Unlike in the UK, where it can seem like every other choral society is about to perform it, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony is something of a rarity in Norway. Performing this enormous First Symphony at its last performance of the season, the orchestra of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet pulled out all the stops, combining the forces of its own chorus and children’s chorus with the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir. Unfortunately, despite their size, the chorus were rarely heard above the over-eager orchestra conducted by Alexander Soddy.

Norwegian National Opera Orchestra © Jörg Wiesner
Norwegian National Opera Orchestra
© Jörg Wiesner

At its outset, A Sea Symphony promises so much. A trumpet fanfare, the chorus powering ahead at full force before they’re joined by the whole orchestra. It’s the sonic equivalent of standing on a pier in the middle of a gale; you can almost taste the salt water. Then Vaughan Williams proceeds to plunge the music into shanty territory for rather too long. When the composer occasionally surfaces from the waters of maritime musical clichés, it is with music so loud and overblown that it proves increasingly difficult to take seriously, not helped by the texts by Walt Whitman – often beautiful, but just as often dense and risibly archaic. Only the fourth movement – the only one where the composer attempts something approaching the metaphysical – does the joyous bombast of the climaxes feel appropriate.

The orchestra of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, for a change placed on stage, made some terrific sounds, but they too often veered on the wrong side of loud. They were particularly deafening in the first movement and they frequently overpowered the not inconsiderable choral forces. Still, there were many very good solo moments, particularly the energetic playing of viola section leader Juliet Jopling, but the orchestra was simply too enthusiastic during the first three movements. Things luckily settled down for the fourth where the orchestra produced the first truly soft playing of the whole piece, allowing the chorus to be heard clearly.

A Sea Symphony is primarily a choral piece, but the text was really rather complicated to decipher for the first few movements as the chorus wasn’t heard properly. These balance issues may well have been at least partly due to my own proximity to the stage, but Soddy did not seem to do much to rein in the orchestra either, which was highlighted and put in the foreground when the choral line needed to be heard. When they were heard, however, the chorus sounded glorious. The extended a cappella sequences in the second and fourth movements were truly beautiful; the interjections of the female semi-chorus in the fourth movement – the women of the Soloists’ Choir – were heartbreakingly touching in their simplicity and fragility.

Alongside the chorus and orchestra, there are also two soloists, one soprano and one baritone. Soprano Katherine Broderick took a little while to get going – her large, steely voice was too unwieldy for the first half of the first movement, with nearly every word punctuated by distracting glottal articulation. Once she finally warmed up, her at first unstable higher register settled into place, and she sang with beautiful line and a nearly endlessly powerful top register, soaring above a first movement finale that was already firing at all cylinders. The duet with baritone Yngve Søberg towards the end of the final movement proved particularly rapturous, even if Soddy’s conducting lacked a little in forward momentum. Søberg’s initial challenges seemed more text based, with poor pronunciation at his first entrance. Still, throughout the piece, his voice was a wall of honeyed baritone, technically secure and remarkably attentive to the text. He may not have sung softly enough towards the end, but his singing in louder dynamics was remarkably beautiful.

There is a certain resonance in A Sea Symphony being performed in the Oslo opera house. The house rises straight out of the Oslo Fjord – on warmer days than this particular Thursday, people will go for a swim right outside the main doors – and the contours of the main auditorium delineate the old coastline. There is hardly a more appropriate venue for this piece in Oslo. Had only the orchestra and conductor exercised a touch more restraint, the performance itself would have been equally ideal.