Two of the great 'tunes' in British music graced the first half of this concert conducted by the redoubtable English music advocate, John Wilson, at the helm of the lustrous Philharmonia Orchestra. The 'tunes' in question appeared in music by two great friends and colleagues: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi.
RVWs The Wasps Overture is the most enjoyable example of the genre by a British composer, not least because of the beauty of its secondary theme. Any performance of the work must give this theme its full due as well as delivering the perky modal music in a clean and athletic manner. On both counts Wilson and the Philharmonia did just this.
In Finzi's Clarinet Concerto you can find the 'tune' in the Rondo finale. However the work as a whole is a darker and more angst ridden affair. The chirpy theme in question is hard won and even then is surrounded by anxious music and only just manages to find a joyful conclusion. In this performance the Philharmonia’s own principal clarinettist, Mark van de Wiel, found all the right levels of angularity and ecstasy. The slow movement was particularly lovely, with a sweetness of tone, which captured the atmosphere of gentle striving for major key resolution. The more extrovert finale was brought off well, with the strings agile in the tricky rhythmic interludes. Yet another rarely heard piece that should surely be in the repertory of most international soloists – after all how many clarinet concertos of this quality are there out there?
The afternoon was dominated, as it inevitably would be, by the one of the miracles of English music – Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony. First performed in 1910 – a breakthrough year for the composer – but composed over a period of seven years. After years of struggling to find musical direction and the technique, two premières saw the composer being thrust into the forefront of the British music scene. The Tallis Fantasia announced the composer as a totally fresh voice with a new set of musical priorities, in this case Tudor polyphony, while the Sea Symphony still embraced the influences of his teachers and the older generation such as Stanford, Parry and Elgar. RVW brings to this musical style in the Sea Symphony a force of visionary personality and a latent power which only Elgar could hope to rival. It remains one of the composers best loved works.
And RVW set off the way he meant to go on with one of the greatest opening passages in a symphony to the words “Behold the sea itself”. Full-throated singing from the Bristol Choral Society, Gloucester Choral Society and the Philharmonia Voices created the imposing wall of sound needed and then went on to provide a wide range of expressive singing with huge enthusiasm, whatever RVW threw at them. The first movement as a whole was excellently shaped by Wilson and there was superlative singing from Roderick Williams and a sensitive, if occasionally underpowered, performance by Sally Matthews.
The slow movement was the least successful, performance-wise, with what seemed a tempo difference of opinion between conductor and baritone, resulting in a couple of odd tempo shifts. The central section ended up seeming rushed and not given its full due at the climax. However all memories of this apparent glitch were banished by a fiendishly fast performance of the sparking scherzo, “The Waves”. Chorus and orchestra were as one and every climax hit home like a tsunami.
The long finale “The Explorers” has been criticised for being too episodic and too long, but here Wilson knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it. Feeling like the unravelling of great mystical saga the gradation of spectacular climaxes was spot on. Here the soloists come into their own and Sally Matthews showed us how seductive and searching she can be when not hard pressed by an orchestra and chorus at full pelt. The final fade out to the depths of the sea was incredibly moving. A first journey from the pen of a towering symphonist that needs no apologies, given a performance to remember. Who needs Mahler?
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