A brass fanfare, massed chorus urging us, fortissimo, to “Behold, the sea”: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (Symphony No 1) hurls forth a mighty wall of sound in its opening bars. Thereafter the full gamut of orchestral hardware rides the sonic storm, with two harps in swift glissando, strings, brass and woodwind careering across the stave and the organ joining the roar. “See where their white sails, bellying in the wind, Speckle the green and blue” as Walt Whitman, whose mystical-visionary poems Vaughan WIlliams sets here, expresses it.
Prom 16 was reassuringly full on Wednesday – compared with recent thin attendance, and despite that day’s rail strike – to hear the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales and soloists, conducted by Andrew Manze. All rose to the challenge of this tumultuous work. The chorus is present throughout the four movements, which move from naturalistic – ships, smoke, voyages – to spiritual, and the “farther sail” of the human soul. Perilous moments aside, the double choir excelled, capturing the symphony’s magnitude and glory.
The baritone Jacques Imbrailo, words always audible and heartfelt, and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, high solo line floating above orchestra and chorus, were well matched soloists. Manze is steeped in the music of Vaughan Williams, having recorded the complete symphonies. His clear beat, free of needless gesture, kept all on course. Sea music by Doreen Carwithen (Bishop Rock overture, 1952) and Grace Williams (Sea Sketches, 1944) completed the maritime-themed programme, the orchestra showing their prowess.
A Proms paradox, one for the dedicated to explore, is why some works sound best in the hall, while others communicate more winningly on Radio 3/BBC Sounds. The platitude that “it all sounds better on the radio” – the Albert Hall’s imperfect acoustic has its detractors – does not stand up to scrutiny. Listening again to the Vaughan Williams, and hearing Verdi’s Requiem, it appears choral works suffer, with soloists favoured in the microphone setup, chorus diminished in the process. Yet the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who performed another epic symphony, Rachmaninov’s Second, at Monday’s Prom 14, came across with terrific flair on a second listen.
The work’s contours and pattern of tension and release, elusive in the hall, were now bold and defined, full of sensuous detail. The CBSO’s gifted conductor designate, Kazuki Yamada, has charm in abundance. I look forward to getting to know the partnership properly in their acoustically rewarding home base, Symphony Hall. To open the Prom, Yamada conjured a mercurial performance of Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. No string section’s fingers could have moved faster. Elena Urioste (violin) and Ben Goldscheider (horn) were virtuosic soloists in an Ethel Smyth rarity, her concerto for violin and horn. I’ve spent many years trying to get Smyth’s music and vow to continue the struggle.
When a stage director, music director, lighting designer, recorder player, guitarist, organist and percussionist are all one person, you begin to regret your own misspent youth. These talents are combined in the figure of Marcio da Silva, the Brazilian founder of Ensemble OrQuesta, a group of young artists who perform baroque opera. His drive and focus informed the group’s powerful staging of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, the opening event in that annual box of pleasures, Grimeborn opera festival. In the confined space of the Arcola theatre, the direction, wisely, is kept simple and formal. Props are a plinth-like bed, a chair and a chalkboard to notch up deaths in ancient Rome. Sightlines may prevent you from seeing all the action, or the tireless and eloquent musicians (seven, including de Silva). No matter. All 10 singers impressed, the cast led superbly by Helen May (Poppea) and Julia Portela Piñón (Nerone).
The plot of Poppea may be morally scrambled but the meaning is transparent. Love, distorted by egotism, curdles into humanity’s most destructive force. Monteverdi’s music, conversely, ebbs and flows, in generous, pulsating waves, culminating in the ecstatic Pur ti miro, Pur ti godo. I’m obliged to say, before someone writes in, that the authorship of this duet is disputed. The only response is to rejoice that it exists. The capacity audience, attentive despite heat and hard seats, cheered.
Star ratings (out of five)
Prom 14: CBSO/Yamada ★★★★
Prom 16: BBCNOW/Manze ★★★★
L’incoronazione di Poppea ★★★★
All Proms are on BBC Sounds; Prom 16 is also on BBC iPlayer. The Proms continue until 10 September
Grimeborn continues at the Arcola, London, until 10 September