The Cantata Singers are in the midst of their Ralph Vaughn Williams season. Each concert brings a particular side of his music alongside similar works by other composers. Friday’s concert, January 15 at Jordan Hall, was the only one to focus exclusively on English composers. All the music had a folk or pastoral angle.
The first half featured unaccompanied choral music. Gustav Holst’s The Evening-watch was an existential dialog between Body and Soul. Its harmonies were lugubrious, a cloud drift faintly visible by moonlight. Edward Elgar’s Weary Wind of the West brought that weather to life. The text described a wind picking up and dying down over the sea. Vocal lines turned and crossed over each other accordingly, reaching harmonic rest by the end. The Prince of Sleep, also by Elgar, was a meditation on an anthropomorphized Dream. It circled around the same tonic, but never found proper rest. This was a lonely Dream, always in pursuit and never satisfied in his rich world.
Gerald Finzi’s My Spirit Sang All Day was a brief apostrophe of pleasure. Each third line of the text ended with “joy”; the joy is unnamed until the final reveal that it is romantic love. Vaughn William’s Three Shakespeare Songs set daemonic texts from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They were glimpses of spirits and sprites, characters whose entrances and exits are violent, sudden, and transformative. Each song was full of opulent sonorities, proper settings for “such stuff / as dreams are made on.”
The first half finished with three folk-song arrangements. None took strong liberties with the music. Vaughn Williams’s Loch Lomand featured tenor Richard Simpson. His voice was light, bright, and clear, bouncing over the Highlands. Two Holst arrangements, My sweetheart’s like Venus and I love my love presented takes on love: The former showed a vision of an idealized love; the latter, a ballad of two lovers separated by the sea, one driven, by the wait, to Bedlam. The singers’ sound throughout had an even feeling, balanced and precise, with a very careful knowledge of where each pitch was.
After an intermission, the Cantata Singers presented a semi-staged version of RVW’s Riders to the Sea (libretto from J. M. Synge’s play). It told the story of an Irish family on a seaside town: A woman and her two daughters have lost their father and four brothers to the sea. The remaining brother sets out at the beginning to sell a horse. His mother tries to convince him not to, but he goes anyway. The one-act show is spent waiting for his return. He does come back, but wrapped in a sail and tied to a plank.
As staged by Alexandra Borrie, the family waited stage center while related pantomimes occurred on either side. A small orchestra of single winds was placed in front of the singers. This choice put undue visual attention on the musicians and made it difficult to hear the singers. Thankfully the program — a 116-page, quite thorough and academic tome, with many essays and photographs — included the text. It would have been otherwise impossible to follow the action.
The music had a stiff, static feel. The vocal parts mostly had the character of recitative. Emotional high points brought out snippets of melody. Recurring instrumental motives had the feeling of looming fate. The sense of claustrophobia was heightened by an off-stage wind machine.
The general affect of the concert was quiet desperation. Loneliness permeated most of the material. Even the opera, which included multiple characters, rang out with a sense of isolation. The performances took a worshipful distance from the music. At the same time, they often had an oddly hammy quality: the deliberate pauses after each piece, the wind machine, the extremely long light cue (perhaps a minute long) that faded out the opera. Still, the message was clear: there’s a little beauty everywhere in nature; but in the end, it takes and it takes and it takes.