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Mendelssohn, Britten, Vaughan Williams: Patrizia Kwella (soprano) Andrew Rupp (baritone), London Concert Choir, Canticum, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Mark Forkgen, (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London, 21st March, 2005 (AO)

This evening, there was an unusually low tide in the Thames. The water was so low that five metres of sandbank were exposed on its shores. Boats lay beached: the river was unnaturally sluggish. Symbolic, perhaps of this concert. Its theme maybe have been the sea, but it, too, was adrift, directionless, lulled and becalmed.


The concert started with Mendelssohn's Overture, The Hebrides. Rousing, expansive music usually. Alas, no sense of power here. The magnificent crescendi were either muted or alternatively loud but ragged. Even the melodic line did not stand out, lost in playing that seemed focussed on details without coherent direction. Six double basses should have more impact than this.


Britten's Four Sea Interludes and two choruses from Peter Grimes followed. Just as the opera, Peter Grimes, uses the imagery of the sea to illustrate the themes in the libretto, the interludes evoke images of the sea. The high violins and flutes certainly sounded shrill, evoking seagulls, and the lower strings and brass evoked the swell of the ocean. The distinctive figure of the clarinet which dances through this piece, like phosphoresence on waves, was very well played indeed. Throughout, the clarinets, flutes and piccolos were excellent, expressing the quirky, modernist undertones in the music, with its spare, minimal scoring. There were some impressive details – it's not often you take special notice of the tambourine! One can't really expect trumpets and trombones to be subtle, but there were strange sounds there, several times. The London Concert Choir is one of London's finest and most ambitious, and has been conducted by Mark Forkgen since 1996. His forte is clearly choral conducting, rather than orchestral, though, in theory, the differences should not be that great. With the choir sections, there was none of the indecisiveness that marked parts of the orchestral playing. Nonetheless, diction was indistinct. Since they often perform in this venue, it might be expected that they'd have become used to the dry acoustic of the hall and allowed for greater clarity. The jaunty, clipped rhythms of the second chorus, “Old Joe has gone fishing” are hard to carry off well with so many voices, but the singers pulled together with remarkable unity.


The combined forces of the choir and Beecham's band, the Royal Philharmonic, should have made for a Sea Symphony of tremendous power. For Vaughan Williams, this marked more than a first symphony. The imagery of the wild ocean and limitless horizons seem to have spurred – to use a bad pun – a sea change in his writing. He was making a transition from the safe world of Parry and Stanford into the great unknown. “Behold, the sea itself” could be an allegory for a young composer launching himself into unchartered waters. Alas, Andrew Rupp, the baritone, was almost inaudible, even in the front stalls. I dread to think what those in the gods would have been able to hear. Nor was it solely his problem. Patrizia Kwella, the soprano, started with a shrill, loud entry which she could not sustain. She, too, lapsed into inaudibility, interspersed by occasional bursts of sudden volume. Again, the orchestra was uneven – superb playing by the winds, jarring blasts by the heavy brass. But the chorus saved the day. Individual words might be blurred, but the massive wash of choral sound in itself expressed the powerful surges of emotion in the music, the energy that propelled the composer at this time. Both parts of the chorus sing the dramatic “Sail forth - steer for the clear waters!” Characteristically, Vaughan Williams subverts the surge of confidence with an ambiguous ending.


Anne Ozorio

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)