It’s so nice to sea you

Conductor Cristian Mandeal: with the Halle at the City Hall.
Conductor Cristian Mandeal: with the Halle at the City Hall.

A performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony brings the curtain down on the 2012-13 Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall on Sunday.

And, as the venue approaches the end of its 80th birthday year, it seems apposite to recall one of those little historical incidents never encountered anywhere else.

Just over 60 years ago, March 21 1952, Sir John Barbirolli talked the composer himself into conducting the work there and then contrived, cello in hand, to join the back desks of cello section for the performance.

Steering the same forces, the Hallé and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus (though not the same personnel!), through the work this weekend is the excellent Romanian conductor Cristian Mandeal.

“I feel close to English music having become acquainted with a major part of the repertoire during my 16 years with the Hallé and always felt at home in this extremely rich music,” he says.

“I conducted a great number of composers, such as Elgar, Tippett, Delius, Walton, Britten, Holst and Vaughan Williams, his Tallis Fantasia and ‘London’ Symphony, which I introduced together to Romania with the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.

“So I am delighted to be given the opportunity to conduct another of Vaughan Williams’ gigantic compositions with the Hallé.”

When he decided to embark on writing a symphony in 1903, Vaughan Williams was in something of a no man’s land as there wasn’t a British symphonic tradition. The end result, though, A Sea Symphony as he eventually titled the work after a six-year gestation, was to be a herald of the nationalistic one that exploded on these shores in the 20th century.

You could say he was feeling his way ‘symphonic-ally’ with it and, perhaps conscious that it was more akin to a massive tone poem along secular choral cantata lines (Walt Whitman texts), didn’t refer to it as Symphony No 1. The Grove music encyclopaedia aptly calls it “a triumph of instinct over environment.”

The chorus is fully employed throughout the work’s 70-or so minute duration with soprano and baritone soloists in all but the third of its four movements which follow the fairly standard classical symphony pattern: fast, slow, scherzo, finale. The soloists are the much acclaimed and raved about young soprano Sophie Bevan and the highly experienced baritone Matthew Brook.

Also being performed is Debussy’s La Mer (1905) and here’s an interesting footnote of nautical obsession: Elgar penned Sea Pictures in 1899, Stanford Songs of the Sea in 1904 and Songs of the Fleet in 1910, the same year as Frank Bridge wrote The Sea, and A Sea Symphony was premiered!