“A Performance to Treasure” of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony


Vaughan Williams, Finzi: Sally Matthews (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Bristol Choral Society, Gloucester Choral Society, Philharmonia Orchestra, John Wilson (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 7.2.2016 (PCG)

Vaughan Williams – The Wasps: Overture
Finzi – Clarinet Concerto
Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony [No 1]

John Wilson is of course best known as a charismatic and expert conductor of light music and show scores, but here he demonstrated that he also deserves to be known for his interpretation of the core English repertoire. His performance of the overture to Vaughan Williams’s The Wasps served notice of this: beautifully balanced, affectionately phrased and with plenty of ‘buzz’ and ‘sting’ where required. For many listeners, including myself, I suspect our views of VW’s incidental music to Aristophanes’ play were transformed by Mark Elder’s revival of the complete original score with a new text by David Pountney which was issued on the Hallé Orchestra’s own label some years back. In particular the beautiful melody which forms the second subject of the overture assumes a whole new dimension when we recall Pountney’s contemporary ‘take’ on the lyrics to which this tune is sung, with its reference to “Gucci shoes” which proves indelibly to fix itself in the mind. John Wilson (almost) enabled me to forget this rhyme and enjoy the melody in its own right.

Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto is nearly always heard with the solo wind instrument accompanied by a chamber orchestra, but here Wilson broke with tradition by employing the full body of the Philharmonia strings; and the results demonstrated not only that the clarinet is perfectly capable of making itself heard over a more heavyweight sound, but that the music actually benefits from it. Shadings between the clarinet, played with poise by Mark van de Wiel, and the violins were perfectly dovetailed; and the balance also demonstrated the seemingly paradoxical truth that larger bodies of strings can actually play more quietly than smaller ones. The work itself is in the shape of a beautiful slow movement surrounded by two less immediately attractive ones: the first a busy exercise in bristling neo-classicism, and the last a winning romp with overtones of light music. Finzi seemingly was able to turn out marvellous slow movements for his concertos, but was much more uncertain in outer movements, often ending up by publishing his slow movements in isolation as in the case of his works for violin and piano. The larger body of strings here lent more substance to the first movement in particular; but the heart of the concerto remains in its centre, and the performance here held the audience enchanted.

After the interval we heard a stunning rendition of the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony. Mind you, the concert organisers did their level best to sabotage this. We were told that the printers had failed to deliver the programmes for the concert, and that they would be sent on by post to ticket holders after the event (the second time that has happened at a St David’s Hall concert during the current season). This meant, of course, that the large audience were deprived of Walt Whitman’s words which do so much to inspire the course of the music. Surely it would not have been beyond the wit and means of the concert organisers to at least provide a photocopied or printed handout of the words for their benefit? As it so happened, the diction of the soloists and chorus were very good; but with the best will in the world, much of the impact of music and text will have passed many listeners by. Roderick Williams had the greatest success in getting his words across, and although he was clearly challenged by the sheer volume of Vaughan Williams’s writing in places, he never pushed his voice beyond its limits and was chilling and enthralling by turns in On the beach at night alone. Sally Matthews, faced with greater difficulties in making her words audible, displayed a warm voice with a degree of vibrato in the first movement which settled down to produce an ecstatic effect in the ‘love duet’ between body and soul which lies at the heart of the finale. John Wilson’s conducting never put a foot wrong, avoiding any attempt to ‘make points’ but demonstrating a keen awareness of the pacing of the work. The opening declaration Behold, the sea itself, pinned the audience back in their seats; but when the phrase returns at the end of the section he capped it with an even greater impact as Vaughan Williams clearly intended. The building of the enthralling climax following the phrase O thou transcendent in the finale was perfectly judged; it is amazing to consider that the composer actually marked this passage in the score as an optional cut.

The combined choirs from Bristol and Gloucester were amazingly proficient at making their words audible, but of course were defeated by the more contrapuntal and complex passages; they blended well, and produced plenty of volume even against the heaviest sounds from the Philharmonia orchestra. I should not fail to commend Wilson for the manner in which he unerringly brought out individual wind lines in the composer’s almost impressionist textures, and the marvellous sense of stillness he evoked in the final section of the second movement. I gather that the same forces had already given the same concert in London and Basingstoke; reviews of the London performance complained of tempo differences between conductor and soloist in the second movement, but these were certainly not in evidence here. This was really a performance to treasure. I have known and loved the work ever since the days of Boult’s old Decca recording (the sessions attended by Vaughan Williams himself) and have no hesitation is declaring this one of the best I have ever heard either in concert or on record.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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  1. Martin Furber says:

    I couldn’t agree more Paul. A quite oustanding performance. I too grew up with the Boult recording and have heard many since, both live and recorded. This one form John Wilson touched me more than any before. There was more than one ‘lump in the throat, tear in the eye moment’. I really want to hear more of Mr. Wilson in ‘serious’ (sorry) repertoir.

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