Friday 18 November 2022

Massive climaxes & mystical moments: Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony is the centrepiece of The Bach Choir's celebration at the Royal Festival Hall

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1898
Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1898
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Overture: The Wasps, The Garden of Proserpine, A Sea Symphony; Elizabeth Watts, Roderick Williams, The Bach Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra, David Hill; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed 17 November 2022 (★★★★½

The Bach Choir on thrilling form in a concert celebrating Vaughan Williams with his choral masterwork alongside two other early works

One of the themes that have arisen from this year's celebrations of RVW's 150th birthday is the exploration and discovery of his early works, written at a time when his mature style was just starting to coalesce. This was very much on display at the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall on 17 November 2022 when David Hill conducted The Bach Choir and the Philharmonia Orchestra in an all-RVW programme that concentrated on the years 1899 to 1910, with the composer's first large-scale composition, The Garden of Proserpine (from 1899), the overture to The Wasps (from 1909) and A Sea Symphony (premiered in 1910), with soloists Roderick Williams and Elizabeth Watts.

RVW carefully curated his early works, allowing some to be performed but withdrawing many; pieces that had had currency before World War I were suppressed on his return. It is only with the release of these over the years that a bigger picture of RVW the composer during his 20s and 30s has come to light. 

In 1908, RVW took himself off to Paris to get a little French polish, as he called it. Prior to this, the composer's background had been largely English and German, his main teachers being composers like Stanford and Parry who looked towards the German composers; both Stanford and Parry revered Brahms and his symphonic style. RVW was clearly cut from a different cloth and the three months with Ravel would release something in his music that had already been bubbling about so in pre-Ravel works we can get glimpses of the mature composer and whilst A Sea Symphony was completed on his return from Paris, the work had been gestating for seven years.

The incidental music to Aristophanes' play, The Wasps was written in 1909 for the Cambridge Greek Play, a tradition of performing a play in Ancient Greek that started at the University of Cambridge in 1882. RVW wrote a significant amount of music for the play (nearly two hours!) but later arranged five movements into a suite that has become well-known. This was part of his post-WWI curation; the rest of the music lay fallow.

We heard just the overture, a terrific piece that is pure RVW with little reference to the play apart from the opening buzzing. Here Hill encouraged the orchestra to be vivid indeed, fast and edgy. But the main part of the overture is very much RVW in perky, unbuttoned mode and Hill's approach wasn't too lush when it came to the romantic tune, with lots of nice detail in the accompaniment.

For readers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the works of Swinburne were notorious for their eroticism, republicanism and antitheism, a watchword for modernity and rebellious free-thinking. We should remember that whilst studying at Cambridge, RVW knew quite an advanced crowd including the philosopher G.E. Moore and that several of RVW's fellows at university went on to be Apostles. Reading Ursula Vaughan Williams' biography of her husband, it is clear that at some point RVW was considered for membership of the society also. 

So, RVW's early likes in poetry included the Rossettis and Swinburne, poets that he later moved away from. His setting of Swinburne's The Garden of Proserpine for soprano, choir and orchestra dates from 1899, but the work seems to have been put on one side and the later RVW never pursued it. To modern ears, Swinburne's poetry can seem somewhat too overwrought and dense for a musical setting, but RVW sets it with a freedom that would come to fruition in the early years of the 20th century with his discovery of Walt Whitman and his free verse.

There are hints of the mature RVW in the music, but the style feels closer to Parry's large-scale choral writing, albeit with the sort of naughtiness in the harmony that Parry would pick up on in A Sea Symphony. There is a magnificent conjuring of atmosphere in the piece, along with some great tunes, but though RVW brings a wide variety of colours to the piece, it rather lacks the sense of the extreme erotic that we associate both with the subject matter and the poet. Much of the choral writing, and all of it is highly effective, was rather closer in style to Parry than RVW would be later in his career. Soprano Elizabeth Watts had some wonderfully vivid moments in her solo sections, moving between the seductively lyrical and the trenchant.

The close of the work felt closest to mature RVW, as the composer captured the wonderfully strange atmosphere of Swinburne's final verse and RVW's music unwound magically. The performance from all concerned was near ideal, allowing us to appreciate the piece.

RVW worked on A Sea Symphony from 1903 to 1909, when it developed from a series of choral settings of Whitman into a symphony. It is worth bearing in mind that Elgar's Symphony No. 1 did not debut until 1908, and whilst much of RVW's choral writing evokes the English tradition (notably Stanford and Parry), there is a freedom to the work that is new.

I got to know the work on Sir Adrian Boult's 1954 recording with Isobel Baillie and John Cameron. Here the two soloists sing beautiful lyrical lines yet cut through the textures, particularly Baillie's distinctive tones that seem to float over even the densest of orchestration. Quite what a live performance would have been like, I don't know, but you sense that RVW has left modern singers a conundrum; the work calls for a type of voice that is anchored in a rather different performing style. For the most part, modern performers sing the work lyrically and accept that the balance will be less than ideal. That was what happened here, Elizabeth Watts and Roderick Williams concentrated on beauty of tone and line, and if there were moments when their contributions did not stand out in the way they should, that was the price to be paid for not forcing the tone. Frankly, I want both, but I am not sure that that style of singing exists any more, the projection of an intensely focused line that has both power and flexibility.

Hill's approach was announced from the very opening, which was profoundly loud and stirring, the choir singing with a lovely, focused intensity. Throughout the symphony, Hill encouraged his forces (a choir not that far off 200 singers) to really bring out the climaxes and the result was completely thrilling. But this wasn't simply a loud performance of the work, climaxes stirred and then evaporated, and Hill was equally at home bringing out the mystical element of the music. Whilst there were mystical moments throughout, it was in the final movement where we start to think about the soul's journey towards God, the mysticism came to the fore in a lovely way. 

The second movement, which allowed Roderick Williams' the space to sing beautifully and to bring out the quietly contemplative element in the music, was finely poetic whilst Hill and orchestra were wonderfully intense in the quiet postlude. The choir dazzled in the third movement with its dancing waves, and Hill drew out real excitement from his performers. Whilst the fourth movement was more mystical, Hill's approach gave a strong underpinning to the music and we had further magnificent climaxes, the last of which unwound superbly in the work's affecting final moments.

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