Prom 54: BBC So/Davis, Royal Albert Hall, London

Reviewed,Edward Seckerson
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:35

Fifty years to the day since the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, it was only fitting that this Prom should be for him alone. And for those among us who still insist that a little of his "modal mysticism" goes a long way, the Ninth and last Symphony was there to remind us that the old man went out as he came in – confounding his critics. Indeed, the man once described as "a queer, mad fellow from Chelsea" did his best to live up to the insult.

Paradoxically, the piece that provoked those less than flattering words (especially for those living in Chelsea) has since become one of his best-beloved – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. It was our point of entry into this celebratory concert, a work seemingly played from illuminated manuscripts, a work whose acoustical luminosity was ingeniously written into the texture but still breathes differently in a space like the Albert Hall.

Andrew Davis separated his "semi-chorus" of strings to the rear of the platform: only a few feet of separation but enough to accentuate the "ghosting" effect of the writing. All but the usual mad coughers were suitably chastened. Enter then the opposition, Satan, and what an entrance – organ-buttressed and brass-topped – in Vaughan Williams' Job – A masque for dancing. Just as the imagery here tilts towards William Blake-like idiosyncrasy, the footwork has the quirky air of drunken morris dancing.

Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave it a cracking performance with rollicking horns and grumbling tuba laying bare the eccentricity of "Satan's Dance of Triumph". But, of course, no one does the peace which passeth all understanding quite like Vaughan Williams, and leader Stephen Bryant's beautiful solo in the starlit nocturne of "Elihu's Dance of Youth and Beauty" was like a second lark ascending, never to return to earth.

"Touches of sweet harmony" then collided with a deep and abiding disquiet as "Serenade to Music", in its original version for 16 bright young soloists – bright young stars, all – gave way to Vaughan Williams' final Symphony.

The surreal echoes of wailing saxophones mark the beginning and end of a piece like superannuated sorcerers, cynical as hell but alive and kicking in the heart of the work – VW's most subversive scherzo. The old boy kept us guessing to the end. Could there be a better tribute to him?

BBC Proms continue to 13 September (0845 401 5040)

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