Composed as it was for a massive chorus of Yorkshire voices – at the Leeds Music Festival in 1910 – the Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams is an almost perfect concert choice for Huddersfield Choral Society, which participated in a stirring rendition of this epic work at the Town Hall on Friday.
Of course, we are a long way inland in Huddersfield, but the seas evoked in this setting of free verses by the nineteenth-century American sage Walt Whitman are almost entirely metaphorical.
The voyages described are ones undertaken by the human soul, although VW was unable to resist the interpolation of fragments of sea shanty and hornpipe at various junctures. These fragments contribute to the idiomatic Englishness of the work, which must have made it seem quite fresh and radical when premiered over a century ago.
That freshness was preserved in this latest performance by the Choral Society, which has programmed the work several times over the years. This is unsurprising because it is hard to think of another symphonic composition in which the choir has so much to sing and in which it is so integral to the musical texture.
In effect, the choral singers become Walt Whitman’s metaphysical ocean in all its moods and on Saturday the singers showed their ability to reflect them, from the mighty opening invocation “Behold the sea itself” to the mystical whisper of the female voices when they ask “Wherefore unsatisfied soul? Whither O mocking life?”, always a magical moment in this work.
But despite the prominence of the choir throughout – and it carries an entire movement in “The Waves” – this is a symphony with an extremely colourful orchestral element, which was wonderfully realised by the Orchestra of Opera North. Within its grand conception, the Sea Symphony is full of tiny musical details and it was noticeable how conductor Tecwyn Evans was fully aware of them and strove to bring them out.
The two soloists – soprano Sarah Fox and baritone Jeremy Carpenter – also proved to be of the very highest calibre and capable of expressing both the rapture and the reflectiveness of the work.
Sarah Fox also sang beautifully in the attractive and uplifting Gloria by Poulenc, which opened the concert. There were times when a little more lightness and swing from the choir might have been desirable, but overall it was a very winning performance of a work that proved to be an admirable counter-balance to the swelling philosophical seascapes of the Vaughan Williams.
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