This performance of Vaughan Williams literally unsung masterpiece, Sancta Civitas, is surely one of the most important events of this year’s Proms season. A first performance at the Proms of one of the most extraordinary 20th century choral works 90 years after its composition has to stand out. In addition, with Sir Mark Elder and the Halle proving to be very effective in their championship of British music and Vaughan Williams in particular, the quality of their performance was never in doubt.

Iain Paterson and Sir Mark Elder © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Iain Paterson and Sir Mark Elder
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

And what a devastating edifice Sancta civitas is. One of the handful of works that VW composed in the years after the Great War that have a special intensity and sensitivity unique to his output and that are increasing being seen as a reaction to his experiences in the trenches. Elder has certainly promoted this view of the Pastoral Symphony, written shortly before. The lament for the fall of Babylon certainly has resonances beyond its biblical context. The Holy City of the title is not a benign place as depicted here, in fact in the final climax the devastating discords speak more of a cruel and heartless God, perhaps one who heartlessly left millions of young men to die on the battlefields of France.

Elder’s view of the work was on a grand scale. His choice of tempi never seemed rushed, allowing the effect of the masses forces to echo effectively around the hall. The opening passage with its 3D aural effects was one of the most thrilling things I have heard in this cavernous hall. Chorus, semi-chorus, distant boy’s chorus and baritone soloist Iain Paterson, brought together in a bitonal wall of burnished sound. Next, a dramatic section depicting the fall of Babylon was tightly brought off, but the real heart of the work is the passages that follow – the lament for the fall of Babylon and the glimpsing of The Holy City in all its beauty and terror.

What committed singing there was from all the choirs (Halle Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, Halle Choir and the London Philharmonic Choir), relishing the sensuous quality of the music and rising to a final intense climax supported by the organ, with everyone singing for all they were worth. Supported by refined playing from the Halle, this was a dream come true for all those people who have loved listening at home to their recordings of this work and longed to hear a live performance such as this.

Preceding this experience, we were treated to an ultra-refined performance of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. An odd piece of programming maybe, but it made absolute sense, highlighting that VW's orchestration at this point was more in tune with the French style of Debussy and Ravel than with Elgar, whose music was to follow.

The performance of Elgar’s Symphony no. 2 in E flat was not a disappointment after the uplifting Vaughan Williams. It’s never wise when performing Elgar to linger or overdo the nobilemente for fear of it seeming to ramble or puffed up. The Second has an underlying grit which needs to be emphasised and to do this a tight overall grip of the structure must be maintained by consistent tempos. Elder and the Halle certainly achieved this in the splendid first movement, never slowing to admire the prolific and attractive material, but having a clear view of the final grand gesture in the coda.

A mobile slow movement reached a moving climax and a quick-fire scherzo correctly gravitated towards the oddly troubled passage near the end of the movement. But it was in the finale that Elder showed his deepest understanding of this awkward to bring off symphony. As a summation of what has gone before it can seem inadequate, its facile first march theme and blandly nobilemente second theme not managing to sweep all before them. Rather than trying to push the movement to answer all the questions posed in the first three movements, Elder presented the music as written and the quiet conclusion proved not to be the mystical fade out, as per VW, but an unanswerable question, which is surely what Elgar intended it to be.