Prom 46: Andrew Manze conducts Vaughan Williams’s Symphonies 4, 5 & 6

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.4 in F minor
Symphony No.5 in D
Symphony No.6 in E minor

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Manze


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 16 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Andrew Manze. Photograph: Felix BroedeNeglected works of the British musical renaissance have been a key feature of Roger Wright’s Proms seasons, at long last given their chance to fail as sceptics might put it.

Ralph Vaughan Williams stands apart and not only because his music is that much better. A clutch of his bite-sized ruminations has achieved unprecedented popularity in recent years, albeit co-opted into a narrower vision of national identity than that favoured by the composer. Curious then that his larger works should be less often heard in the UK than their Soviet-Russian counterparts.

Andrew Manze’s espousal of the cause is quite an event, as well as flummoxing those who associate even the unrulier ‘authenticists’ of early music with the ‘dehumanising’ aesthetic of modernism. Over the next few seasons the principal conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, as we should now think of him, is directing all nine symphonies with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (of which he is associate guest conductor) seated in post-Stokowski fashion with all the violins grouped on the left. Here he tackled arguably the most important of these scores, three differently powerful products of the 1930s and 1940s which, whatever their own emotional back-stories, may still be seen as pertaining to our national life in troubled times.

Ralph Vaughan WilliamsWhere to put the interval though? ideally we could have done with two because VW, unlike most of his peers, was rather good with endings whether crushingly final, serene or ambivalent. The plan had changed from that originally advertised with the Sixth now placed after the break but it still felt as if each symphony needed its own space rather than a personalised lighting scheme. We had intestinal squiggles of red, orange, yellow and green for the Fourth, mauve and yellow for the Fifth, and turquoise and red for the Sixth. A near-capacity audience was generally well-behaved save for one inexplicably persistent lady cougher who, mercifully, did not return after the break. The core VW audience is attentive and does not believe in such frivolities as applause between movements.

While Vaughan Williams himself was never a conventionally polished conductor, few Fourths generate the intensity of his own set of 78s. Manze, an insistently communicative presence, proved unable to project its full emotional force. The opening salvo, taut and urgent, set the tone for a performance whose generally rapid, sometimes breathless tempos did little to faze the players. The slow movement was unusually clean and objectified, suggesting a family resemblance with Shostakovich, the scherzo more frisky than threatening, its tuba-led trio too fast for Falstaffian galumph. A crisply driven finale found more heft for the clinching return of the work’s opening dissonances but again the sonority seemed rather lightweight, the mood strangely impatient. There was plentiful detail throughout when not blurred by hall resonance.

The Fifth Symphony (dedicated to Sibelius, “without permission”) was famously heard for the first time at the Proms in 1943, the composer at the helm. By now the old Queen’s Hall had been destroyed by enemy action and the concerts had moved to their present home at the Royal Albert Hall where the music made a great if unexpected impact on many of its listeners. Sir Adrian Boult was prompted to write to Vaughan Williams: “Its serene loveliness is completely satisfying in these times and shows, as only music can, what we must work for when this madness is over.” André Previn’s way with this score, most recently demonstrated with the LSO on matchless form in January 2011, is to minimise divergences of pace and texture in the interests of continuity, bathing the music in a smoother radiance. Manze is faster in the tricky scherzo and makes more of such discontinuities as exist in the glorious ‘Romanza’ that shares music with The Pilgrim’s Progress, VW’s problematic operatic magnum-opus then a work-in-progress. Perhaps Vernon Handley’s recording offers something more but I was greatly moved. A fine account of the ‘Passacaglia’ finale too, even if the relative jollity of the earlier stages, its grander core and mellower eddying came across as discrete events. Manze was unafraid to slow down for that serene final cadence, the strings as beautifully tailored as for the ‘Preludio’ at the start.

“He saw it all” said Boult of the stubbornly Holstian Sixth. He had in mind the desolation of nuclear war but this Symphony embraces a wider range of moods and colours than its immediate predecessors. Despite taking the first movement at quite a lick, Manze made much of the mildly eccentric scoring and once again the discipline and precision of the BBCSSO’s execution impressed. One might carp. The Moderato, ruminating on its obsessive Al-ice-Coote rhythm, could have sounded yet more menacing and the macabre scherzo was so fast that its harmonic motion was lost in the general melee, odd details popping out to assail the listener as if from the far side of the Arena. And the finale wasn’t quiet enough. Do recorded performances exaggerate the composer’s pianissimo making? Or was it that the RAH acoustic was difficult to judge?

It remains to be seen whether such ‘special events’ take Vaughan Williams the symphonist back into mainstream concert life or leave him stuck in an eccentric corridor. At least one distinguished critic with pronounced Nordic sympathies remained unconvinced and I am not sure that Manze’s interpretations, in which the lumbering juggernaut qualities of VW’s invention are discarded like so much lard, are going to silence persistent doubters. A thought-provoking evening nonetheless.

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