The Lark Ascending Unwrapped formed an intriguing exploration of three works by Ralph Vaughan Williams prefaced by an introductory talk from one of the UK’s most engaging broadcasters. David Owen Norris outlined the composer’s creative thinking behind The Lark Ascending and Flos campi followed by complete performances from SÓN – Southampton’s Orchestra in Association at Turner Sims – and vocal ensemble Cantoris Michaelis under the direction of Robin Browning with Lawrence Power as an outstanding soloist. The evening could not have been more quintessentially English.

Lawrence Power
© Jack Liebeck

The performances began with the Fantasia on Greensleeves, one of Vaughan Williams' most familiar works, belonging originally to his opera Sir John in Love from 1929. It was given a gentle, understated account that, while somewhat undernourished in the strings’ lower regions, did much to capture its bittersweet mood. Despite Browning’s outsize beat, the work’s rustic elements remained earthbound, notwithstanding beguiling contributions from flute and harp.  

Nothing could be less earthbound than The Lark Ascending, first conceived in 1914 as a Romance for Violin and Orchestra and only premiered in its orchestral version after the Great War. It’s a piece that worked well in the lecture-hall surroundings of Turner Sims where Power (who is also a violinist) imbued this ‘Romance’ with terrific poise, his varied, sometimes, uneven tone creating a venue-stilling intimacy. There was plenty of passion too, but in terms of poetic expression and flawless technique this lark “… ever winging up and up” (as George Meredith’s eponymous poem puts it) had a most eloquent performance. Well-judged tempi and subtle orchestral detail came through, an unabashed triangle and melting warmth from French horn, as did a sense of an exquisite joy and fragility that tellingly binds this 15-minute work.

Flos campi was first performed in October 1925 at The Queen’s Hall, given by Henry Wood, the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, Lionel Tertis and students from the Royal College of Music. So it was entirely appropriate that a specially-formed body of local singers included a handful of University students among its 20 voices. A few more tenors and basses would have balanced the upper voices more effectively, but since Vaughan Williams specifies a chorus of 20 to 26 voices, there was no lack of authenticity here. As a Suite for viola solo, small orchestra and small chorus, this work defies classification since it’s neither a viola concerto or a choral work.

Yet it is one of the composer’s most original creations, striking not only for its unusual scoring; wordless chorus, viola solo and chamber ensemble (single woodwind, horn and trumpet, harp, celesta, percussion and strings) but for its piquant harmonies that haunt the ear. As if to make explicit the work’s exotic colouring, each of its six through-composed movements are headed with Latin quotations from the Song of Solomon. This account brought to the fore languor and urgency, dancing rhythms neatly pointed, with woodwind and celesta variously charming the ear. The chorus were at their best in the open mouthed ‘Ah’ vowels and brought soothing reassurance to the imitative entries of the final movement. Throughout, Power was an assured and expressive soloist, sensitive to brief partnerships with oboe and flute and generous in tone – whether yearning or darkly mysterious.