Vaughan Williams' fascination with the rhythmic freedom of folk music reveals itself in his Fifth Symphony, fully exploited by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's outstanding strings and the reduced brass and wind sections. During extensive travel across the country, Vaughan Williams went in search of the variances and changing themes in folksongs. He faithfully reflects his findings in this, his “quiet symphony”, representing a shift away from the dissonance of his Fourth. Was this quiet, sensitive composition evidence the composer had at last exorcised the ghosts of the Great War? By 1938, when he began work on the symphony, tensions were escalating in Europe and Vaughan Williams became involved in many wartime activities most especially contributing music to films. To many, the contemplative nature of the Fifth is recognised as wistfulness for the end of war. The first half of the 20th century, with Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar, Arnold Bax and William Walton at the zenith of their talents, was a fertile time for English music.

Alice Coote © Benjamin Ealovega
Alice Coote
© Benjamin Ealovega

The CBSO dedicated this concert to three masters of music, playing Bax's The Garden of Fand and Elgar's Sea Pictures before bringing conductor John Wilson's interpretative magic to Vaughan Williams' Fifth.

Bax's little masterpiece based on the heroine of Irish legend was completed in 1916, the year the Easter Rebellion failed in Dublin, and with it the end of Bax's love affair with Irish music. The CBSO's convincing wind sections, supported by two harps, blended with the lower strings playing a rising and falling theme, illustrative of the swell of the sea, Bax taking the basses to a very low C to create the impression of the danger of the sea. Wilson sought precision in delivery, asking the first violins to respond with delicate phrasing and exceptional vividness.

Alice Coote tackled the five songs which make up Elgar's Sea Pictures, the first four telling of the dangers of he sea, and the fifth, survival. With a strong stage presence, Coote's delivery grew in confidence after a diffident first song during which she was in danger of being overwhelmed by the orchestra. Wilson spotted the imbalance, adjusted it, and Coote was much more comfortable singing Where Corals Lie, and sailed through The Swimmer with beauty and ease, a voice full of colour.

Wilson brings a precise, tidy approach to the rostrum, achieving remarkable performances from members of the wind section, notably oboes, bass clarinet, flutes and cor anglais, and lead violinist, Zoe Beyers, who performs two delightful solo contributions. 

Both the first and the fourth movements reproduce themes from The Pilgrim's Progress, their return in the fourth suggesting a quiet valediction played by the woodwind and the delicate upper strings. Sadly, the stunned silence at the close was unnecessarily broken by early applause.

A well-crafted programme showcasing the best of English music from the first half of the last century.