This matchless concert of British music from the first decade of the 20th century closed with an outstanding performance, among the finest ever, of A Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams's vast, mystic setting of Walt Whitman, in which images of the sea and seafaring gradually coalesce into a pantheistic meditation on the soul's search for God.
This was the first time Sir Mark Elder had conducted the work, which made the completeness of his interpretation, at once controlled and ecstatic, all the more startling. Elder's emphasis on the underlying symphonic logic was a reminder that the piece is not a cantata but a finely wrought four-movement structure that both embraces and redefines tradition. The debts to Beethoven (the Missa Solemnis in particular), Brahms and Wagner were carefully underscored.
Yet the sonic majesty, and the overriding sense of a metaphysical journey, joyously undertaken, were spine-tingling in their immediacy.
The choral singing – from the Hallé Choir and Youth Choir, the Schola Cantorum of Oxford and Ad Solem (the University of Manchester Chamber Choir) – had tremendous nobility, weight and elation. Roderick Williams was the lyrical, reflective baritone, Katherine Broderick the rapturous Wagnerian soprano. I can't imagine the work being better played.
Its companion pieces were done with equal strength and insight. Elgar's Introduction and Allegro – eloquent, detailed and wonderfully unsentimental – was performed with the violinists and viola players standing, a practice encouraged on occasion by Elgar himself when conducting the work.
Delius's imagination, meanwhile, was notably cosmopolitan, and his Brigg Fair, ringing ceaseless changes on a Lincolnshire folk song, shimmered with Debussyan clarity, its ambiguous harmonies suggesting a restless sensuality beneath its idyllic surface, the woodwind and brass solos immaculately played.
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