United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Cecilia McDowell: Robert Murray (tenor) Katherine Watson (soprano) Hugh Bonneville (narrator), City of London Sinfonia & Ladies of the Holst Singers Stephen Layton (conductor) , Symphony Hall, Birmingham 3.2.2012 (CT)
Vaughan Williams: Excerpts from Scott of the Antarctic
Cecilia McDowell: Seventy Degrees Below Zero (World Premiere)
Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antartica
The story of the ill-fated 1912 expedition to the South Pole by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team has been examined from many angles over the years, some depicting the expedition leader as a self-centered loner, others painting a very different picture of a man driven by obsession yet followed quite literally to the ends of the earth with unerring loyalty by his closest allies.
Yet whatever your personal stance on Scott’s merits as a leader and the undoubted errors of judgment that led to his death in the ice alongside his trusty colleagues, it is impossible not to be moved by the bravery, dedication and sheer determination of the five men who paid the ultimate price for their attempt to beat Amundsen to the South Pole.
One hundred years it was a packed Symphony Hall that played host to the first concert of a by Stephen Layton and the City of London Sinfonia celebrating the centenary of Scott’s expedition in music, words and images with the magnificent pictures taken during the course of the expedition, many of which have attained iconic photographic status, being projected during the second half performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica.
Stephen Hogger’s reconstructed Suite from Vaughan Williams’ most celebrated contribution to the genre of film music will be familiar to VW devotees through the superb Chandos recording released a few years ago. Opening the concert with five movements drawn from the Suite in the form of the Main Titles, Pony March, Aurora, The Return and The Deaths of Evans and Oates, Hugh Bonneville’s beautifully judged and faultlessly executed narration from Scott’s exactingly recorded diary set a vivid opening backdrop to each section. How many people in the audience were fans of Hugh Bonneville through his role in Downton Abbey remains unknown, but his thoughtful enunciation of the powerful words describing the final agonizing days of Scott and his team were all the more heightened by Stephen Layton’s finely wrought reading of Vaughan Williams’ music. It made for a moving experience.
Cecilia McDowell’s Seventy Degrees Below Zero also utilised Scott’s words in the outer movements of her three movement work for tenor and chamber orchestra, adding a contrasting yet highly effective twist in the form of a poem by Seán Street, The Ice Tree, at the work’s heart.
The distant brass fanfares of the opening movement, ‘We measure” eerily depicted the vast distances across the ice, the words describing the scientific elements of the expedition very much to the fore during the outward journey whilst developing a sense of foreboding for the return journey, the stuttering re-statement of the horn and trumpet fanfares fading into uncertain silence. In the second movement, Street’s atmospheric poetic utterance, tinged with modern ecological concerns and set against a backdrop of delicate, almost fragile orchestration by McDowell, allowed the tenor soloist to weave a desolate, intensely lyrical picture ultimately dying away with string glissandi and high divided violins painting the “wisps vanishing, fading to transparency”.
The final movement, “To My Widow” once again used Scott’s own words to telling effect, the opening mood of wistful sentimentality being overtaken by a growing sense of anxiety before the final snuffing out of the light.
With Robert Murray’s excellent diction and emotionally wrought, overtly operatic delivery playing a crucial part in the performance, the work made a powerful impression on first acquaintance.
Having heard excerpts from the film score of Scott of the Antarctic in the first half of the concert, the opportunity to hear the work that VW constructed from the elements of that score in its entirety during the second half gave the concert a satisfying sense of cohesion. The Sinfonia Antartica might not be the composer’s most profound symphonic work in its construction but in its dramatic content includes some of the most awe inspiring music that Vaughan Williams produced during his entire career.
The ladies of the Holst Singers, with soprano Katherine Watson cleverly separated and placed behind the orchestra for the desolate depiction of frozen wastes central to the opening movement, painted a truly chilling picture, with Stephen Layton skillfully exploiting the nuances of Vaughan Williams’ scoring to telling effect. The reflection and retrospection of the haunting Intermezzo and the transformation of the march theme of the Epilogue into ultimate desolation were sensitively handled by Stephen Layton and his players but it was the devastating power of the central Landscape with its thundering glacial organ entry that made the most crushing impression.
Herbert Ponting’s stunning photographs, projected onto a large screen above the orchestra, only served to heighten the experience in a concert that paid fitting tribute to one of our greatest, if ultimately stricken explorers.