Music review: BBC SSO: A Sea Symphony, Usher Hall

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A sharp clarion call, then myriad voices proclaim Walt Whitman’s “Behold, the sea itself”.

BBC SSO: A Sea Symphony, Usher Hall (*****)

In those arresting few bars, the course of many a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony is mapped. This one, featuring the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins, lived up to the visceral promise of that glorious, testing opening.

The four movements, shaped by Whitman’s pungent text, offer up some of Vaughan Williams’ most moving, if not ground-breaking, music. Brabbins’ cool authority elicited superb teamwork unleashing the full extent of its expressive power: the chorus bang-on-message from the nimble subtleties of The Waves, to the visionary depths of The Explorers; the SSO electrifyingly alert; soloists Elizabeth Watts and Christopher Maltman adding a truly sublime dimension to a compelling performance.

This was prefaced by Thea Musgrave’s Turbulent Landscapes, six musical responses to a series of Turner paintings in which the composer’s concept of “dramatic-abstract” – orchestral works in which individual players stand and assume quasi theatrical personae – offers both visual and aural stimulus.

From the lugubrious tuba of Sunrise with Sea Monsters, to the trumpeting Napoleon in The Exile and the Rock Limpet, this is exquisite, image-rich music superbly played.