Does someone at the Cambridge Philharmonic have a crystal ball? Life-long Vaughan Williams fan though I am, I would probably not have picked his 1936 cantata Dona Nobis Pacem for revival in his 125th anniversary year. Written to commemorate the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society, the piece would normally seem very much a work of its time, a warning against the horrors of war written at a period when dictators were re-arming and bent on aggression. In March 2022, however, as conductor Harry Sever reminded us before this performance, it seems horribly contemporary once again. The second movement sets Walt Whitman describing the sounds of war: “Beat! beat! drums … burst like a ruthless force … Into the school where the scholar is studying; Leave not the bridegroom quiet … Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field …”, words which have an awful counterpart on our screens today.
Alongside the horseman War rides Pestilence, and the continuing pandemic had its effect on the evening’s line-up. The VW piece was written for chorus and orchestra, and I understand that the Philharmonic originally planned to perform it as such. The continued necessity for social distancing, however, put paid to this, and the chorus, widely spaced on the platform and the side galleries in West Road, was accompanied by piano only. Whilst I can’t argue with the reasons behind this, I couldn’t find any mention of the change of plan in the concert publicity, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that in a concert billed as “The Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus” that orchestra and chorus will sing together. Valiantly though Fran Hills played the accompaniment on West Road’s concert grand, she couldn’t substitute for the large orchestra which VW wrote for, and the climactic moments lost a lot of impact. On the positive side, there was a gain in clarity from the chorus, very well trained by chorus-master Tom Primrose, and both the text and the often taxing vocal lines came across with precision and assurance – a particularly impressive achievement when the chorus was so widely spaced.
The cantata was preceded by five of Vaughan Williams’ Blake Songs for voice and oboe, one of his last works, written for a documentary film and first performed after his death in 1958. These are generally sung by a tenor voice, but VW specifies soprano as an alternative for some of them, and here they were sung with warmth and clarity by Alison Rose, beautifully matched by Rachael Dunlop on oboe in the first three. They left me thinking that the songs work better sung by the higher voice, with vocal and instrumental lines blending seamlessly at the same pitch. I was less convinced by the final two which were accompanied by violin. The ever-practical Vaughan Williams allowed violin or clarinet accompaniment “in case of necessity–but neither of these expedients is advisable” and despite assured playing from Paula Muldoon I am inclined to agree.
It was good to see the full orchestra in position for Sibelius’s second symphony after the interval. The Cambridge Philharmonic is blessed with a particularly large string section, and they announced their presence in the well-known opening with a little more weight than we often hear. The first movement, in which disparate melodic fragments are gradually assembled “like the pieces of a mosaic” as the composer said, presents challenges for all but the most confident players in its frequent changes of pulse and texture. These were all managed smoothly here, though the “profound logic” of Sibelius’s design was not always apparent. Listeners tend to remember the grand climaxes in this piece, but on this occasion the quieter moments made the biggest impression: the opening of the second movement with its pizzicato cellos and basses with a nicely-judged contribution from the timpani, the famous oboe tune in the trio with its repeated notes (Ms Dunlop again, with wonderfully blended support from the four horns) and the long build-ups in the final movement. These can easily come to the boil too quickly, but Harry Sever kept the lid on firmly, ensuring that the final moments were as stirring as ever when they eventually arrived. Only the articulation of the concluding chords, with a forte-piano crescendo on the last one, seemed a little too mannered.
The symphony was warmly received by a full house, with deserved “curtain calls” for brass, timps, woodwind and solo cello. A note in the programme thanked Jennifer Day for sponsoring the concert in memory of her husband James Day, whose book on Vaughan Williams in the Master Musicians series should be in every fan’s library. I hope she was pleased with the result.