Prom 41: BBCSO/Gardner review – Vaughan Williams rarity of strikingly good music

Royal Albert Hall, London
Edward Gardner led a fine performance of choral music written after the first world war, with Jean-Guihen Queyras a refined soloist in Elgar’s cello concerto

With the exception of Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s large-scale choral works are rarely performed. But a Proms season that is so heavily committed to marking the centenary of the end of the first world war and its aftermath is an obvious opportunity to revive one of them, Dona Nobis Pacem. Completed in 1936, it is haunted by memories of one world war and fears of another to come.

Because it looks both backward and forward, with a mosaic of texts taken from the Latin mass, Walt Whitman’s poetry and the Old Testament, it is a hard piece to categorise; the ending of Dona Nobis Pacem is neither bleak nor obviously consoling. Though as Edward Gardner’s fine performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus showed, it contains some strikingly good music. If the settings of Whitman (delivered with such clarity by baritone Neal Davies) hark back to early Vaughan Williams, then the solo soprano writing (radiantly floated by Sophie Bevan), seems to carry forward ideas from his Pastoral Symphony alongside others that evoke later orchestral works, such as the ballet score Job and the Fourth Symphony.

Before the cantata came music more obviously linked to the first world war. Lili Boulanger’s pithy, Fauré-like Pour les Funérailles d’un Soldat (completed as a student exercise in 1913), is a choral processional, setting a text by Alfred de Musset, which erupts at one point into a baritone solo (Alexandre Duhamel). And in Elgar’s Cello Concerto (1919), the elegant, effortlessly refined soloist was Jean-Guihen Queyras. His encore – one of Dutilleux’s fragile Strophes sur le Nom de Sacher – was even better.

On BBC Four on 2 September.

  • The BBC Proms continue until 8 September.
Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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