In Concert – Soloists, City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Hilary Davan Wetton: Vaughan Williams & Ravel

Anita Watson (soprano), Maya Colwell (mezzo-soprano), John Cuthbert (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Hilary Davan Wetton

Ravel Menuet antique (1895, orch. 1929)
Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music (1938)
Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17, orch. 1919)
Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem (1936)

Cadogan Hall, London
Thursday 10 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This concert deftly assembled a number of threads to bring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s celebration of RWV150 – the handy abbreviation for Vaughan Williams‘ birth anniversary year – to a close.

Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel in Paris in 1908. Just over a decade later, the lives of both men had been altered forever by the First World War. It affected both of them deeply – Ravel in a brief stint as a lorry driver and Vaughan Williams as an ambulance driver and artillery officer in France.

Both Le Tombeau de Couperin and Donna nobis pacem are affected by their experiences, but first we heard another act of musical remembrance in Ravel’s charming Menuet antique. Written in memory of Chabrier, this bittersweet work presents a winsome smile while it dances, but darker thoughts lurk in the middle ground, expressed through the gruff voices of lower woodwind. Hilary Davan Wetton conducted a sprightly reading, though it took a little while for the RPO to settle. After a soft-centred middle section, the second reading of the Menuet itself was on much firmer ground.

Le Tombeau de Couperin is both a commemoration and celebration of French baroque music, but its deeply personal connections mark the passing of Ravel’s mother in 1917 as well as close friends lost to the First World War. Originally written for piano, the suite comprises six movements, four of which the composer arranged for orchestra, his painterly touch evident at every turn.

This was a touching performance, led by a fine contribution from RPO oboist Timothy Watts, who led off the Prélude with beautifully flowing phrases. The orchestra responded with silvery strings and harp, the music shimmering but shivering too. The personal reverberations were close to hand in the underlying sadness of the Forlane, which nonetheless danced with poise and grace. The Menuet, taken relatively quickly, found time to express its innermost feelings in the thoughtful trio section, while the Rigaudon gained a spring in its step, bouncing along but soon checked by the sparse textures of its central section. This was a fine performance, earning the RPO woodwind a deserved curtain call of their own.

Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music is a softly voiced tribute to Sir Henry Wood’s Golden Jubilee as a conductor. In recognition, the composer sets the scene between Lorenzo and Jessica from Act Five of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It is a versatile piece, written initially for 16 selected soloists but performed here by four singers and the sensitively controlled voices of the City of London Choir, who revelled in the cushioned carpet of sound Vaughan Williams creates. This was established by an affectionate solo from orchestra leader Duncan Riddell, establishing the serenity of D major under Davan Wetton’s watchful eye.

The balance between choir and orchestra, tricky to achieve in the Cadogan Hall, felt just right – as did the poise of soprano Anita Watson (above), floating up to the high ‘A’s with impressive control. She was aided by fine contributions from Maya Colwell, John Cuthbert and Ashley Riches, whose bass-baritone had a particularly attractive, rounded quality.

Two years prior to the Serenade, Vaughan Williams completed Dona nobis pacem, whose very different outlook reflects the worrisome mood in Britain and Europe in the mid-1930s. The composer’s dread of war, heightened by his experiences 20 years hence, was palpable in the central setting of Dirge For Two Veterans, using part of Walt Whitman’s poem Drum Taps in music that ironically dates from 1911.

Dona nobis pacem brings together texts from both sacred and secular sources, anticipating Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem some 26 years later, which used a similar tactic to startling effect. Here Vaughan Williams’ ‘catharsis’ – as Hilary Davan Wetton eloquently referred to it – received a heartfelt performance, anchored by Anita Watson’s recurring pleas for peace as the soprano soloist. The choir echoed these sentiments, but in a more fretful manner as they reflected on previous losses through Whitman’s poetry.

The music was remarkably prescient for our times, and the cautionary snare drum strokes bringing in the Dirge held a Mahlerian tension that stayed long in the memory. So, too, did the setting of Beat! Beat! Drums! (from the same Whitman poem), which was reached through a dramatic turn of the page from the full Agnus Dei plea. There was exultation from the choir, but also a constant ache beneath the surface.

Watson and Ashley Riches (above) were surefooted and expressive soloists, while Davan Wetton ensured the combination of choir and orchestra captured that wonderful sheen that Vaughan Williams can achieve when writing for the combined forces. The percussion, awkwardly hidden beneath the Cadogan Hall balcony with the organ, made a telling contribution as the dreaded ammunition, which was finally silenced as the peace for which we all surely strive came to pass at the end. The rapt closing bars were pure in their sincerity, soprano and acapella choir achieving an ideal balance and fade.

Before the Dona nobis pacem, Hilary Davan Wetton spoke briefly to the audience on the importance of the arts in the wake of a slew of funding cuts and falling attendances. As he so subtly reminded us, how lucky we are that in times of war in Europe and further afield we can still attend and enjoy concerts in person. It is a privilege never to be taken for granted, particularly on nights of Remembrance such as this.