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Review: Cambridge Philharmonic presents Vaughan Williams and Sibelius

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2022 marks 150 years since the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, arguably for many the most ‘English’ of composers. This was certainly the opinion of Sibelius whose second symphony we were to hear on Saturday evening from the Cambridge Philharmonic under their new Conductor, Harry Sever. Sibelius wrote to Vaughan Williams who had dedicated his own 5th symphony to the composer: ‘I have seldom heard anything that is more English.’

Appropriately, the performance began with Vaughan Williams’s settings of some of the early lyrics of William Blake, a figure now forever popularly associated with all that is English, thanks to Parry’s arrangement of the poet’s lines from the Preface to his epic poem ‘Milton’ – ‘And did those feet in ancient times’ – sung every year at the Last Night of the Proms.

Soprano Alison Rose sang 5 of the 10 poems of ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’ Blake had collectively entitled ‘Songs’, and which Vaughan Williams had selected, bringing her beautiful clarity of tone to each one and revealing the often neglected potential of these poems for musical delivery.

Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (55566288)
Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (55566288)

For the three ‘Innocence’ lyrics Alison was accompanied by Cambridge Phil. oboist Rachael Dunlop, whose sprightly ‘piping’ was perfect for the joyful context Blake was probably imagining for them. For the two ‘Experience’ poems Orchestra Leader, Paula Muldoon provided a violin accompaniment more soulful and melancholy.

This was a suitable point of departure for what came next in the form of a timely composition by Vaughan Williams, his choral work ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ (grant us peace), the phrase which concludes the ‘Agnus Dei’ in the Roman Catholic Mass.

Whereas the lamb represented ‘Innocence’ in two of the songs we’d just heard, here we were presented with the sacrificial ‘lamb of God’ in a work which took on terrible poignancy given the current political situation in Europe. But as Blake remarked: ‘Innocence dwells with wisdom, never with ignorance’.

Alison Rose and the high-profile Bass-baritone Tristan Hambleton joined forces to present a composition on the pity of conflict, about which Vaughan Williams had had his own first-hand experience as a stretcher- bearer in the Great War.

‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ is a deeply affecting work which employs several biblical texts, as well as lines from Walt Whitman, a poet forever associated with the American Civil War, and also words from the liberal orator and parliamentarian John Bright who had spoken passionately against war in the Crimea in the nineteenth century.

Before the piece began Harry Sever invited both audience and performers to join him in a minute’s silence for the loss of life in Ukraine, and remarked that as organisers of the evening’s programme long in the planning, they could never have foreseen the circumstances in which it would be being performed.

Alison and Tristan were supported in their respective, beautifully sung, sequences by the Cambridge Philharmonic’s excellent Chorus which effortlessly transitioned from the tender and reverential where required to memorable moments of great power.

Accompanying them throughout was pianist Fran Hills who marked the points of development, as well as contributing several solo passages that added greatly to the mood of the piece.

It could be said without any doubt that the ‘Englishness’ of Vaughan Williams is reflected in the deep love Sibelius had for the landscape and traditions of his native Finland. The 2nd Symphony (1901) is possibly for many their way into Sibelius as a symphonic composer and records his genius in that particular genre.

The symphony builds from the outset to the familiar big tune with its sense of inevitable fulfilment for the moment where it occurs. Elsewhere the composition seems to involve a debate between the forces of life and death (somewhat reminiscent of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet) and has often been interpreted as a symbol for Sibelius of Finland’s independence and nationhood, and a statement about the liberation of his country from Russian oppression.

The Cambridge Philharmonic gave a terrific account of this work. Perhaps it would be invidious to separate out sections of this orchestra because they’re all equally good. But, on the night, for me, the brass section stood out and, of course, at Harry Sever’s invitation, Rachael Dunlop (oboist) who took her bow for her performances in a work where that instrument has such a prominent part to play.

It was a great evening of music, but inevitably one made sombre by the events of which it was a constant reminder.


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