I have said it before, but big choral works really are what The Hallé does best. This concert in the ongoing Vaughan Williams cycle, placing the epic Sea Symphony against the altogether bleaker Sixth, will live long in the memory of all present.

Sir Mark Elder conducts The Hallé
© Tom Stephens

Vaughan Williams haughtily dismissed the idea that his Sixth represented a musical reaction to the horrors of World War 2, and in particular the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here, though, the violence of the music made it near impossible to shake off wartime imagery. From the opening dissonance, brutally pinning back the audience, to the inexorable tattoo of the second movement and rollicking finale, this was high-octane Vaughan Williams, unrecognisable from the pen of a composer whose bucolic tunes reliably top various charts. The grim crescendo of the second movement was masterfully curated by Sir Mark Elder, with the ensuing cor anglais solo responding movingly. The saxophone solos were handled with engaging swagger and style. The fourth movement blazed with the energy of Shostakovich before dissolving into an entirely unhurried ethereal landscape, meticulously controlled violin tremolos hanging in the air with the harp. It may have been the First Symphony which pulled in the big audience, but this Sixth was every bit as stirring.

The Sea Symphony didn’t just pull in audience numbers, but also a vast chorus, with some 236 singers listed in the programme, combining the forces of the Hallé Choir and Youth Choir. Ranged panoramically across the entirety of the choir stalls, their sound in the fortissimos of the first movement was overwhelming without ever compromising on diction or attention to the text. Moments such as “All that went down doing their duty” in the first movement and “Greater than stars” in the finale were hauntingly hushed, while “O thou transcendent” in the finale was glorious.

Roderick Williams
© Tom Stephens

Roderick Williams and Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha were similarly superb, and it was touching to see the baritone enjoying the Sixth Symphony from the audience. His is a happily familiar voice in this city, and here his projection, warmth and engagement with the audience were as strong as ever. A newer delight was the singing of Rangwanasha, winner of last year’s Song Prize in Cardiff but here excelling in heavily scored orchestral repertoire. Her attractive sound, at once rounded and seemingly effortlessly controlled, made for some of the most magical moments from her opening cry of “Flaunt out O sea”, to her last words floating across the auditorium. One can only hope she returns to sing in the North West again.

Roderick Williams, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha and Sir Mark Elder
© Tom Stephens

Elder’s batonless direction made the symphony feel as organic and spacious as could be hoped for, marshalling his vast forces with precision and passion while pacing the symphony’s architecture to perfection. This was particularly evident in the finale, where the heat slowly grew in intensity with consummate control. His orchestra responded in kind to the quality of the singing, the string playing especially luxurious. This was an utterly captivating programme – or, as one Mancunian accent muttered behind me on the way out, “Premier League stuff, that!” 

*****