In his heyday Colin Davis was a familiar figure at the BBC Proms. From his debut in 1960, through his years as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1967-71) and half-a-dozen appearances as master of ceremonies on the Last Night, he went on to be a much-loved visitor in his later years.
Sadly, Davis’s death in April robbed him of the chance to conduct this one last Prom. Tippett, Britten and Elgar, the latter a substitute for the Sibelius that Davis had intended, were the composers and Daniel Harding, principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, took over what had now become a generously long programme.
The concert opened with a brief fanfare from Tippett’s The Mask of Time. Then Harding led a cool but sensitive performance of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra – an effective early piece from 1939, still in the English pastoral tradition, but with flashes of the blues melodies and rhythmic complexity that would later give Tippett his own voice.
In the same year Britten composed the song cycle Les Illuminations and his voice is already unmistakable. The brilliance of the string writing dazzles and Harding and the LSO strings shone in it. The work was intended for soprano and can be awkward for a tenor, but there is no reason to go over the top as Ian Bostridge did, mangling Rimbaud’s poetry (even Peter Pears sounded more convincing in French than this), and there was some under-the-note singing, too.
In the concerts of Davis’s last years, Elgar’s Symphony No.2 became a regular favourite, but his view of it was very different from this. It might have been expected that Harding would favour a lighter, more transparent Elgar, but could anybody have predicted the epic scale on which he worked? One of the challenges in conducting Elgar’s symphonies is to balance the public and private moods of the composer, but rarely has the private Elgar, withdrawn and melancholy, spoken as intimately in this symphony as he did here. This was an ambitious performance, at times disappearing into a hushed dream world at daringly slow speeds, and Harding showed tremendous mastery in holding it all together – really quite memorable.