The Sea

The Sea
Dies natalis
William Lloyd-Webber
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell), Op.34

Nathan Vale (tenor)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 15 July, 2006
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

This orchestra for highly skilled amateurs has a deserved reputation, attracting players from all over London and the Home Counties. Jonathan Butcher, the Westminster Philharmonic’s conductor since 1984, has a thoroughly professional adventurousness – often impish. This all-English concert drew on the 20th-century. Three rarely performed works received airings – enterprising choices, indeed.

Frank Bridge’s The Sea proved the most distinguished composition of the evening. It is an early, lush, and tonal work. The orchestration is fairly conventional if unexpected at times. An acute musical intelligence is at work: Bridge had a keen ear and was an acute observer.

‘Seascape’, evokes the waves’ ceaseless swell. As one wave rolls past, the next one is already on its way. (Bridge avoided the single gigantic roll of cliché.) In the first few minutes, Bridge skilfully uses every section of the orchestra. Seamlessly, violas, oboes and then horns blend into the general sweep and surge – a mighty orchestra, a mighty ocean. The trio of the scherzo ‘Sea Foam’ puts horns and strings together. Old hat? Not here. Stopped horns glug melodiously – soft and subdued, below the waterline – while agitato strings beat loudly and insistently on the water’s surface. The concluding ‘Storm’ is powerful and magnificent. To follow, Bridges plumps for a cor anglais solo, showing his sea as never quite settled, as darkly capricious still. (Contrast this with the oboe’s reassuring ‘return to normal’ after Beethoven’s land-storm in the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.) A final blast tersely re-asserts the sea’s might.

The players gave their all. My enjoyment owed much to their distinguished music-making. No wonder that an 11-year-old Benjamin Britten was captivated (“knocked sideways”) on hearing the work in 1924 in Norwich.

In “Dies natalis”, intense, quietist prose and poetry from the 17th-century metaphysical, Thomas Traherne, receives an intense, quietist setting for ‘high voice’ (male or female) and string orchestra.

This performance disappointed.

The string players did not produce the sonorous body of sound that is demanded. Also, the lower strings were often sentenced to a continuity of rather pointless plucking – picking at a ground bass, as it were. The violins played sensitively but too straightforwardly. Finzi’s writing requires more subtlety – the delicate, almost faltering footsteps of a shy, inward-looking man and boy. (I remember, gratefully, Emily Pailthorpe’s tribute to Finzi at the Wigmore Hall two years ago. Her oboe caught the mood exactly.) The players seemed most at home in the fast rhythms of ‘The Rapture’, least typical of Finzi. Nathan Vale, on the other hand, sounded strained during this display of vigour. His strength lay in the rapt stillness of ‘Rhapsody’ and ‘Salutation’, where his adult tenor aptly recalled a chorister’s purity of tone and innocence.

Aurora, by William Lloyd-Webber (1914-82), the father of the clan, is nine minutes long. Very simply, we move from the depth of night (cellos and basses) to imminent day (violas and violins). After a nondescript bridge passage, dawn appears in a sustained warm glow – a burgeoning climax, but sustained as a mood right to the end. Short though the work is, this is a tour de force.

Britten’s Young Person’s Guide was treated confidently and exuberantly. Both the orchestra and Jonathan Butcher were on top form, creating a rousing climax to this enterprising concert.

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