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Review: The Lark Ascending at Philharmonic Hall ****

The evenings are finally getting lighter, the weather is about to turn positively spring-like, and audiences are beginning to get a spring back in their step.

It all feels like, whisper it, a return to something resembling normality – albeit with the more disappointing return of the pre-Covid soundscape of consumptive coughing in the auditorium.

Still, it's a very different landscape to the one which greeted Roderick Williams at his last performance in Hope Street back in October 2020 when he would have looked out on a handful of socially distanced, masked figures dotted through the stalls and circles.

Williams was initially artist in residence for the 2020/21 season, but with that being unexpectedly truncated – and his demanding international diary being ripped up by pandemic restrictions – he happily extended his tenure into 2022. Happily for the beaming baritone, and happily for Philharmonic audiences too.

Here he swapped English folk songs for Mahler lieder; five slight and softly charming song settings of the poems of German romantic poet Friedrich Rückert, introduced by lone horn, celeste and harp and with Williams – the owner of surely the most beautiful baritone in the business – soaring smoothly over the top.

It was a performance of thoughtfulness, creamy clarity and expansive feeling – and with power where needed, although there were a few points (in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! and again in Um Mitternacht) where the orchestra threatened to overwhelm the vocal line.

Top: Roderick Williams.

Unusually, this was a concert with not one but two soloists, and Williams’ vocal warmth and delicacy was mirrored after the interval by violinist Amarins Wierdsma who similarly delivered a performance of beautiful clarity and reflection.

Vaughan Williams composed his ‘pastoral romance’ The Lark Ascending in a honeyed, happier time before a senseless war tore Europe to pieces, although it only received its public premiere in the aftermath of brutal conflict – adding an emotional intensity to its nostalgic tone which it seems from its continuing popularity it has never lost.

Rather than a spot at the front of the stage, Wierdsma chose to stand further within the arc of the orchestra so her spiralling solo line, eaked from her 250-year-old Guadagnini violin, seemed to soar up from the heart of the strings.

There was a lovely dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and a sensitive lifting up of the melody through the woodwind.

Mahler and Vaughan Williams were bookended by a pair of short symphonies, from Schubert and Sibelius respectively.

Energetic young Estonian Mihhail Gerts brings a lot of detail to his conducting, and here he eased and encouraged the Phil through the genteel drama of Schubert’s Second Symphony, particularly in its playful opening movement which had a real lightness of touch.

The andante brought with it a cheerful duet from Cormac Henry and Jonathan Small on flute and oboe, and there was a big bright presto finale.

Sibelius’ Seven Symphony stands as a perfect distillation of the Finnish composer’s vision for the form, and although it comes in at just over 20 minutes in length, it packs a potent punch.

Almost as potent one might suggest as the Finn’s early passionate patriotic works which gave voice to a country struggling to free itself from the yoke of Russian repression.

Gerts built the symphony’s layers in steady and powerful fashion, with the Phil evoking the feel of a long, slow sunrise which bathed golden light across the arc of the work. And elsewhere there was a eddying whirlpool of strings from which the augmented brass section emerged, Simon Cowen’s trombone bursting radiantly forth over the top.


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