There are, no doubt, various facets to Vaughan Williams’ musical language, facets that will presumably all be heard and explored afresh in the coming months as the composer’s 150th anniversary is celebrated. Yet surely the most significant facet, made the focus of Sunday’s Symphony Hall concert, is its relationship with song. Vaughan Williams’ affection for folk music, in particular, didn’t merely influence his music but suffused it to the extent that his own compositional voice started to take on many of its characteristics.

Alexandra Lowe
© Bertie Watson

As such, even though his 1934 Fantasia on “Greensleeves” uses two existing folk tunes (the other being Lovely Joan), it’s easy to hear it as akin to a compositional warm-up exercise. The piece hasn’t exactly aged well – it’s hard not to think of it as being part of some 1970s K-Tel easy listening compilation – yet the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra approached it the only way they could. Taking it at face value, they managed to find warmth and prettiness beyond its twee, chocolate box exterior, though it still sounded as if dropped into the present from a very far, distant past.

The key to folk music is that it is a music for, by and of the people, and this sense of communal song permeated the City of Birmingham Choir’s performance of the Benedicite. It’s a brave composer who tries to create something interesting out of one of the least promising, most relentlessly repetitive of all liturgical texts. Adrian Lucas made the most of the rambunctiousness with which the work begins and ends, filling it with an effective mix of pomp and swagger, giving the impression of a huge processional pageant. In some respects it was perhaps all a bit overblown, though one could equally argue Lucas wasn’t looking for gravitas that wasn’t there. In any case, the work’s central section was a nicely-rendered contrast, soprano Alexandra Lowe leading choir and orchestra through a gentle, circling meditation on various forms of melisma.

These vast swinging extremes of attitude also made their presence felt in A Sea Symphony. There were times when this sounded problematic, the orchestral ebullience whipped up by Lucas swamping both soloists on several occasions, and causing some of the more solemn passages (particular the opening “all that went down” sequence) to feel somewhat skin-deep, less dark and sombre than Vaughan Williams’ music arguably demands. Yet the tone of the second movement was wonderfully judged, its nocturnal, introspective lyricism coloured by restless energy, while baritone Benson Wilson’s moody delivery cast him as a mystic contemplating existence. Furthermore, that sense of the voices being swamped (perhaps the better word would be ‘drowned’) spoke volumes about the nature of “the sea itself”. Indeed, in the Scherzo there was a palpable sense that, far from having been mastered, we were all utterly at the sea’s mercy, the CBSO playing at their most elemental, writhing and driving the choir along, drenching them with sonic spray.

The symphony’s protracted conclusion raises questions concerning the lofty courage aspired to in Walt Whitman’s text and the conservative safety of Vaughan Williams’ musical language setting these words. Yet Lucas nonetheless managed to tap into a tangible sense of grand, epic scope, teasing out the last movement’s occasional harmonic subtleties but above all returning to that idea of communal song. Lowe and Benson together took the lead, guiding the music’s trajectory toward a place of hushed serenity. The symphony’s end became like a hymn, but one that had by now transcended its hitherto primary-coloured palette, hanging in the air as soft radiance.