“Behold, the sea itself!” – The Royal Festival Hall mark Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary with élan.
To mark the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth, The Bach Choir and the Philharmonia, under conductor David Hill invited baritone Roderick Williams and soprano Elizabeth Watts to join them for three of the composer’s early works, written before the Great War.
The overture to the composer’s 1909 incidental music to Aristophanes’ The Wasps carries little of a feeling for Ancient Greece – crammed as it is with English folk tunes – and Vaughan Williams opted for a more literal interpretation of the title (rather than the metaphorical reference to Athenian jurymen intended by Aristophanes) – but it is nonetheless an enjoyable concert staple. Hill and the Philharmonia gave the work a decently brisk account, making the most of the buzzing effects that permeate it (including some impressively co-ordinated jeté work from the violins), and opting not to linger too long on the lush folk tune that serves as the third subject.
The Garden of Proserpine (for orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist) is arguably Vaughan Williams’ first essay at a large-scale work, but, although it was completed in 1899, the composer seems to have dismissed it, as it didn’t receive any public performance until 2011. In truth, it’s not the most exciting piece, and despite the accomplished orchestration and the contrast afforded by allocating different verses of the 12 stanza poem to chorus or solo, it has a directionless feel to it. It’s perhaps easy to dismiss this as Vaughan Williams finding his compositional feet, but it may simply be a response to Swinburne’s poem, which portrays a pre-Christian approach to the afterlife, where there is no heaven or hell, but the Asphodel Fields – a kind of beige, apathetic rest from all emotion, presided over by Proserpine (Persephone), the Queen of the Dead.
“Hill and the Philharmonia gave the work a decently brisk account…”
The performance was generally good – especially with regard to balance – and the orchestra, soloist and chorus made the most of the composer’s summoning of bloodless diffidence – the last verse sung in mezza voce unison by the chorus, for example, or the mournful single note leitmotiv from the horns that recurs throughout. The short – and beautifully played – interlude for violas and oboe in verse 10 provides a hint of the pastoral, but it is soon subsumed. Watts was excellent, and has just the right voice for music of the period – controlled power with a little bloom – and her delivery of the fourth verse (“Green grapes of Proserpine… For dead men deadly wine”) was especially chilling. There was a slight feeling that unfamiliarity with the piece had robbed the performers of producing the very best account, as some of the chord placings weren’t quite together on occasion.
For A Sea Symphony, the 200 strong Bach Choir gave us some magnificently hair-raising fortissimo passages (not least the glorious opening), and, throughout, were never anything less than well-focused and co-ordinated (even if a truly intense pianissimo seemed only possible from the semichorus in the fourth movement, or the alto accompaniment to the baritone in the second). Whitman’s poetry is always a mixed bag; when he’s off on a spiritual kick it can be inspiring and magical (as in the second half of the work), but then, he’ll have an attack of prolix and bumpy technobabble (in the early part of A Sea Symphony it ends up feeling like some terrible old naval bore describing a maritime museum’s collection). Vaughan Williams, by and large, manages to tame this within the setting, and Hill and forces brought this together adroitly, such that all was fluid, the text made sense, and the texture and dynamic were well controlled and appropriately contrasted. The hymn-like opening of the fourth movement was particularly special, as was the intensity given to “Below, the manifold grass…” later in the movement.
Roderick Williams – among other accomplishments – is today’s ‘voice of Vaughan Williams’, and his performance was, as expected, flawless (his second-movement soliloquy was gorgeously haunting). Now allowed to let her top register sparkle, Elizabeth Watts didn’t hold back, and her high notes were utterly thrilling; notwithstanding the drama, though, her quieter passages – particularly the final, wonderfully matched, duet with Williams – were given exquisite shape, tone and texture.