Symphony Hall *****


I could name at least six English composers I would celebrate above Vaughan Williams, but this is his sesquicentenary year, and everyone is doing him proud, not least the CBSO. Tonight’s concert was the second in a tight sequence of three honouring this admittedly much-loved composer, and the performances under Michael Seal were beyond magnificent.

We began with the Wasps Overture, joyous, celebratory, busy, clearly-defined and actually utterly gorgeous. Intriguingly, there was one harp mid-stage left, and two others stage right (no, this wasn’t an hallucination of Wagner’s Ring cycle), the latter two coming into play during the vocal items which followed.

The rarely-heard Toward the Unknown Region found Simon Halsey’s CBSO Chorus at the top of its customary impressive game, projecting with such clarity of diction, building up huge reserves of sonority under Seal, and in fact bringing to mind similar glories in Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens.

Roderick Williams was the noble, persuasive soloist in the Five Mystical Songs, his burnished baritone delivering such a feel for George Herbert’s transcendental poetry, the Chorus making magical entries to accompany atmospherically. Vaughan Williams surely miscalculated the final song, though, having his soloist sit silent after so much wonderful work (as evidenced here by his namesake), while the chorus belts out the dynamic but strangely loose-hanging “Let all the world in every corner sing”.

Nothing loose-hanging, however, about the tightly-knit Fifth Symphony, Seal moulding powerful textures worthy of its dedicatee, Sibelius, colouring almost organ-like registrations from a massively on-form CBSO whilst allowing all the music’s mystery to flow. Quietly and unfussily Seal released a wealth of detail from a score which in other hands could emerge as pappy, as he steered us towards a conclusion beautiful in its serenity.

Christopher Morley

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