Philharmonia Orchestra/Hickox … Vaughan Williams: The Pioneering Pilgrim – 1: The Elements (Sinfonia Antartica & A Sea Symphony)

Vaughan Williams
Phantasy Quintet
String Quartet No.1 in G minor

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra [Maya Iwabuchi & Emily Davis (violins), Rebecca Chambers & Nicholas Bootiman (violas) & Sally Pendlebury (cello)]

Vaughan Williams
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No.7)
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Gerald Finley (baritone)

London Symphony Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Richard Hickox


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 May, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Richard Hickox. Photograph: Greg BarrettThe Philharmonia Orchestra is to be applauded for programming Ralph Vaughan Williams’s nine symphonies this year (as well as giving two performances of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”) to mark the 50th-anniversary of the composer’s death. In engaging Richard Hickox to conduct, a doughty Vaughan Williams champion has been chosen – he has previously conducted Vaughan Williams’s symphonies in London (with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) and he has an-almost complete recorded survey of the canon on Chandos (with the London Symphony Orchestra). Hickox then is a (too?) familiar conductor of this repertoire.

Opening the evening was a (free) chamber-music recital, two of Vaughan Williams’s string-based pieces, which perhaps did not make an ideal contrast, both works following similar processes of using folk-like material, invoking reverie and channelling jaunty rhythms, each beginning with solos for viola, the 15-minute Phantasy Quintet (1912) being in four linked movements, the half-hour String Quartet No.1 (1908/1921) having four separate ones.

Both works though are imbued with the human consciousness that can make Vaughan Williams’s music so moving (the full-circle close of the Phantasy Quintet, to rapt stillness, was ruined by here someone allowing their mobile-phone to ring); and String Quartet No.1 certainly revealed how influential Ravel had been on VW who in 1908 had spent three months of “intensive study” with the French master in Paris. The First String Quartet (there was an earlier one in C minor that VW withdrew) was the result, music refined and lucid and wonderfully eloquent in the slow movement ‘Romance’. Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra gave very sympathetic and well-observed performances.

Ralph Vaughan WilliamsFor the first of the four symphony concerts, it was “Vaughan Williams: The Elements”. It would perhaps have been interesting to have heard “A Sea Symphony” first, to launch the cycle in suitably seismic style (“Behold the sea…” – Walt Whitman) and then to have moved on to the wider palette of colours to be found in Sinfonia antartica (the misspelling is the composer’s!). But it was the Seventh Symphony the began the journey – arguably the weakest of VW’s nine, despite much that is striking, and not because it is derived from his score for “Scott of the Antarctic” (1948), the Ealing film’s cast including John Mills, James Robertson Justice and Kenneth More.

Potentially the music has the power to take us to a strange and forbidding landscape – this performance (however well-drilled and responsive) did not do so and rendered the music as intriguingly coloured but not necessarily as to why (the electronic organ, requiring stereophonic banks of speakers, fell short in terms of timbre in comparison with the still-not-fully-useable Festival Hall pipe instrument); nor was there much characterisation – so such moments as penguins waddling (second movement) lacked wit and, in the fourth, despite superb oboe and cor anglais solos, the occasional oasis of hope to stave-off ultimate tragedy lacked consolation given the play-down elsewhere of anything tangibly inhospitable. The off-stage soprano (Susan Gritton) and ladies’ voices (word-less) lacked mystery and threat and it wasn’t until the end that some unfriendly was felt, the wind-machine indicating that the elements take all before them. This was chilling.

It was just under two years ago that Richard Hickox conducted “A Sea Symphony” in London – with the same choir and soloists as here! – the basis of the Chandos recording. Of the two performances in this Philharmonia Orchestra concert, that of Symphony No.1 was the more engaging – even so it fell a little short of the incandescence and transcendence that accounts of this music can achieve.

Hickox certainly had an iron-grip on unifying the work (unlike in Sinfonia antartica), maybe too much so, for passages in the first movement were too gelling, what is effectively the trio of the third-movement scherzo was undersold in terms of expanse and lift, and the finale didn’t quite evoke oceanic distance and depths. That the performance was expertly marshalled and keenly detailed (there seemed to be a conscious reference by VW to Debussy’s La mer – in time-line terms it is possible) is not in doubt. Nor that the full-strength London Symphony Chorus (a group umbilically-tied to Hickox) was close to its considerable best, that the two soloists left little to be desired, and that the Philharmonia was exactingly responsive (Hickox appositely having the violins antiphonal and the double basses to the left) – but it was not the totally compelling experience it might have been.

Particularly memorable was the remarkably hushed string-playing that ended the second movement (‘On the Beach at Night, Alone’) and the pin-drop silence of the large audience in response; also the high-and-low fade to nothingness at the very end, echoes of the close of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra here, that cued an unfathomable vastness … cue Sinfonia antartica!

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