A Sea Symphony

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)

Guy Johnston (cello)

Lynne Dawson (soprano)
Stephen Roberts (baritone)

Wimbledon Choral Society
Streatham Choral Society

New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
Michael Ashcroft

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 24 November, 2007
Venue: Fairfield Halls, Croydon

Frederick Albert Theodore Delius CH (1862-1934)The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra’s concerts and recordings provide a fascinating glimpse into the workings of orchestra colour, which is simply unavailable now to most orchestras, because of the NQHO’s unique instrumentation. Here we have narrow-bore brass and flavoursome percussion, instruments in regular symphony-orchestra use until about 50 years ago, which do not obliterate the characterful woodwinds and strings, the latter using traditional gut – so intense playing does not necessarily mean harsh and too bright sounds. The combined effect of this is that musicians respond much better to each other, as they will be able to hear each other, and each group of instruments can be distinguished even when all are playing. It is an effect that is highly recommended.

This epic programme began with a rather tedious account of Bradford-born Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. Michael Ashcroft, who is the music director of the Wimbledon Choral Society, set a wholly unrealistic slow tempo. All life was drained from the music. Fortunately, the oboe and the response from the fiddles offered some resuscitation.

Guy Johnston. Photograph: Hanya ChlalaGuy Johnston brought to Elgar’s Cello Concerto an authority that dictated the pace, although concentration was initially lost due to latecomers being allowed in and them taking an age to find their seats. Johnston led the piece and produced a satisfying account. The opening Adagio was sweeping but there was also a lack of sparkle. A gently mournful account of the slow movement had Johnston playing his heart out but the opening of the finale needed more excitement in the orchestra. Indecision is this movement’s main idea, a dichotomy of optimism and introspection, which was well expressed here and with enough momentum to avoid wallowing. The piercing return of the opening movement’s theme provided a powerful message about returning to one’s roots for reconciliation.

Vaughan Williams’s “A Sea Symphony” was wonderfully played and sung, the concert dedicated to Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer’s second wife, who died on 23 October at the age of 96. However well Stephen Roberts’s warm baritone suited the music, he was put in the shade by Lynne Dawson who carried Walt Whitman’s every word. The three choirs blazed a trail in the many exultant passages and who also sang with great delicacy where necessary. What did not come across wholly convincingly were the fervent aspects of the music. The first three movements have an overt nautical theme whereas the fourth is subtler, in words and music, and here was almost quasi-religious in character, the choruses awed feel and building to an explosive surge before the final fade in to nothingness.

It was the orchestral sound that provided the most joy, however. It cannot be overstated that hearing this orchestra opens up meaningful aural possibilities – brass that does not (cannot) overpower such distinctive winds and percussion and the warm-sounding strings.

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