Sparks flew as two British music giants collided at the Barbican: Vaughan Williams and Birtwistle are not often thought of in the same breath, and in many ways they seem diametrically opposed to each other. However, there is much common ground between them and the two works at this concert proved to sit very comfortably next to each other.

Martyn Brabbins © Benjamin Ealovega
Martyn Brabbins
© Benjamin Ealovega

It is easy to forget that in 1910, when Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony was first performed, the composer was considered a radical, having new ideas about developing a national style while embracing the recent musical developments in Europe. With this symphony and the Tallis Fantasia that was first performed shortly before it, he set this in motion, enabling himself and subsequent generations “to be set free”, as Michael Tippett so aptly said many years later. So, in many ways Birtwistle owes a debt to the older composer and he has indeed acknowledged this in recent years. As well as this, Birtwistle has inherited a certain English mysticism, albeit a more brutal version of it than Vaughan Williams, and both composers have the gruff ability to be very angry in their music.

Birtwistle’s Earth Dances from 1986, with its obsessive exploration of layers in the passage of time, displays the composer’s virtuosity at its most super human. This is 35 minutes of music of such power, variety and confidence that it almost seems beyond criticism. The sheer scale and fecundity of it inspires wonder and awe. Make no mistake, this isn’t a comfortable journey – either for the listener or for the performers – but the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the safe and elevated direction of Martyn Brabbins navigated the complex, distorted dance rhythms and virtuoso writing for every section with sureness and aplomb. The terrifying climactic section demonstrated the total concentration that the whole ensemble achieved and the final, mysterious dissolve left the auditorium palpably stunned.

Similar superhuman qualities are achieved in the Sea Symphony. Surely it must be one of the most confident first symphonies by any composer. Many years in the making, Vaughan Williams managed in one fell swoop to sweep aside the staid Germanic influences that had dogged even the greatest of his predecessors, Elgar, and indeed his own early compositions. The refreshing openness and virility are matched by a developing modal approach to harmony, as well as a striving for something beyond everyday experience, which continued to be a feature of much of his subsequent work.

The BBCSO and Chorus delivered a very moving, if not ideal, performance. In the opening movement, “A Song for All Seas, All Ships”, Brabbins found an ideal tempo, the chorus and orchestra rich and responsive. However, at this moment the baritone soloist needs to be forthright and robust, and Marcus Farnsworth seemed somewhat tentative and small of voice here. On the other hand, the soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn seemed to have the almost ideal voice and ecstatic approach, rich in every register and never in danger of being subsumed by the orchestra and chorus.

In the beautiful slow movement “On the Beach at Night, Alone”, Farnsworth’s sensitive, song-like approach was more effective and the beautiful orchestral postlude was performed with poise and delicacy. However, the brilliant Scherzo, “The Waves”, failed to quite take off and sounded a touch cautious, which was probably the result of the slowish tempo.

The long finale, “The Explorers”, also adopted a slow pulse, which initially seemed in danger of unhelpfully dragging out the opening choral passage, but in fact proved to create a Mahlerian sense of space. The arching structure of the movement was held together superbly, with Brabbins injecting a sense of urgency in the pace in the climaxes as they built up. Both soloists shone here, with increasingly passionate and noble duets and some exquisite high notes from Llewellyn. As in the Birtwistle, the long fade out was deeply satisfying. A fitting ending for an aurally spectacular concert.