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Review: The Lark Ascending at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

Earth, water, air….and plenty of fire in this emotionally stirring concert at the Phil that took a trip through the elements as portrayed by British composers.

And given this weekend’s Remembrance events, there was a clever narrative at play too from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic programmers – bringing together work mostly written around, or inspired by, the First World War.

Add in the hawkish and energetic Andrew Manze on conducting duties, the brilliant violinist James Ehnes (both former artists in residence and old friends of the RLPO), and not one but two of Vaughan Williams’ best-loved works, and it was quite an evening.

Ehnes plays with a wonderful, un-showy lyricism, and in his hands Vaughan Williams’ lark ascended somewhere high in to the heavens on the thermals of his Stradivarius’ exquisitely sweet tones.

There was a collective holding of breath in the hall (apart from a few coughers who seemed determined to punctuate the most delicate of passages) as the breeze took the melody high in to the balmy thermals of the upper circle, all anchored by the warm murmur of the RLPO’s discreet accompaniment.

Air gave way to water after the interval, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir joining proceedings for a magnificent Sea Symphony, full of thrilling power and energy.

An animated Manze unleashed the full force of the massed ranks on stage to terrific effect. Behold the sea itself indeed.

The Philharmonic Hall. Top: Andrew Manze - © Chris Christodoulou

In the midst of the musical maelstrom there was a rock of calm on which stood soprano Sarah Fox, who showcased a lovely clarity, and baritone Mark Stone – standing in at short notice and holding his own against the crashing waves of music around him with a similarly pleasing tone.

There were a number of times, however, where the orchestra simply overwhelmed the massed voices, drowning out not the melody but certainly Walt Whitman’s words.

The evening opened with re-imagined Vaughan Williams in David Matthews’ version of the lost Norfolk March, working from a century-old programme description of the piece – its elegiac, melancholic, bucolic opening pure Vaughan Williams, but Matthews bringing the shadow of war to bear, with August bank holiday larking about turning all together darker to reflect the lasting effect service had on the composer.

And there was a trip north of the border in the Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn's Overture: The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, which was as pacy as a train rattling through highlands both Elgarian and Germanic.

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