Sinfonia of Birmingham at Royal Leamington Spa

GRADUAL CONVERSION TO VAUGHAN WILLIAMS

SINFONIA OF BIRMINGHAM
All Saints' Church, Royal Leamington Spa *****
One perhaps unexpected side-effect of Leamington Music Festival's exploration of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams on this 150th anniversary of his birth is the way it is quickening the interest of this grumpy old reviewer.
Until now there have been only three of the composer's works I have actively welcomed listening to: the ineffable Serenade to Music, the atmospheric Tallis Fantasia, and the Wasps Overture, with which the Sinfonia of Birmingham opened Saturday evening's concert in the reverberant High Victorian All Saints' Church.
Strings fizzed and buzzed under the expert baton of Michael Seal (who knows so well how to rehearse and prepare his players with a minimum time-schedule), horns were noble and proud (never mind a few mishaps along the way), and Seal managed to coax out all the contrapuntal textures despite the warm blanket of this acoustic.
Parry's posthumous An English Suite followed, heroically delivered by the Sinfonia strings, but not a patch on his Lady Radnor's Suite, nor, even more so, on Grieg's Holberg Suite of which it aroused aching yearnings.
RVW provided the rest of the programme, beginning with the rarely-heard Oboe Concerto, which proved an absolutely joy in this collaboration between Nicholas Daniel and Seal's Sinfonia, strings lush and dark.
With tones eloquently even across the instrument's entire range, Daniel's oboe conveyed both sadness and skittish dexterity, always more melancholy than cheek. Breath-control, more difficult on the oboe than many realise, was exemplary, with seamless phrasing, and there was also a piping shepherd's hey in the soloist's delivery.
Finally came a true picture of England, much more evocative than the loosely-structured Lark Ascending,, in the wonderful Fifth Symphony. Horns called evocatively over supple, ever-willing strings, trombones built sonorous truths,, and Michael Seal wielded all his forces into such a compelling reflection of this music's amazingly tight structure, building organ-like sonorities contrasting with fleet-footed episodes. This music haunted my dreams, and for once I didn't mind.
Christopher Morley

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