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The more bravura and at times controversial side of Richard Hickox has perhaps eclipsed the delicacy and insight with which he approached choral material. Hickox’s sudden death in 2008 was a loss, but in a sense he had already passed through his ‘late period’ with the (1988) Elgar recording two decades before. It’s an interpretation of genuine philosophical understanding, done without gloomy reverence and with the humanity and physicality necessary to complement and offset John Henry Newman’s very English mysticism. The soloists are both physically present and metaphysically removed, a feat of sound engineering as well as performance and conducting.

By the same token, Hickox’s Rossini is a minor miracle. The magnificent Introduzione and unaccompanied Quartetto, leading to the finale, bracket a work not so much ‘late’ as after the fact of Rossini’s more obviously representative writing. If the composer wrote out of a semi-retirement, Hickox’s hyperactivity doesn’t distort it in any way but allows each solemn chordal suspension to hang in the air meaningfully and with palpable authority. He takes some of the excess piety out of Parry (or familiar versions of Parry) as well, and delivers a plain-spoken spirituality that is quintessentially English.

... which makes going back to Britten after two decades and in the composer’s centenary year, makes for a refreshing experience. The Spring Symphony is famously misnamed, not a real symphony at all but a kind of vocal cycle with symphonic pretensions: and yet, Hickox makes it work as a structure, stiffening the architecture, perhaps more even than the composer intended, and drawing out a line that makes this the performance of reference for anyone interested in the evolution of Britten’s post-war work.

BRIAN MORTON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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