Music by Michael and Lennox Berkeley linked two Proms given by the BBC NOW under its principal conductor, Richard Hickox. The title of Michael Berkeley's Secret Garden refers to the imagination - a menacing as well as stimulating place in this intricate, expressionist score. From implacable opening brass fanfares representing a wall, to sweetly decadent entwined woodwind lines, the piece had an impressively wide dynamic and expressive range. Lofty Sibelian horn calls at the end brought an imposing sense of culmination.
Frank Bridge's Oration, a "concerto elegiaco" for cello and orchestra, one of the greatest British orchestral works of the 20th century, concerns memories of and responses to the First World War. Steven Isserlis and the BBC players did it justice in a compelling reading. Isserlis was profoundly expressive in the equivocal solo part, finding anger and bitterness as well as solemn grandeur. He played as if his life depended on it. The poignant coda, with ethereal first violins soaring over a continuously tolling harp, was movingly restorative, like the spirit of humanity returning after the madness of war.
This Prom season's curse - "spontaneous" applause breaking out between movements - nearly stopped Holst's The Planets in their axes. The performance didn't really merit such regular bouts of approbation, but this crowd-pleaser was undoubtedly responsible for the concert's near-capacity turnout. Some planets shone more brightly than others: the opening of "Mars" lacked menace and portent, and its tutti climaxes were crude. On the credit side, Hickox lovingly shaped each phrase of "Venus", helped by ravishing woodwind solos; the central cosmic cortège of "Saturn" was pleasingly taut and purposeful; and the concluding pages of "Neptune" were subtly expressive: the disembodied women's voices of the BBC Singers floated away most effectively.
The following evening, music by the Francophile Lennox Berkeley was sandwiched between Ravel's Mother Goose and Franck's blowsy, booming Symphony in D minor. Hickox wisely relaxed in the Ravel, letting his players take centre stage in a series of exquisite and magical miniatures, relishing their translucent, chamber-like sonorities, elusive as dreams.
In Lennox Berkeley's 1968 Magnificat, the conductor tore into the orchestral introduction, securing a substantial build-up for the first choral entry. The three choirs - from St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral - acquitted themselves well under Hickox's surefooted direction. The score, however, was unconvincing: Berkeley's was a gentle muse, not fashioned for big, formal statements.
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