mon 28/11/2022

Bevan, Williams, Bebbington, RPO, Davan Wetton, Barbican review - Vaughan Williams celebrated | reviews, news & interviews

Bevan, Williams, Bebbington, RPO, Davan Wetton, Barbican review - Vaughan Williams celebrated

Bevan, Williams, Bebbington, RPO, Davan Wetton, Barbican review - Vaughan Williams celebrated

Anniversary marked by three classics and a peculiarity

The City of London Choir with conductor Hilary Davan Wetton© Dan Way

Amid the warm familiarity of a programme of established Vaughan Williams favourites, presented at the Barbican by the RPO and the City of London Choir, what really drew me in was the chance to hear his Fantasia on the “Old 104th” Psalm Tune, performed at the Proms in 1950 and apparently not heard again in London since.

The piece, seemingly modelled on Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, pits choir and orchestra against solo piano in a set of variations on a 17th century hymn tune. Unfortunately it turns out there is a good reason it hasn’t been heard for more than 70 years: it's a bit of a dud.

This didn’t detract from a very enjoyable concert, and the chance to hear a neglected work by a great composer was fascinating and not to be missed, but this is not an overlooked masterpiece. It’s a very odd conception. The choir sings intermittently, mostly simple chordal harmonisations of Thomas Ravenscroft’s melody. But there are long passages in which the piano plays alone, slightly meandering, characterless sections, most of which I spent willing the orchestra to start playing. Although Mark Bebbington (pictured below by Dan Way) gave a whole-hearted performance the piece is neither fish nor fowl, only coming to life in its final minutes as RVW unleashed his full “pomp and circumstance” manner. It was a glorious peroration, but couldn’t paper over the cracks.Pianist Mark BebbingtonThe rest of the first half was a pair of justly un-neglected classics. The Overture to The Wasps is irresistible and it was given a sparkling outing here. Conductor Hilary Davan Wetton, who has just announced his retirement from the City of London Choir next year, had the energy of someone half his age, lithe and engaged and – at one climax in the second half – even flinging his baton into the second violins. Christopher Gough’s horn solo was a thing of understated beauty but the whole RPO line-up shone.

The Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 was a change of mood, a world away from the rumbustious Wasps. Abigail Fenna’s beguiling viola solo was a cousin of RVW’s famous lark but darker in colour and Katherine Lacey’s clarinet at the other end of the piece was both reassuring and unsettling. In between Davan Wetton led a beautifully-paced build up and joyful folk dance section. It was a very winning performance.Bariton Roderick Williams and soprano Sophie BevanThe second half consisted of A Sea Symphony, featuring baritone Roderick Williams (his second Sea Symphony in a three days) and soprano Sophie Bevan (the two performers, pictured above). It has one of the great openings to any symphony – “Behold, the sea itself” – and a magical last few moments, as the cellos and basses fade away to nothingness. But pace the piece’s undoubted popularity, for me the bits in between never quite live up to the bookends. It just feels a bit unwieldy, a bit dense, a bit de trop. I prefer the transparency of the later symphonies.

That said, there was no questioning the commitment of this performance, or denying there were many wonderful moments. I always enjoy hearing Roderick Williams and this was no exception: his ability to switch on a sixpence from a grand oratorio manner (“O Thou transcendent”) to a conversational lieder-style (“To-day a rude brief recitative”) was wonderful. Sophie Bevan was delicate in duet with Williams, but occasionally took off the handbrake and soared. Likewise the choir were up for the big moments, but also revelled in the hushed a cappella passages, “bound where mariner has not yet dared to go”.



I came from Vancouver, BC, Canada to see this concert, being a great fan of the music of RVW and of Roderick Williams; I thought it was a wonderful concert. I am really glad I was there and didn't miss it.

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