Events marking Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary continue apace, and this special Bach Choir celebration was a reminder that the composer sang with the choir for 18 years, before presiding over it as musical director in 1921. This programme under David Hill with the Philharmonia focused on two popular early works and a rarity, all three written before the Great War, their creative traversal of a dozen years reflecting his growing ambition and confidence.

David Hill
© Nick Rutter

Deciding against a chronological appraisal, they began with the 1909 overture The Wasps, originally designed as part of music to accompany a production of an Aristophanes play. More often performed as a standalone work, the overture was given a detailed, forthright account with nicely paced climaxes within generally fast tempi. A little more expansiveness in more reflective passages and swagger elsewhere might have produced some welcome change of character, but it was a brazing appetiser with the emphasis on excitement and the play’s more riotous aspects.

A decade earlier Vaughan Williams had completed The Garden of Proserpine; his first attempt at large-scale choral writing (1897-1899) conceived during a period when he was working on a doctoral thesis. The score was apparently abandoned by its composer and hidden from view until over 50 years after his death when Stainer & Bell published it in 2011. It bears fascinating pre-echoes of things to come, although perhaps without the more memorable character and stirring emotions associated with his two Walt Whitman settings: Toward the Unknown Region and A Sea Symphony. Setting words by the late Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne for soprano, choir and orchestra, The Garden of Proserpine inhabits a late-Romantic idiom, at times hinting more at Parry than Vaughan Williams. Yet its sweeping rhetoric, imaginative partition of choral and solo writing and alternatively pensive and anguished tone were all amply realised by soprano Elizabeth Watts and the Bach Choir.

However, it was the performance of A Sea Symphony that consistently held the ear in a truly blistering account which, from first to last bar, blazed like an acetylene torch, gripping in its cumulative momentum and overwhelming in its emotional intensity. The Bach Choir’s electrifying first entry was enough to sweep you off your feet. Thereafter, an account of grandeur and panoramic vistas unfolded, and whether flag-waving or deep reflection, all was impressively controlled in terms of balance, ensemble and tempo, the whole delivered with thrilling conviction. There was no shortage of excitement from the orchestra, with plenty of heft at climatic moments, but never at the expense of obscuring choral detail. Roderick Williams was unfailingly dignified and mellifluous. “Today a rude brief recitative” caught the ear nicely, and if there was some occasional under projection, it is not hard to hear why he has become the go-to baritone for this work. No less communicative was Watts whose “Token of all brave captains” rang out magnificently.

In the first of the middle movements, “A vast similitude” was conveyed with warm, transparent tone, its nocturnal soliloquy atmospherically lit, and the wonderful seafaring Scherzo was suitably buoyant, “the great vessel sailing” splendidly expansive and superbly integrated. The journey of the soul that is The Explorers found choir and orchestra at their most compassionate and noble, Whitman’s cosmic vision drawing from Hill a hall-stilling pianissimo in the final bars, undoubtedly the evening’s emotional high point. Earlier, Watts and Williams joined hands vocally to form an ideal partnership, casting a spell for their “Bathe me O God in thee”.

Altogether, this was an evening of inspirational music making, the 200 or so members of the Bach Choir on blazing form, the whole crowned by Hill’s meticulous preparation. Five stars with bells and whistles!