Monday night at the Festival Hall featured an intelligently assembled programme of music by English composers under the heading “The Sea and the Sky” promoted by Barts Choir, who were joined by The Philharmonia Orchestra and three soloists under the direction of the choir’s conductor, Ivor Setterfield.
Setterfield’s relentless symmetrical conducting is exhausting to watch, and, although it probably comes in handy for keeping a large choir together, it’s not clear – beyond tempo and dynamic – how it helps an orchestra. The Philharmonia, though, are consummate musicians, and did much of the musical heavy lifting during the evening, producing magnificently nuanced performances of the repertoire.
Unsurprisingly, it was the orchestral pieces that achieved near-perfection. Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was full of the gentle subtleties of a Spring day: heart-stirringly pianissimo string tones overlaid with the most delicate wisps of melody from the wind instruments. Benjamin Nabarro gave a sensitively attuned account of the violin solo, although his need to play from a score irked slightly; of all solo pieces, this needs to be unencumbered by earthbound realities. The orchestra also gave full measure of contrast to Britten’s Four Sea Interludes – from the fluctuating mercurial and lowering passages in ‘Dawn’ through the faultlessly co-ordinated horn chimes of ‘Sunday Morning’ to the brassy skirl of ‘Storm’.
The two choral pieces on the programme, however, suffered from a lack of focused singing. Barts Choir is some 250-strong, and, although at full homophonic fortissimo, they produced a big enough sound, it felt, with those forces, it should have been stronger, and the sectional entries in the more contrapuntal passages sometimes lacked sharpness and substance; the choir might do well to consider some work on vocal production for future performances.
Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens is the out-and-out sound of Empire; full of late-Victorian style, it needs as much over-the-top treatment as it can get to showcase Milton’s grandiose text: well-observed dynamics, and plenty of changes of speed. It was given a good helping of these, and the sometimes runaway moments in the third stanza were held in check, but it needed perhaps another twenty percent of choral commitment for full effect.
A Sea Symphony was Vaughan Williams’ first (and longest) essay of the symphonic form (albeit that, at times, because of the substantial vocal content, it feels more like an oratorio). Whitman is a difficult poet to set: his poetry, although visionary, is, at times, over-wordy; Vaughan Williams scored it with reasonable success (although there are clunky moments), but the piece needs careful handling. The orchestra, as noted above, were on excellent form, and evoked the changes in mood with innate skill, ably abetted by the two soloists. The Australian baritone Morgan Pearse’s voice is brimful of pinging top harmonics, and they served to cut through the dense orchestral and choral counterpoint of the first movement to provide moments of exultant delight; Eleanor Dennis’ soprano tone tends to creamy mezzo resonances, and with the touch of vibrato she gave, matched it perfectly to the Elgarian nature of the work; their ‘O we can wait’ duet in the final movement was spine-tingling. The choir, as mentioned above, were good for the ‘con belto’ moments, but some of the individual entries (particularly early in the fourth movement) tended to flabbiness.
All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, but tinged with a small amount of regret for what it could have been, had a little more edge been applied.