Vaughan Williams: The Pioneering Pilgrim – 4: The Visionary … Philharmonia Orchestra/Hickox

Tallis
Third Mode Melody
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Symphony No.9 in E
Three Shakespeare Songs
Symphony No.6 in E minor
Symphony No.5 in D

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Richard Hickox


Reviewed by: Alex Verney-Elliott

Reviewed: 2 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Richard HickoxThe Philharmonia Orchestra’s continuing Vaughan Williams series opened with an unadvertised item: Thomas Tallis’s “Third Mode Melody” which inspired Vaughan Williams to write his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Philharmonia Voices sang the work off-stage to give a haunting distance, very moving and eloquent, and sung with sublime purity of tone. This was then contrasted with Vaughan Williams’s composition for string quartet and two string orchestras, which was conducted with great sensitivity and reserve by Richard Hickox who simply let the music flow without indulging in any mannerisms.

Hickox eschewed romanticism and made the Tallis Fantasia sound almost minimalist, just as he made the three symphonies that followed sound fresh and contemporary.

Under Hickox’s direction the Ninth Symphony sounded reminiscent of Hindemith’s Nobilissima Visione and the Sixth akin to Shostakovich’s Eighth and Eleventh Symphonies in austerity, whilst the Fifth had a universality which speaks to all. Hickox’s performance of the Ninth Symphony was rather rushed though with undisciplined and harsh percussion and brass playing far too loudly drowning out the rest of the orchestra. Sadly, Hickox rushed the closing passages of the last movement robbing it off its visionary sparseness and strangeness.

One of the highlights was the rarely heard a cappella “Three Shakespeare Songs”. Again Philharmonia Voices sung divinely with such style and finesse. The frantic opening movement of the Sixth Symphony was conducted and played with great verve and swagger, the antiphonal violins still lacking body whilst the double basses, in this hall, seemed to be miming rather than playing, being barely audible.

However, the concluding pianissimo movement worked wonders, the etiolated strings giving the sensation a chilling desolation, an afterlife where nothing exists but the living dead wondering in a wilderness. You could hear a pin drop: the capacity audience spellbound in silent mediation hypnotised by mesmerising music.

Hickox’s performance of the Fifth Symphony was the highlight, a glowing account – surpassing any I have heard on record or in concert. Hickox’s perfectly judged the tempos and dynamics of the work across the whole. The woodwind playing in the second movement was exquisite whilst in the tranquil slow movement the orchestra played with poetic divinity.

The mesmerising closing passages seemed simply to evaporate into thin air taking us into infinity rather than coming to an end: the tide of time takes us away: what will become of us all? Unfortunately this serene moment was abruptly sabotaged by uncovered and very loud repeated coughing which wrecked the distant dying sounds of the closing bars!

Hickox and the Philharmonia Orchestra received a standing ovation for this sublime performance. It was – generally – an inspired and insightful afternoon and early-evening of magical music-making.


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