The Royal Albert Hall can be an intimate place, mysteriously transforming on occasions from monster auditorium to private salon. There’s something about a small group of players, or in this case singers – the BBC Singers – in close harmony that effects that transformation and so it came to pass that the short vocal preface to each half of this BBC Symphony Orchestra Prom gently illuminated the private side of two very public figures: Edward Elgar and Percy Grainger.
What better preface to the grand but sweetly inflected Elgar Violin Concerto than his exquisite part-song There is Sweeter Music. The piquant clash of tonalities dividing male and female voices suggested uncharted regions and as the hushed alternation of these tiny choruses set up a rocking motion on the word “sleep” one actually wanted to eschew applause for the entrance of Tasmin Little and segue directly into the Violin Concerto.
Here, too, is sweeter music born of grand ambition and restless strife and if I say that Little’s performance seemed always to be seeking repose that would convey some measure of all the things that were right about it. It was possessed of a quiet beauty, full of lovely half-shades and grazing sigh-like slides – very feminine, very English, with poise, modesty, and civility foremost. But other words need to apply here, too, and for all the sporadic fire in her bow I never ever sensed or experienced the unbridled passion that drives this piece – it never really and truly “let go” as a performance.
Most affecting was the finale’s huge and far-reaching cadenza where tender remnants of all that had passed took us quietly, movingly, back to before. Suddenly, fleetingly, Little was right inside Elgar’s head and heart.
The other honorary Englishman surfacing from “Down Under” was Percy Grainger but he bowed in with that Irish Tune from County Derry (“Danny Boy”), wordless but scrumptious of harmony with the soaring tenors of the BBC Singers like a corona around each radiant climax. And what could be more “complete” as a tribute on the 50th anniversary of his death than his Suite In a Nutshell, its rollocking and subversive jauntiness (cue battalions of tuned percussion) offset by the most spectacular example of his fabulous orchestral imagination: a rhapsodic “Pastoral” which, in this splendid performance under Andrew Davis, opened up huge horn-crested vistas at once awesome and unexpected.