Doreen Carwithen, Grace Williams and Vaughan Williams look out to sea at the BBC Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [9], Prom 16 – Doreen Carwithen, Grace Williams, Vaughan Williams: Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Andrew Manze (conductor). Recorded at the Royal Albert Hall, London, (directed by Rhodri Huw) and now available on BBC iPlayer, 27.7.2022. (JPr)

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano) and Jacques Imbrailo (baritone) singing in A Sea Symphony © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Doreen CarwithenBishop Rock overture
Grace WilliamsSea Sketches
Vaughan Williams – A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)

This Prom with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conducted by Andrew Manze was given the title ‘Sea Sketches’ and – because it is not my naturally territory – for a musical evocation of the sea my mind goes to Debussy’s La Mer and Britten’s North Sea in Peter Grimes. What the BBC programmed this year was a premiere, a rarity and, in the 150th anniversary of his birth, Vaughan Williams’s spawling A Sea Symphony – the first and longest of his symphonies – itself only getting its 11th performance in Proms history. It was first heard at the Leeds Festival in 1910 but did not reach the Proms until 1946 conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and with Isobel Baillie as a soloist. Interestingly, compared to the barely 90 minutes of music in 2022 the audience in 1946 also heard Lennox Berkeley’s Nocturne, Op.25, Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor and the overtures from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Weber’s Der Freischütz.

Perhaps this is a subject for discussion at the end of this Proms season but along with concerns over rail travel, Covid and the cost of living perhaps the shortness of some of the Proms – in this and recent seasons – may explain why the Royal Albert Hall looked barely half-full. Indeed with the massed forces for A Sea Symphony arrayed on and above the platform for the second half there looked to be almost as many there as in the stalls and sparsely populated promenading area. (Surely – despite being called the ‘Proms’ – it is time now for everyone to be seated apart from on the Last Night and perhaps the upper reaches of the RAH could be left unsold, except for the more popular events?)

It is the centenary of Doreen Carwithen’s birth and while she is remembered later in her life for championing her husband William Alwyn’s music, in her own right she earlier composed the music for a number of films in the late 1940s to mid-50s. Perhaps the most notable was her 1953 score for Elizabeth Is Queen, the official film of the coronation in June that year. The brief overture Bishop Rock was composed the year before and attempts to give an impression of that westernmost part of the Isles of Scilly and its famous lighthouse. Right from the start there are brass interjections that throughout Bishop Rock might represent the lighthouse, especially with the opening horn motif. That beginning is stormy and it all builds to an impressive climax when a passage from the violin of BBC NOW’s leader, Nick Whiting, ushers in a period of calm before a tempest rages once more, beginning in the low strings and ending in a brass chorale and some emphatic chords. It was wonderfully played by the orchestra and Carwithen’s music was stirring and undoubtedly filmic and but I didn’t hear the sea, but that may just be me, and it was a worthy Proms premiere, nonetheless.

Grace Williams (1906-77) is regarded as one of Wales’s most significant composers and her 1944 Sea Sketches for string orchestra supposedly depicts – over five short movements – the sea in all its various moods. Hearing this work for the first time what I picked up on was how the music of each part oddly faded away at the end which tended to confirm them as ‘sketches’ for me. Like Carwithen, Williams’s music was filmic and highly illustrative but, again, not always of the sea for me. High Wind sounded just that with the flurry of strings; Sailing Song was gently rocking but could have been dance music; are the ‘sirens’ in Channel Sirens keeping sailors off rocks or luring them onto them, either way, the music in the low strings was rather mysterious and mournful; Breakers is a Presto and seemed to foreshadow the drama of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock; and Calm Sea in Summer was gently lilting (lapping?). Manze and the BBC NOW were ideal advocates for Grace Williams’s music, though I wished the conductor had taken his head from the score and engaged more with his musicians.

A Sea Symphony at the BBC Proms 2022 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

To hear Vaughan Williams’s mighty A Sea Symphony at its best I suspect you would have needed to be in the Royal Albert Hall and not listening through the loudspeakers of a TV. Nevertheless – the apparently 200plus voices of – the combined BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales, as well as the conductor and his orchestra, sounded as if they were fully up to the demands of a massive and complex score. Vaughan Williams uses poetry by Walt Whitman throughout his first symphony, not only for its philosophical and humanist nature, but because Whitman used free verse, and a similar freedom of approach was something ‘making waves’ (sorry!) amongst some composers of Vaughan Williams’s generation. However, from the opening words (‘Behold, the sea itself’) of this A Sea Symphony I did wish the BBC Four transmission had subtitles so I could have followed the words better. It is a sprawling work of just over an hour and, apart from for its admirers, it may outstay its welcome, despite – at least to my ears – Manze hustling everyone through the work on this occasion.

There are many inspired, colourful musical passages from Vaughan Williams amongst some others that are more prosaic, but overall what we heard was often brimming with drama and atmosphere right from start. The opening movement (A Song for All Seas, All Ships) has the soloists duetting with the chorus. Jacques Imbrailo’s baritone was lyrical, eloquent, strong, commanding and entirely at his ease, while Elizabeth Llewellyn was rather understated for her, although her reliable soprano voice is always a thing of beauty. The second movement (On the Beach at Night Alone) was dark and brooding and not for the last time in this symphony I began to think Mahler had been a musical inspiration for Vaughan Williams. The quixotic third movement (Scherzo: The Waves) with its oratorio-like chorus and the singing of Whitman’s ‘After the Sea-ship’ as a hymn suggested a maelstrom. After what were clearly some familiar Wagnerian chords it all ended with the chorus sing triumphantly ‘Following the stately and rapid ship, in the wake following’.

Finally the last movement (The Explorers) began with brass, timpani and organ ushering us into – what sounded rather like – Vaughan Williams’s possible homage to Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with Imbrailo typically assured during ‘O we can wait no longer’ and Llewellyn a little less so, though still singing impeccably. Following ‘Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration’ Whiting’s violin impressed once more before A Sea Symphony reached its conclusion with music at first rollicking and rumbustious. Then at the very end Llewellyn, Imbrailo and the sublime chorus combined in a prayerful ‘O my brave soul! O farther farther sail! O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God? O farther, farther, farther sail!’ as music ebbed away one last time in this ‘Sea Sketches’ Prom.

Jim Pritchard

6 thoughts on “Doreen Carwithen, Grace Williams and Vaughan Williams look out to sea at the BBC Proms”

  1. There is little evidence that Vaughan Williams knew much of the music of Mahler, largely because Mahler’s symphonies and even symphonic songs had been very rarely if ever performed in the UK. Whether VW knew some Mahler scores can only be speculated. The strongest influences on the Sea Symphony are Parry, Elgar and Wagner.

    Reply
    • Thank you ‘Anonymous’. I doubt what you say about RVW and Mahler is entirely true and anyway it is just my impression of ‘A Sea Symphony’ on first hearing it. A liitle research does reveal that although RVW said – as a jest I suspect? – that Mahler was ‘A very tolerable imitation of a composer’ RVW studied in Berlin in 1897 (with Max Bruch) only two years after the ‘Resurrection’ had its first performance in that very city (and hardly would have gone unnoticed) and 1897 was the year the M2 score was published. If RVW had any real distain for Mahler whatsoever then why in 1940 did he write a well-known letter for Anna Mahler (Gustav’s daughter) in support of her mother, Alma, getting a permit to travel from France to England? As in much about classical music we probably cannot be sure of anything! I certainly admit I don’t know much about anything and even less about RVW.

      Reply
  2. The reviewer seems to have forgotten that this concert took place on the day of a major rail strike, which would also account for this heavily-sold prom appearing lower in attendance.
    Unless an audience member were either well-off enough to hail a taxi, or lucky enough to live on an entirely London Underground-run route (or on a bus route), they would have had a major struggle to get home even within London, much less outside the city.

    Reply
    • Thank you ‘Anonymous’ but my concerns about poor attendance at the Proms pre-dates any industrial disputes or pandemic – anyway both are actually mentioned in this review! – and will be seen in some of my previous reviews from the Proms when I was actually there and not watching from afar as this year. Of course, many concerts will be more popular than others but it doesn’t mean these issues cannot be commented on.

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  3. It’s interesting to read that conductor Andrew Manze kept his head in the score throughout Grace Williams’ ‘Sea Sketches’. The strings of the BBC NOW have played this piece umpteen times – they could probably play it in their sleep – so Mr Manze should have had more confidence in his players.

    Reply
  4. I did not watch it live but recorded it. On playback I have words. I also get words on the BBC iPlayer. You do have to switch them on with your remote. However the BBC has stopped showing it in HD so we got poor picture and poor sound quality. It is much better on iPlayer. [edited]

    Jim Pritchard writes: Thank you Len, this is possibly the answer why I and others see no words wnen they were they ‘automatically’ for the following Puccini opera.

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