Andrew Manze is nothing if not full of surprises and this latest and final instalment of his recorded Vaughan Williams cycle contains more than most. At eighty-three minutes and thirty-three seconds (Onyx’s annotation is short by a few seconds) the CD has an extended playing time not usually associated with this physical format and I imagine its sheer length could tax first-generation players.
While some tendencies in the music-making reflect a more general trend towards lighter, more translucent textures in core British repertoire (q.v. the Elgar symphonies of Sakari Oramo or Vasily Petrenko), these are intensified by the vivid, somewhat over-bright sound characteristic of the present series. The team’s producer is the vastly experienced Andrew Keener so we know the balance is no accident.
Sinfonia antartica courts controversy straight away by including the literary superscriptions favoured by a minority of recordings, most famously Sir Adrian Boult’s first, Decca LP with Sir John Gielgud and André Previn’s RCA version with Sir Ralph Richardson. (I haven’t heard Kees Bakels on Naxos.) Timothy West’s recitations are calm and a little ‘furry’ as were Richardson’s, without any tendency to oratorical excess. That said, the manner in which he is integrated into the music won’t please those for whom the texts constitute a regrettable intrusion. This is particularly the case between the third and fourth movements which proceed without a break: the narration is heard over the last chord of the third. The preceding organ contribution, impressive in itself, may also deter those who prefer a natural acoustic landscape to a ‘constructed’ one employing multiple locations with different reverberation periods.
It is doubtless Manze himself who wants us to hear the music afresh, constantly reimagining textures to focus on overlooked pockets of glittery percussion and spotlighting Soviet-style piano underlay. Tempos are generally mainstream with the Prelude broad yet without fat, never self-consciously heroic in the old cinematic way. The Finale begins with a virile and energetic snap that evaporates towards the end as it should, even if the desolate conclusion feels over-lit, the soprano soloist closer than ideal.
The Ninth Symphony receives a much more unlikely performance. Where recent interpreters have tended to speed up the first movement (Robert Matthew-Walker was much taken with John Wilson's thrusting reading of it – originally marked Allegro moderato – at the 2017 Proms), Manze has more in common with the grander, tired-old-man interpretations of Charles Groves (live) or Bernard Haitink.
The score may lack the clearer polyphony of earlier works but Manze gives himself space to disinter textural layers both fully functional and merely decorative. He is slowest in the outer movements where the atmosphere remains baleful yet suffused with strange, uncertain lights. I was expecting the Scherzo to feel underplayed. In fact there’s no lack of drive and edge. As in any committed rendition the denouement of the Finale takes us into emotional territory at once elusive and profound. So what if some of the balder cross-rhythms en route are articulated in a clipped, impatient manner? That too seems to have been consciously intended.
Admirers of the composer, a growing band I’m relieved to say, need to hear these performances. Like them or not, they have something different to say.