The sea has been the inspiration for many concert works; Debussy’s La mer springs to mind immediately as perhaps the most popular, but in England during the first half of the 20th century nautical themes sustained an important presence. Amongst Delius’ Sea Drift, Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes sits Frank Bridge’s short and splendid suite The Sea.

Edward Gardner conducting the CBSO
Edward Gardner conducting the CBSO

Today Bridge is remembered principally for his teaching (his star pupil being Benjamin Britten), rather than his own music, though he is still popular amongst singers for his expertly crafted songs. The Sea, dating from 1910–11 and first performed at a Promenade Concert on Tuesday 24 September 1912 (New Queens Hall Orchestra / Henry Wood) is, I feel, more impressionistic than a literal representation of the ocean’s many moods – I would suggest that the music might represent anything at all, rather than the sea specifically, whereas its Debussy and Britten counterparts have a distinctly stronger sea-relationship. Nonetheless, the score is excellently constructed in four titled movements, throughout which Bridge attempts to depict a variety of sea pictures: “Seascape”, “Sea-foam”, “Moonlight” and “Storm – note the similarity of titles between this suite and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes.

Opening the concert, this suite provided an excellent opportunity to show off both the Symphony Hall acoustic and the CBSO. Elegant woodwind solos, particularly the extended flute solos of “Moonlight”, echoed as clear as crystal around the hall whilst the brilliant brass climaxes of “Storm” sought to deafen each audience member against the often boisterous gush of the strings. Of particular interest was the clarity of both the harp writing and performance; harps may easily get lost in the texture of large orchestral works if not suitably placed – but tonight every gliss and delicately fingered passage rang out with delicious accuracy. The performance and the music itself were a rare treat – one that I should like to see repeated.

Continuing on our musical voyage from the unfamiliar shores of Bridge, we next arrived on the friendly and familiar coast of Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Whatever you think of Elgar’s taste in poetry (he rarely set a first-rate text), the music of these five songs from 1899 points the way forward to some of his finest achievements – The Dream of Gerontius and the Enigma Variations were peeping around the corner. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor joined the CBSO in cool confidence and with a rich, warm tone that one might associate with Elgar expert Janet Baker – not only one of the finest interpreters of English song but one with a particular affinity for Elgar, which makes a comparison between her and O’Connor a very happy one. Echoes of Wagner in English music of the late 19th century are strong, and songs one and three, “Sea Slumber-Song” and “Sabbath Morning at Sea” respectively, bear the trademarks of rich, expressive orchestration with a sung narration of action.

O’Connor shone especially in the cycle’s two most famous songs, “In Haven (Capri)” and “Where Corals Lie”, where her sensitivity, elegant sense of line and interpretative skill allowed her to colour each stanza with a vividly informed personal interpretation – these songs are notoriously ambiguous and open to a plethora of radical meanings. The final song, “The Swimmer” is grim indeed and the fact that the author committed suicide only serves to exaggerate the fierce imagery. Conductor Edward Gardner, O’Connor and the CBSO displayed an intelligent reading full of delicate nuance – my only reservations being that “Where Corals Lie” was a little hasty and O’Connor was occasionally a little overwhelmed in moments of extreme vocal range and expansive orchestration.

Finally the CBSO, Gardner and O’Conner were joined by soprano Susan Gritton and tenor Allan Clayton, the CBSO Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus for a rousing performance of Britten’s delightful Spring Symphony. Though rarely heard, the symphony was played last season by the Hallé with their respective choruses and Sir Mark Elder. Admittedly the Hallé performance was better for a number of reasons, but the CBSO’s spring offering was still not to be missed. The star of the show was easily Allan Clayton, whose flawless diction and sensitive readings of the poetry, coupled with a strong, forceful and yet delicately pure “English” tone, sets him as one of the finest tenors I have ever heard in concert. The collective CBSO choirs sang excellently – a strong choral presence of professionalism even amongst the children whose intonation and singing from memory was impressive. The orchestra played superbly and yet, whilst tackling Britten’s demanding score with a brilliant accuracy, what was missing was a sense of frenetic energy, a bursting joy of spring’s fantastic natural rebirth that Britten captures so diligently. Nonetheless, the CBSO never fail to impress and their commitment to all three works heard tonight is a lesson in dedication. Gardner’s programming of English music familiar and forgotten is, I hope, something we will see in forthcoming seasons.