Tod’s Triumph

Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485
Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)

Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 13 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A resounding blast of fresh air – sea or otherwise – blew through the Royal Festival Hall with this concert, carrying with it even the most trenchant cobwebs, either tangible or mental, in Vernon Handley’s brisk and winning account of Vaughan Williams’s first and by-far-the-largest symphony: A Sea Symphony. A true choral symphony, setting four texts by Walt Whitman, three distinctly nautical in flavour, the final one more spiritual, the words rang clear throughout the auditorium with ‘Tod’ Handley’s colours nailed high on the mast for the composer’s fervent orchestral and choral concoction.

With Sir Thomas Allen as first mate and Joan Rodgers as ship’s figurehead to Handley’s Captain, one could have hardly wanted better soloist support and every turn of wind, wave and spume was carefully calibrated from the wildest storm to the calmest flat sea. The London Philharmonic Choir was arranged sopranos-tenors-basses-altos, while the orchestra was laid out with Handley’s trademark antiphonal violins. Michael Davis, ex-BBC Symphony Orchestra, was guest leader, and oddly kissed on the hand at the end by Thomas Allen!

This was a roller coaster of a symphonic ride that quite simply reaffirmed Handley’s unbeatable reputation as custodian of the British repertoire. With a band of eager players and singers, all of whom looked as if they were enjoying every minute, this was a performance to remember; to make you wonder why the work isn’t more performed and to reflect, regretfully, that Handley has no more appearances with the London Philharmonic this season.

He had conducted a concert of Malcolm Arnold in September, to open the LPO’s season, struggling onto the platform with two sticks, following a car crash earlier in the year. Looking stronger and better on this occasion, but still with sticks, there was an immediate frisson of concern and then elation at the strength of both performances.

The first half had been a different sort of fresh air, that of a beautifully judged, light and fleet performance of Schubert’s delightful Fifth Symphony, with an orchestra pared back to four double basses up through to twelve first-violins. One misplaced flute note apart in the finale (and too eager in the final chords of the first movement), this performance easily mined Schubert’s unmistakable lyrical grace and effortless invention, displaying how a modern symphony orchestra can still play the classics that are now regarded as the prerogative of the authentic-music brigade.

In short, a concert of triumphant performances, which was recorded, but the programme did not reveal by whom (the microphones did not look like a Radio 3 format). Maybe the LPO is planning its own CD label. In the meantime, one can only hope – just as Paavo Berglund has been slowly going through Sibelius’s symphonies with the LPO (also recorded) – that Handley will be back soon for more Vaughan Williams (the original ‘London Symphony’ would be a mouth-watering follow-up), if not more Schubert.

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