Opera and Classical Reviews

Philharmonia Orchestra/Hickox @ Royal Festival Hall, London

06 November 2008


Philharmonia Orchestra/Hickox@ Royal Festival Hall, London, 06 November 2008
4 stars

Lisa Milne
Lisa Milne
Richard Hickox’s exploration of the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, has been a revelation, none more so that this outstanding account of his poignant anti-war cantata Dona Nobis Pacem coming as it did on the eve of Remembrance Day.

Written for the Huddersfield Choral Society’s centenary celebrations in 1936, Dona Nobis Pacem is also very much a piece of propaganda, not only reflecting the composer’s time in the trenches during WW1 but a commentary on the state of Europe as it moved inexorably to another more brutal conflagration. Vaughan Williams sets texts from the scriptures and poetry by Walt Whitman and interweaves the two, very much in the way that Benjamin Britten did in his War Requiem twenty-five years later and whilst Dona Nobis Pacem is nowhere near conceived on such a colossal scale, it still packs an emotional punch, especially when given such a powerful performance as it was here by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus.

The choral singing had a visceral energy and precision that provided the lynchpin of the whole performance and Hickox paced the work faultlessly. The sense of foreboding in the second section, a choral setting of Whitman’s Drum Taps, was palpable and Hickox shaped the entire movement as one long crescendo from start for finish, with shattering results.

Relief came in the third movement with the baritone soloist’s message of reconciliation set to some of Vaughan Williams’ most achingly-beautiful music, and whilst Alan Opie sang with pathos, his baritone is no longer capable of the virility that the music ideally calls for. Similarly soprano Lisa Milne seemed shrill, failing to provide the aural balm that the composer had in mind. Still, hearing this great work is always a privilege and the cumulative effect was profoundly moving.

Before that we were treated to a beguiling account of the Third Symphony, lovingly shaped by the conductor and ravishingly played by the Philharmonia with some profoundly stirring solo violin playing from James Clark. Although Vaughan Williams called this symphony Pastoral Symphony, there’s no sense of the bucolic abandonment that is evident in Beethoven’s, indeed the mood of Vaughan Williams’ is elegiac and is very much related to the Great War. This is apparent in his use of an offstage trumpet in the second movement which represents the Last Post and the wordless signing of a soprano in the last movement, whose disembodied voice brings the work to its enigmatic close.

After the interval Hickox and the orchestra delivered a breathless, no-holds barred performance of the Fourth Symphony. Blistering in its evocation of the horrors of war this symphony sounds unlike anything else in the composer’s symphonic output and remains one of the most original and disconcerting symphonies of the last century, especially when played at such a fierce level of intensity as here.



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