. He has been called the new Evgeny Kissin; his record company has issued his first CD with just his surname on the cover; though he has appeared in public only once before in this country, he has been marketed with chutzpah as an established phenomenon.

Rachmaninov's Second Concerto, its technical challenges legendary, its opening bars a test for any thinking pianist, was a risk. Volodos established the pulse, ratcheted up the urgency, launched the work with consummate skill. In the slow movement his chamber-musicianly companionship, staring at the principal flute and clarinet as they carried the melody and he accompanied them, was a rarity in such a concerto; colour and balance were remarkable; and not a note, that I noticed, was wrong. Volodosmay choose Rachmaninov for his concerto debut and virtuoso transcriptions for his CD, but he is embarking on his career with serious, restrained, artistry. Perhaps - let's hope - he will strike out to play Liszt, Chopin, even Debussy.

The orchestra, in the second of their two Proms, was the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Riccardo Chailly directed them in the Rachmaninov as if the concerto stood in a line descending not from Tchaikovsky and Grieg, as it does, but from Brahms, which it surely doesn't. Brahms, at a pinch, one might successfully leave to argue with himself in a corner. Rachmaninov is different, and his delicate insinuations and fizzing orchestral figures needed more attention they got. Bartk's Miraculous Mandarin, after the interval, seemed more to the Dutch players' taste; the kitsch barbarity of the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Strauss's Salome even more so. One of the great misjudgements in opera, on the concert platform the dance functions as a passable bonbon. The Concertgebouw bit into its Turkish musical delights and waltzing Viennoiserie with grim relish.

Michael White returns next week.

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