Review: Conquering The Antarctic, City of London Sinfonia, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

In a year dominated by big events and notable anniversaries – Diamond Jubilee, Olympics, and Charles Dickens et al – it is good to note that Captain Scott’s centenary has not been overlooked.

Forming the bulk of this concert was a musical commemoration of Scott’s journey to the South Pole (he perished in March 1912 on the return leg).

It could not be possible without Vaughan Williams’ ‘Sinfonia Antartica’; and the City of London Sinfonia’s atmospheric performance, magnificently structured by Stephen Layton and extremely well played (though a larger string section was needed for total impact).

The female chorus (Holst Singers) and super soprano soloist, Katherine Watson, certainly provided a bonus, as did the visual counterpoint of photographs taken during the expedition, although the selection and pacing of these often bore little relevance to the music’s specificity.

Earlier there were excerpts from VW’s source material (his score for the 1948 film ‘Scott of the Antartic’) accompanied by extracts from Scott’s journals, read by Hugh Bonneville in perfectly-judged, quietly dignified dramatic fashion.

The world première of Cecilia McDowall’s ‘Seventy Degrees Below Zero’, for tenor soloist (an expressively clear, if slightly self-effacing Robert Murray) and chamber orchestra, also used Scott’s words, in addition to poems by Seán Street to provide a ‘then’ and ‘now’ approach.

It brought a touchingly personal perspective to the tragic events, especially in the concluding ‘To My Widow’, with its final “God bless you” taken up by the horn like a keening lament.

McDowall’s musical language – her vocal style here is more heightened, pitched speech than lyrical song – and subtle orchestral palette convey elegiac despair and heroic acceptance with economical, yet wonderfully effective means.

It’s a work we should hear again.