Andrew Manze and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales opened this concert with a piece by Doreen Carwithen in her centenary year. Her music has appeared only twice before at the Proms, but never heard here before was her brief Bishop Rock Overture from 1952, which made a stirring curtain-raiser for a concert entitled “Sea Sketches”. Whatever other gifts Carwithen had, a vivid feeling for the orchestra, honed through thirty film scores, was one of them. An opening storm on horns and strings buffeted the eponymous lighthouse in the Scilly Isles, a calmer central section projected an impressionistic haze, before the turbulence returned at the close. Manze brought plenty of energy to this brooding seascape, and his fine players responded with high commitment to Carwithen’s invention.

Andrew Manze
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Grace Williams is far from overexposed also, but her Sea Sketches, written in 1944 for string orchestra, has been heard at the Proms a couple of times before. The splendid strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales sounded alert, rich and full, which the piece needs for the divisi passages to work in this space. Two of its five movements are lively, the opening High Wind evoking the stiffest of breezes along Williams’ native South Wales coast, while the fourth movement, a presto called Breakers, had falling chromatic scales crashing onto the beach. Of the three slower movements, the melodic Sailing Song suggested the sea as inviting playground, Channel Sirens deployed the sound of foghorns through mist, and the final Calm Sea in Summer was as serene as its title. 

The BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

After Carwithen’s vivid miniature and Williams’ highly developed sketches, came the huge oceanic canvas of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. There are not many pieces that sound at their best in this venue, but this is one. From the brassy call-to-arms and the mighty shout of “Behold, the sea itself!” the combined 240 voices of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC National Chorus of Wales made a thrillingly weighty sound. Sub-groups of this vast throng down to the small semi-chorus were equally effective, in precision and diction. Vaughan Williams once confessed that though his literary enthusiasms could wane, he “never got over Whitman, I’m glad to say”. He wanted these lines to be heard.

Andrew Manze, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Jacques Imbrailo and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The soloists too rose to the occasion, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn’s spinto power soaring above even these forces. Baritone Jacques Imbrailo, whose maritime operatic excursions include Billy Budd, Peter Grimes, The Wreckers and The Pearl Fishers, has the sea in his voice. Though that voice is not the largest, he has an appealing timbre and fully exploited his command of vocal colour. There was exquisite lyrical poise when he opened, along with the altos, the second movement “On the beach at night alone”.

I have seen a few rankings – silly game but we all play it – of RVW’s nine symphonies in this anniversary year, and none places the Sea Symphony very high (one put it bottom!). But RVW loved to conduct it and wrote “I’m glad if bits of the old SS withstand the ravages of time”. And time, seafaring as metaphor for life’s journey, is the theme of The Explorers, the symphony’s finale. Here as before Manze had fine control, keenly attentive to all his singers and players over 65 minutes. Even his evident enthusiasm for the work could not disguise a few weaknesses in the music, but then if you aim as high as Whitman’s verse and Vaughan Williams' deep engagement with it, you won’t occupy the heights all the time. But risk-taking high ambition brings artistic rewards denied to more cautious creative endeavour. To rethink your own views on that lofty matter, you might catch up with the broadcast to be shown on BBC Four this Friday.