The spectre of the First World War looms large over Lili Boulanger’s Pour les funérailles d’un soldat, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem.
Boulanger created her choral work in 1913 as composition practice for the Prix de Rome competition, which she became the first woman to win later that year. In retrospect, Pour les funérailles d’un soldat sounds like a disturbing premonition of war. The piece began with a solemn marching rhythm, darting between dark diminished brass clusters and strange, baleful harmonies from the BBC Symphony Chorus. Edward Gardner’s BBC Symphony Orchestra underscored the piece’s fidgety, fragmentary feel, accentuating Boulanger’s jarring mood changes through disorienting dynamics. At just 9 minutes, the piece felt deserving of further development.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto, composed in 1920, brought elegiac respite to the programme: the BBSO illuminating solo cello passages with grand, melodic refrains. Anything too loud or resonant was avoided, Gardner mindful not to detract from Jean-Guihen Queyras’ elaborate cello work. Queyras proved a robust player, the slap and burr of bow on strings frequently audible as he raced up his instrument. As well as emphasising its wistful Romantic theme, Gardner played up the piece’s playful use of pauses and modified motifs, ensuring the concerto retained an assured, at times even genteel, disposition.
Vaughan Williams’ 1936 Dona nobis pacem (“grant us peace”), the evening’s final piece, was far more tempestuous. Having served as a medical orderly and stretcher bearer during the War, Vaughan Williams directly confronts the trauma and perturbations of the interwar years in this choral cantata. Incorporating poetry from Walt Whitman, cautionary words from English Quaker politician John Bright, and Biblical questioning from the Book of Jeremiah, Dona nobis pacem is monumental in scope. Under the BBSO it sounded abrasive, abrupt: apocalyptic one moment, ecstatically hopeful the next. In the end the clamour subsided, a gradual hush descending over both choir and orchestra.