Symphony Hall Birmingham
Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony has received a good airing during his fiftieth anniversary year, but this performance had added significance as it also marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Simon Halsey as CBSO Chorus Director. Under Halsey's stewardship the CBS Chorus has grown from 125 to more than 180, although not all of them sing in every concert. In addition he has spearheaded the formation of four youth choruses – a Junior and Senior CBS Youth Chorus (the Seniors sang beautifully in Holst's chamber opera Savitri in the first half of the programme), the City of Birmingham Young Voices (a group open without audition to anyone aged 13 to 21) and, earlier this year, a new Boys' choir.
So Halsey certainly knows his stuff, and as a choral trainer and conductor is one of the best there is. But when it came to balancing a choir of around 135, as there were here, with a full-size symphony orchestra, I had some doubts. As expected, the CBS Chorus performed magnificently, with tremendous attack, a wonderfully blended tone and a vivid sense of colour. Unfortunately, so did the CBSO, and one felt, especially in the tuttis when VW throws everything into the pot, that Halsey was trying – and not quite succeeding – to reconcile the irreconcilable.
Apart from the initial 'Behold, the sea', which hit you in the face like a large wave, many of the first movement's choral fortissimos were submerged by too much turbulent orchestral activity; and even in straightforward voice doubled passages like 'Whom fate can never surprise', it was difficult to hear words. Surprisingly, the Scherzo's onomatopoeic, and unaccompanied, opening phrase 'After the sea-ship' was also indistinct, although lightly accompanied and other a cappella sections came over more convincingly. One of the most memorable moments was the semi chorus 'Wherefore unsatisfied soul?' where, to achieve a sense of distance, Halsey had the women turn their backs and sing away from the audience – a most effective ploy.
Both soloists experienced some difficulty getting their words across. Janice Watson overcame the problem by singing as loudly as possible for much of the time. James Rutherford, one of the most expressive and reliable baritones around at the moment, sounded on this occasion less committed than usual, although his delivery of 'On the beach at night alone', and Halsey's sensitively judged accompaniment, made the whole of the slow movement into a perfect example of lustrously transparent writing for vocal, choral and orchestral forces. As of course it is.
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