Sunday 6th November 2022
City of Birmingham Choir & CBSO
Symphony Hall ****
The arresting opening fanfare of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony (1910) announces not only the vast ocean (“Behold, the sea itself”) but arguably the arrival of this much-loved of English composers onto the world’s stage, since this was the ‘late-to-bloom’ composer’s breakthrough work.
And the City of Birmingham Choir can claim a special connection given that Vaughan Williams himself conducted them in a performance of the symphony, again with the CBSO, at Birmingham Town Hall, in 1955. This no doubt provided some additional motivation since the choir were on fine form here, with strongly projected diction in the opening movement’s joyous depiction of ships and sailors, appropriately ‘fleet of foot’ in the scherzo, but with a consistently sweet, blended tone in the more lyrical passages throughout.
Balance is often a problem in this extensive musical canvas, and the singers occasionally became submerged in the fuller tutti sections, but nonetheless they heroically made their mark, their commitment never in doubt.
Baritone Benson Wilson could perhaps have had more projection in passages where he sang alone, but his warm-toned voice was well matched with Soprano Alexandra Lowe, both soloists effortlessly floating their intertwined lines with a luminosity that was spell-binding in the symphony’s expansive final movement, The Explorers.
The CBSO captured the full colour gamut of Vaughan Williams’ rich orchestration, from the tidal ebb and flow in the strings, the sailors’ spirited sea shanties in the woodwind, to the inky blackness of the “Beach at Night, Alone” (second movement) in the lower brass.
The symphony was given an assured, expansive reading by conductor Adrian Lucas – never overblown, although I would have welcomed a slightly less reserved approach to some of the more climactic moments. Fittingly, in his speech from the podium, Lucas looked to the future, referencing “the City Choir’s first century of music” in this, their Centenary Year, just as Walt Whitman’s poetry on which the symphony is based finishes with the voyage to come.
The RVW ‘hors d’oeuvres’ served up in the first half were the Benedicite (1929) and the evergreen Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934), the former suitably dignified, the latter delivered with warm viola tone and idiomatic flute & harp.