Judicious Pacing and Drama in Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams: Katherine Broderick (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Schola Cantorum, Ad Solem, Hallé Orchestra, Choir & Youth Choir/Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. 29.3.2014 (MC)



Sir Mark Elder, photo © Chris Christodoulou
Sir Mark Elder, photo © Chris Christodoulou

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings
Delius: ‘Brigg Fair’
Vaughan Williams: ‘A Sea Symphony’

Programmes of ‘English music’ such as this are not as common as one might imagine. Although if any orchestra has championed the cause of ‘English music’ over the decades it has been the Hallé, and this tradition is one that continues strongly under music director Sir Mark Elder.

Opening the Hallé concert was Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings. Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy had revealed one of the performances of the score that Elgar conducted was given with the players standing and this was how the Hallé performed the work (cellos excepted of course). In truth I prefer the work performed by a smaller string ensemble than the generous number of players that Sir Mark, standing on a double height podium, employed. Nevertheless the Hallé strings played with an unyielding sense of engagement and impressive unity. I especially admired the striking dramatic contrasts achieved between the main orchestra and the string quartet of principals. Throughout it was hard not to imagine the invigorating scene from the celebrated 1962 Ken Russell drama/documentary of the young Elgar galloping his grey pony energetically on the Malvern Hills.

Given the excellence of Delius’s work Brigg Fair I’m surprised it’s not heard more often. Describing the piece as ‘An English Rhapsody’ Delius worked and expanded a set of variations around a traditional Lincolnshire folk-tune from inveterate collector Percy Grainger. I find the folk tune unremarkable but what Delius does with the material is miraculous. With a performance of Brigg Fair as splendid as this from the Hallé it’s not difficult to imagine an English country scene with the early morning summer sun shimmering over the fields. This is mood music with the audience able to wallow in a wash of glorious sound. Notable in the performance was the sensitively chosen pace and dynamics with Sir Mark displaying his innate feeling for orchestral colour.

To hear a performance of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony is not too common and the very large Bridgewater hall audience clearly relished the opportunity. With around 340 performers (including 240 singers) it’s no surprise this is a seldom heard score and organising a performance of A Sea Symphony must be an immense undertaking. Few composers can have received as much tuition as Vaughan Williams’s who as late as 1908 and then approaching his forties was taking lessons with Maurice Ravel. Completed in 1910 any self-doubts about his compositional prowess in A Sea Symphony certainly don’t show. Scored on a large scale for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra for a composer in the early stages of his symphonic career it’s such a highly assured work. Even though American poet Walt Whitman had died earlier in 1892, his verse had become extremely popular with composers of the day – none more so than Vaughan Williams who for A Sea Symphony uses Whitman’s text from the collection Leaves of Grass. If the score has a fault it is the inability to successfully match the magnificence of the opening of the brass fanfare and the massed choir singing the words ‘Behold, the sea itself’. And sound magnificent it did with an energised Sir Mark holding his massed choral and orchestral forces together so effectively from the first note to the last. Buoyed by the judicious pacing the performance of this demanding work crackled with drama and shaped as one impressive whole.  The choice of soprano Katherine Broderick and baritone Roderick Williams (certainly no stranger to the Bridgwater Hall) was an inspired one. Helped by their impressive projection and clarity of diction the pair experienced few problems in being heard in the Bridgewater’s often difficult acoustic. Of the many highlights I especially enjoyed the third movement Scherzo: The Waves with the combined forces presenting the often frenzied activity involved in sailing the seas so successfully. One could almost feel the sting on the face and taste the salty tang of the spray.

After garnering success with a large work in each recent Hallé season The Dream of Gerontius, Götterdämmerung, The Kingdom, The Apostles and now A Sea Symphony one wonders where Sir Mark will look to next.

Michael Cookson


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