CBSO/John Wilson – Tallis Fantasia, November Woods, Five Tudor Portraits

Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
November Woods
Vaughan Williams
Five Tudor Portraits

Rachel Kelly (mezzo-soprano) & Neal Davies (baritone)

CBSO Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 May, 2017
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England

City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraPhotograph: Wilson has enjoyed a productive association with the CBSO over the past decade; this concert demonstrating a prowess for British music no less audible than that for American musical and film traditions for which he is best known.

This was certainly no routine performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), an unlikely while welcome staple near the top of the Classic FM Hall of Fame benefitting considerably from Wilson’s flexible tempos and refusal to treat this music as other than a forward-looking statement of intent. Notably effective was his placing of the ‘shadow’ consort in a line at rear-left of the platform, playing with minimal vibrato – unlike (thankfully) the string quartet and main string orchestra – so its echo quality was rendered as if an intangible acoustic resonance. Wilson’s forthright approach to the main climax, moreover, ensured there was no pre-empting of the closing stage – its return to the serenity of the work’s beginning capped by a final chord dispersed around the farthest recesses of Symphony Hall.

Rachel Kelly &Neal DaviesPhotographs: Gerard CollettInasmuch as the Tallis Fantasia is primarily a meditation on its composer’s present makes it a foil to Arnold Bax’s tone poem November Woods (1917), though here the emphasis is squarely on the dilemma of one caught between the emotions of head and heart. If there is something quintessentially English about sheltering from a storm – literal or otherwise – in those woods around Amersham, there is no room for even the faintest irony in music that is ominous and fatalistic by turns. Wilson knitted together its discursive yet cumulative formal trajectory with evident precision, refusing to dwell on incidental detail yet allowing due space for the overtly emotional aspects to make their mark. If the result sounded closer to Bax’s French or Russian than to his British contemporaries, it underlined the European sensibility of this music overall.

Following the interval, a comparatively rare revival nowadays for Vaughan Williams’s Five Tudor Portraits (1936). Although these settings of Elizabethan poet John Skelton are as resourceful as any of this composer’s larger inter-war pieces, the rather ungainly balance between its five movements (the fourth of them being as long as the other four combined) makes for problems of cohesion such as were largely if not wholly met here: the work emerging as almost, but not quite more than the sum of its frequently affecting and always engaging parts.

It helped that the vocal component was so attuned to this music – Rachel Kelly an insouciant observer in the initial ‘Ballad’ and bringing real eloquence to the (overlong?) ‘Romanza’ with its touching commemoration of Jane Scroop’s sparrow. Neal Davies brought due wistfulness to the ‘Intermezzo’ and deadpan humour to the final ‘Scherzo’, with the central ‘Burlesca’ (an uncanny parallel to Carl Orff’s thinking in Carmina Burana) an impressive demonstration of the CBSO Chorus’s conviction as guided by Simon Halsey over almost thirty-five years at its helm.

Wilson entered into its quixotic spirit with relish as he encouraged the CBSO to point up its rhythmic dexterity and harmonic subtlety with more impetus than is usual in this music. A flawed work within Vaughan Williams’s output it may be, but a significant one even so.

  • Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)

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