A Sea Symphony

Vaughan Williams
The Wasps – Overture
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)

Moray Welsh (cello)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Gerald Finley (baritone)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A superbly-played if rather too sober account of Vaughan Williams’s overture to “The Wasps” commenced this concert, which continued with Moray Welsh in intermittently fine form in Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The opening gesture, played simply though movingly, felt at odds with Hickox’s slightly mannered approach to the rejoinder, yet the first movement emerged with sure feeling for its resigned inwardness. The scherzo lacked wit in the rendering of its themes (here and in the finale, a degree of irony seems almost ‘written in’ to the music so that its inherent fatalism is never overbearing), but the Adagio – beautifully controlled in the approach to its emotional apex and tapering-off back to the initial bars – was meltingly delivered and the sure highlight of the performance. There was no lack of cohesiveness to the finale – though the build-up to the reprise was slightly spoiled by some over-rhetorical touches from Hickox, and the eloquent apotheosis felt too reigned-in (an often restive audience hardly helped matters), leaving the closing bars to bring the work full circle decisively but with little real sense of an expressive QED.

If the music-making in the first half never fully took wing, the account of “A Sea Symphony” was little short of a triumph. Not that this is a work one would have expected Hickox to do other than well, but his bringing of the symphonic and descriptive components of Vaughan Williams’s recklessly inspired vision into a potent accord was something (as memory recalls) previously lacking in his interpretation, and which underpinned this performance so effectively. Thus the sweeping initialparagraph of the first movement unfolded with purposeful momentum, and the ensuing alternations of vigour and tenderness were made to serve not only Walt Whitman’s panoramic eulogy but also the oblique effectiveness of the composer’s formal process. The nocturnal seascape that follows was never flaccid in its contemplation of the numinous (perhaps the more demonstrative central section could have had a fraction more rhythmic lift), while the scherzo knitted together its wide range of stylistic allusions with a satisfying immediacy. The most discursive but also most searching of the four movements, ‘The Explorers’ unfolds over several large spans that gradually intensify the text’s yearning for the ‘infinite horizon’: it was a measure of Hickox’s conviction that never did momentum flag or lose direction as the metaphysical and human facets unite in their otherworldly leave-taking.

A performance, then, which saw the most all-embracing of Vaughan Williams’s works whole. Hickox was abetted in this by responsive singing from the two soloists – both technically beyond reproach – with Susan Gritton uninhibited in her response throughout the first movement’s dramatic entreaties, and Gerald Finley warmly eloquent both here and in the reflectiveness of ‘On the beach at night alone’: the two then bringing the right measure of ardency and rumination to the central span of the finale. The London Symphony Chorus was on equally inspired form – bringing out the fervency but also the compassion of Whitman’s sentiments such that the innate idealism of the work never seemed for a moment to have lost its relevance. Under Hickox, the easily overlooked writing for harps and organ was evident in what was always a finely-balanced and powerfully-projected handling of the orchestral contribution.

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