A perfect storm of Proms themes and anniversaries this year has allowed the programming of several works by Lili Boulanger. And hurrah for that, as she’s a composer deserving much more exposure. Her death in 1918 at the age of only 24 means that we will never know how her style might have changed in the more Modernist climate of the later 20th century; the works that remain, however, are late-romantic in flavour, with a hint of impressionism.
The 1913 Pour les funérailles d’un soldat is just such a work; a solemn military-funeral drum-beat pervades, and further unsettling premonition of the carnage to come is provided by the incorporation of the Dies Irae. Edward Gardner and the BBC SO and Chorus gave an excellent account, accentuating the pomp and menace of the work through intelligent use of dynamic shifts (the gradual fade of the final chorus over an insistent timp was truly chilling). The French baritone Alexandre Duhamel sang the part of the priest, bringing an appropriate sonority to the role.
Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto needs little commentary, as it features in all of the popular classics lists, and a Proms performance sometimes seems merely a matter of the insertion of a crowd-pleaser. Gardner’s interpretation, however, was a revelation: a sublime example of the iron control of dynamic. The cello is not a hugely resonant instrument, and needs quiet accompaniment; there is a tendency, in many performances, for the orchestra to over-expand its volume when the solo isn’t playing, with a resulting jarring of contrast. Not so here. Jean-Guihen Queyras’ playing was effortless, with nary a facial expression, but with everything pumped into the exquisitely nuanced performance. Gardner and the orchestra responded in kind, setting up an orchestral palette that was painted in pearlescent greys; anything over mezzo forte was pulled back as soon as it sounded, to electrifying effect – the quietest of horns accompanying the pizzicato passages in the first movement, the lightest, most skittish of runs in the woodwind, and the crisp and clipped Allegro molto that, although busy, was kept in check – all served to take Elgar’s sensitive scoring one step further. Only towards the end were the brass and percussion allowed out to play boisterously, making for the right kind of contrast.
In yet another type of contrast Queyras’ encore (one of the Strophes sur le nom de Sacher by Dutilleux) was light and sparse, demonstrating a dizzying range of techniques.
One of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ responses to his war experience as a medical orderly was the cantata Dona nobis pacem for orchestra, chorus and soprano and baritone solos. Many of the movements are set in the composer’s more disturbing, challenging style, characterised by his fourth symphony, and, in response to this, Gardner gave the orchestra its head, unleashing bitter, brash fanfares, furiously busy strings, tolling bells and gongs. The chorus, too, spat out the words with precise diction. Even the third and fourth movements, while enjoying a brief return to Vaughan Williams’ earlier pastoral style, maintain a troubling edge, accentuated by Gardner through controlled dynamic and the use of uncomfortable pauses. The sopranos’ ghostly ‘the silvery round moon’ was disquieting, and the grand, swaying funeral march of the veterans was underscored with sinister drums. The drama and dynamic of the final fugue leading to a grand, twinkling ‘Glory to God’ was well paced and effective.
Neal Davies’ weighty baritone lent ringing authority to the declamatory passages, and Sophie Bevan’s ability to make her voice heard over full orchestra and chorus, and yet reduce it to the merest triste pianissimo for the reiterated ‘Dona nobis pacem’ was phenomenal.