In the year that marks a century since World War One's fateful beginning, concerts commemorating conflicts abound. With Remembrance Day just weeks away, attention is focussing on the servicemen who have given their lives since 1914. It's with this backdrop that the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra brought to Winchester Cathedral a programme entitled "For the Fallen", comprising seven works by English composers. They all had some link to the First or Second World War, although several were written in the pre-war years.

David Hill © John Wood
David Hill
© John Wood

Under guest conductor David Hill, the orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and soloists took the audience on a journey from beauty to death, without much dwelling on the horrors of war itself but with plenty of human emotion and a sense of life sadly lost. No work epitomised this so much as Behind the Lines, a recently resurrected orchestral suite penned by Scottish composer Cecil Coles between 1917 and 1918. Coles was killed at the age of 30, fighting in the Somme offensive, and it was not until Martyn Brabbins orchestrated this work in 2001 that it was performed and recorded. Mirroring a life cut short, only two of an original four movements survive. The jovial, upbeat opening, with its romantic waltz section, gave way to a slower, sadder second. Here, the French Horns soulfully developed a mournful theme, which passed to the violins before the brass section came into their own to develop a sense of lament to the end. Coles' was the second to last piece to be performed; the first half was less directly elegiac, instead evoking a sense of nostalgia and omens of desolation.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' orchestral Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, both benefited and suffered from the cathedral acoustic. The sweeping chords which push and pull through the piece resounded beautifully, Hill coaxing out a tight, rich tone. However, a degree of precision in the melodic turns was lost thanks to the blurring effect of the cathedral's echo – a very different sound to concert hall or recorded versions.

Vaughan Williams survived World War One but George Butterworth did not. His 1911 settings for baritone and orchestra of A.E. Housman poems entitled Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad and accompanying Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad had surprisingly different impacts. The songs were ably rendered by Duncan Rock, his operatic voice adding some gravitas and technical competence to phrases heavy with significance. Yet, again the cathedral acoustic made things difficult. Singing from the pulpit helped, but there were moments when orchestra overpowered singer and diction was particularly challenging. Even if those without word sheets struggled to make out the nuances of Housman's dark contemplations, the central juxtaposition of cheerfulness next to inevitable death did come across in the musical phrasing. The Rhapsody was a more direct affair. The orchestral playing grew from a sparse beginning to a lively fullness, before fading to a chilling string tremelando.

Rock returned in the second half to sing Finzi's setting of Shakespeare's poem from Cymbaline, "Fear no more the heat o' the sun". Dedicated to Vaughan Williams, this darkly beautiful song from the 1942 set Let Us Garlands Bring was better balanced in performance than the Butterworth songs, Rock finding the lyricism in terms bittersweet melodies and Hill keeping the momentum going. Ultimately, the two chorus works (plus a third with the encore) stole the show. Before the interval, both chorus and orchestra made fine work of Vaughan Williams' Toward the Unknown Region. The singers were both precise and energetic. Again the acoustic blurred their diction, but several climaxes in this confident-sounding piece cut powerfully through the air, providing just the right amount of bravado to form a contrast to the more thoughtful second half.

The closing work seemed to finally bring the concert to a point; Elgar's For the Fallen, the concert's adopted title, was both a commemoration and a lament. Laurence Binyon's text contains the famous verse beginning "They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old" and ending "We will remember them". The eight four line verses merged into a well-formed whole, with Susan Gritton's soprano soaring over the top – her voice was ideal for both the musical setting and the cathedral. There was an assuredness to the whole ensemble, in no small part due to some energetic conducting from Hill. Elgar could inject a very characteristic grandeur into his choral works, and here that came across to great effect; patriotism and pride marred by sadness and perhaps a little nostalgia. The orchestra was on commendable form and the chorus, on staging above them, was just right. A fitting encore emphasised the Remembrance theme. Hill was for a time Direcotr of Music at Winchester cathedral, so it was apt to finish tonight's visit by conducting his arrangement of “Nimrod” from Elgar's Enigma Variations, set to "Requiem Aeterna". This is deceptively challenging to sing and the chorus was up to the challenge. It was an impressive ending to a concert which had predominantly made subtle, emotional reference to lives lost. It was a shame not to make more of Gritton and the chorus, but overall this was a successful evening, played to the full audience that the BSO continues to draw.