Benedicite (1929); Fantasia on Greensleeves (arr. Ralph Greeves) (1934); A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1903-09)
Alexandra Lowe (soprano), Benson Wilson (baritone), City of Birmingham Choir, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Adrian Lucas
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 6 November 2022 [3pm]
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
It may have been celebrated a year late, but this concert marking the centenary of the City of Birmingham Choir tied in with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vaughan Williams and saw this choir joining forces with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in appropriate fashion.
Even when it had all but fallen out of the concert repertoire, A Sea Symphony yet remained a favourite of choral societies around the country such that the CBC has given its fair share of performances over the decades. On this occasion Adrian Lucas (musical director of the choir these past two decades) presided over an account whose shortcomings (notably an occasional misbalance between choir and orchestra in those more densely scored passages) were more than outweighed by the conviction with which the composer’s essential vision was realized.
Certainly, the surging choral paragraph which launches A Song for all Seas, all Ships was powerfully conveyed with its subsequent sections introducing the soloists – Benson Wilson’s baritone ardent and mellifluous while just a little strained in its upper register, and Alexandra Lowe’s soprano such as rang out imperiously towards the centre of this opening movement. Momentum can easily falter in the latter stages, but Lucas (below) ensured its apotheosis provided an emotional counterweight to the beginning and never risked outweighing its rapt conclusion. Wilson came into his own with On the Beach at Night, Alone, its ruminative if often uneasy calm notably in evidence and with the more animated central section paced unerringly up to its fervent choral climax – after which, those brooding final pages yielded an evocative poise.
As the symphony’s scherzo The Waves can feel overly contrived in context, but Lucas duly made the most of its rousing outer sections – the CBC in command of its textural intricacies – and convincingly integrated the Parry-like nobility of its ‘big tune’ into its evolving structure. Everything then came together in The Explorers, a finale which is also this work’s longest movement and features its finest music. By turns serene and speculative, the initial sections built assuredly to a rousing peroration from where the soloists’ impulsive re-emergence was the more telling. Lucas again ensured the culmination had the requisite grandeur without pre-empting the epilogue; at one with some of Walt Whitman’s most affecting lines in conveying that all-encompassing vastness as was a hallmark of Vaughan Williams’s endings henceforth.
The relatively short first half brought a welcome revival for Benedicite – its origins as a test-piece for competition likely telling against the qualities of a piece that, while it may break no new ground in its composer’s output, denotes his maturity in its vigorously wrought opening section, before a limpid setting of the 17th-century poet John Austin that brought an eloquent response from Lowe that itself preceded an energetic close. The once ubiquitous Fantasia on Greensleeves made for an appealing and by no means cloying interlude prior to the interval. All in all, this was a worthy commemoration of the respective anniversaries. The CBC can be heard in Handel’s Messiah early next month, and the CBSO continues its Vaughan Williams at 150 series next week with programmes conducted by Michael Seal and Martyn Brabbins.
You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Adrian Lucas, Alexandra Lowe, Benson Wilson and the City of Birmingham Choir