In concert – Roderick Williams, CBSO Chorus, CBSO / Michael Seal: Vaughan Williams at 150: 5 Mystical Songs, Symphony no.5

Vaughan Williams
The Wasps – Overture (1909); Towards the Unknown Region (1906-07); Five Mystical Songs (1906-11); Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)

Roderick Williams (baritone, above), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 10 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s mini-series devoted to Vaughan Williams continued this evening with the overture from his music to Aristophenes’ satire The Wasps, paced by Michael Seal (below) so its animated and soulful themes complemented each other perfectly.

Judicious was no less true of this first half with its overview of the composer’s music across the first decade of the last century. Its premiere at the Leeds Festival bringing a first taste of national acclaim, his ‘song for chorus and orchestra’ Toward the Unknown Region sets Walt Whitman with assurance and imagination in its evocative opening section, and if the ensuing peroration feels a little contrived – the journey proving more memorable than the destination – that was no fault of the CBSO Chorus whose contribution was sensitively attuned throughout.

As it was with those Five Mystical Songs in which the composer gave full vent to his love for the Metaphysical poets and George Herbert in particular. A curiously hybrid conception, the chorus is very much secondary to the baritone soloist throughout much of the first three songs – a congregational presence in the processional Easter and then underpinning the emotional intimacy of I Got Me Flowers or confiding profundity of Love Bade Me Welcome, before falling silent in The Call. Roderick Williams was eloquence itself in this latter setting and a forthright presence in the preceding, before sitting out the Antiphon with its pealing bells and mounting exultation. Williams has recently given the rarely heard version of these songs with piano but hearing them with such burnished splendour as here was its own justification.

Is the Fifth Symphony unduly exposed nowadays? The composer’s most characteristic and culturally significant such piece might risk palling with too much repetition, but there was no chance of that here. Seal (above) set a flowing if not too swift tempo for the Preludio, pointing up the radiant tonal contrast between its themes – the second of them capping the movement to thrilling effect towards its close. Its rhythmic pitfalls ably negotiated, the Scherzo had the requisite deftness and mystery while taking on a degree of malevolence over its later stages. The Romanza then emerged surely yet unforcedly through glowing chorales and plaintive soliloquy (CBSO woodwind at its most felicitous) to a heartfelt culmination before subsiding into a hardly less enveloping serenity – its inspiration in John Bunyan tacitly acknowledged.

Enough had wisely been kept in reserve for the final Passacaglia – its initial stages evincing an almost nonchalant gaiety as only clouded towards its centre with the recollection of earlier ideas. By making it the work’s emotional highpoint, moreover, Seal ensured that the epilogue capped not just this movement but the work overall – its transcendence (hopefully) speaking as directly to listeners today as those at the premiere almost 80 years ago. Certainly, it would be a real misfortune were this music ever to be viewed solely from the perspective of the past.

An absorbing performance, then, that reaffirmed the greatness of this music to an enthusiastic audience. Vaughan Williams at 50 concludes tomorrow evening with the CBSO providing a live soundtrack to the composer’s most ambitious cinematic project – Scott of the Antarctic.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on Scott of the Antarctic, click here – and click on the artist names for more on Roderick Williams, the CBSO Chorus and Michael Seal

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