United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Stanford, Vaughan Williams: Katherine Broderick (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Geraint Bowen (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 2.8.2019. (JQ)
Stanford – Songs of the Fleet, Op.117
Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony
The Festival Artistic Director, Adrian Partington had chosen a programme of English music with a distinctly nautical feel for the penultimate evening concert of this year’s Festival. I have had the good fortune to take part in both works several times as a chorus member so I was keen to see what the Festival Chorus and Philharmonia would make of them with Geraint Bowen ‘at the helm’. The last time Sea Symphony was given at Three Choirs was during the 2012 Hereford Festival when Geraint Bowen invited Adrian Partington to conduct it (review). Tonight, Mr Partington returned the compliment.
I find that I almost always learn something from a programme note by Jeremy Dibble and his note for tonight’s Stanford performance lived up to that expectation. Songs of the Fleet were premiered at the 1910 Leeds Festival, of which Stanford was the Director. I had always assumed the work was written for that occasion. But here’s a Stanford fun fact: they were actually composed for the Jubilee Congress of Naval Architects(!) in 1910. It was the postponement of that event, due to the death of King Edward VII, that enabled Leeds to land the premiere later that year. In these five songs for baritone, SATB choir and orchestra, Stanford set poems by Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938). He had earlier used Newbolt’s poetry for Songs of the Sea, Op.91.
The songs are all memorable. In the first, ‘Sailing at Dawn’ I thought the tempo set by Geraint Bowen was a touch on the swift side – the marking is Andante molto tranquillo. One small consequence of this was that when the baritone sings the phrase ‘Infinitely desolate the shoreless sea below’, the phrase didn’t have sufficient space, even though Roderick Williams sang it with feeling. On the other hand, Mr Bowen’s approach to the song meant that the music had an air of confidence and optimism. I learned subsequently that this was the first time that Roderick Williams had sung these songs; one would not have known. Already, in ‘Sailing at Dawn’ his trademark seamless line, burnished tone and crystal-clear diction were all in evidence. ‘The Song of the Sou’ Wester’ was excitingly performed. The orchestra and chorus brilliantly evoked the gale lashing the sea. In this acoustic the choir’s words weren’t very clear but this didn’t matter: the overall effect was super.
‘The Middle Watch’ brings about a real change – I nearly said ‘sea-change’. Newbolt’s poem depicts the fleet lying motionless at night and Stanford captures the mood with music of quiet and stillness. Unfortunately, the choir and orchestra were consistently too loud in this song, almost drowning the solo line at times. Without exception, every phrase that the choir sings is marked pianissimo and the orchestra parts are similarly subdued throughout, but it seemed to me that the dynamic never fell below mezzo piano. I think Geraint Bowen should have insisted on greater hush here. The energetic ‘The Little Admiral’ was well characterised by Williams, enthusiastically supported by the chorus (mainly the gentlemen). Stanford reserves his best till last. ‘Fare Well’ is a magnificent, eloquent song. Up to now, no singer I have heard has matched the magnificent singing of Gerald Finley on the Richard Hickox recording (review). However, I think Roderick Williams matched his colleague tonight, singing the song with such dignity and eloquence as to make it very moving. With the chorus and orchestra playing a full part, this was a very fine performance indeed, which Geraint Bowen brought to a stirring orchestral conclusion.
Roderick Williams was back on deck after the interval for Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and he was joined by Katherine Broderick. This was something of a reunion of colleagues for they were the soloists in Sir Mark Elder’s live recording of the work a few years ago (review).
I have one significant reservation about the performance that unfolded and I may as well not duck the issue but mention it at once. I believe that Miss Broderick has established a strong reputation as a Wagnerian soprano, not least in Germany, but I am afraid that – on the evidence I have heard to date – her style is completely unsuited to English repertoire such as this. I was underwhelmed by her contribution to the Elder recording and was similarly unimpressed by hearing her sing Parry at last year’s Three Choirs, a year ago to the day, as it happens (review). On both occasions the trouble was excessive vibrato and right from her first entry tonight I knew we were in for a similar experience. That entry, ‘Flaunt out O sea….’ was powerfully delivered, but so wide was the vibrato that every single note sounded approximate in pitch. I am sorry to say that this set the tone for the rest of the performance. Miss Broderick’s singing fell a little more pleasingly on the ear when she sang quietly but every time she put the pressure on to sing loudly, especially around the top of the stave or above it, the notes were distorted by heavy and excessive vibrato. Furthermore, it seemed to me that her tuning was often suspect. I will say no more; I’m afraid this contribution compromised the performance.
Opposite Miss Broderick, Roderick Williams provided an object lesson in singing music such as this. All the technical qualities that had been evident in the Stanford songs were once again prominent. There was eloquence and expressiveness throughout; and the miracle is that he can do it all while looking supremely relaxed. Williams was excellent in the first movement and, if anything, even finer in the second movement, ‘On the Beach at Night, Alone’. Geraint Bowen set the scene for this nocturne most poetically, drawing dark, mysterious playing from the Philharmonia in the introduction. Roderick Williams gave an elevated account of the solo part, singing with seamless line. It is surprising how much the soloist has to sing on one note and the trick is to make the audience forget that; Williams achieved this through the magnetism of his singing. At the very end of the movement he memorably suggested solitude just by the way he inflected the last two short phrases. At one point in the third movement ‘The Waves’, Walt Whitman’s words include the phase ‘dashing and buoyant’. That’s just how the performance came across. Geraint Bowen has a rather wristy beat and I half-wondered if this might result in a lack of the incisiveness crucial to this movement. All was well, though, and the Philharmonia and Festival Chorus gave a dashing, colourful and exciting performance.
The finale, ‘The Explorers’ sets words by Whitman that are typically visionary and exalted in aspiration. Tonight’s programme note was by the late Michael Kennedy, the writer on VW par excellence. He described the finale as ‘the longest, most ambitious and…. most moving of the symphony.’ Elsewhere, I recall reading in the past a comment of his to the effect that the movement is the most discursive but contains the best music I find it impossible to dissent with his view of this movement. Geraint Bowen rightly took the long opening section for choir and orchestra in an expansive fashion, while maintaining momentum, and thereby brought out the visionary quality in the music very well. Hereabouts, the orchestral playing had golden lustre and the chorus sang with great dedication. Eventually, the music attains a majestic climax at ‘Finally shall come the poet worthy that name’ and here the performance achieved genuine grandeur. When the soloists enter at ‘O we can wait no longer’ Mr Bowen ensured that the requisite urgency was there. Both soloists sang with intensity but, unfortunately, while Roderick Williams’ voice remained firmly focussed, Miss Broderick’s did not. Nonetheless, it was impossible not to be swept along on the torrent of VW’s invention in this extended episode. I thought Geraint Bowen had the measure of this vast finale. In the wrong hands it can seem to sprawl but that danger was avoided tonight, thanks in no small measure to terrific playing from the Philharmonia, who were on sovereign form, and wonderful commitment from the Festival Chorus. At the last, the music gently vanished over the horizon and out of our earshot. My one not insignificant reservation apart, this was a conspicuously successful performance and another fine achievement by the Festival Chorus, who are having a terrific week.