Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 2 in G major A London Symphony (1913, rev. 1920 and 1936) [46:42]
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1958) [29:46]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 29-30 March 2015 (2), 9 October 2015 (8)
ONYX 4155 [76:28]
There’s no doubting that the English-born Andrew Manze is one of the most versatile musicians on the circuit today. He started his career as a violinist and specialist in early music, having worked with Ton Koopman. He has held posts with The Academy of Ancient Music and The English Concert. Over the past few years he’s branched out with conducting jobs in Germany and Sweden. By all accounts he’s an inspirational conductor and skilled communicator, and his thought-provoking interpretations have garnered positive reviews. He’s become something of a Vaughan Williams specialist, having a natural affinity for the composer’s music. He’s already worked his way through a cycle with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the highlight being a concert at the 2012 Proms in which Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 were programmed in one evening – a brave choice. Now he embarks on a recorded cycle on the Onyx label with the Liverpool Philharmonic who are no strangers to these symphonies, having recorded a complete cycle in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Vernon Handley; this was the cycle that introduced me to this music (review). Onyx will release one volume a year, completing the set in the spring of 2019 with Symphonies 7 and 9. Next up will be Symphonies 3 and 4 in March 2017.
A London Symphony saw its first performance in 1914 (review 1913 version), but at the outbreak of war the manuscript was lost. A new score was prepared from surviving orchestral parts in 1915, the composer revising and reworking it in an attempt to tighten things up, and strive for more concision. An American premiere and publication took place in 1920, but Vaughan Williams returned to the symphony in the 1930s for further tinkering, prior to another publication by the Oxford University Press in 1936. The work is dedicated to the composer George Butterworth, a friend who perished in the trenches in August 1916. Each of the four movements evocatively captures an aspect of the spirit of London.
In the very opening of the Symphony Manze transports us back to post-Edwardian London. In one of the most impressive Lentos I’ve heard, you get a real feel of the city waking from its slumber and looking forward to the day ahead, with the harp and clarinet intoning the Westminster chimes. Then, with a crash, the day is launched, and London takes on a life of its own. The hustle and bustle of everyday coming and going at times gives way to more serenely lyrical moments, no doubt portraying the green spaces the crowded city can escape to. There’s an example at 8:46 where harp and lush Liverpool strings sing out an intoxicating melody, lovingly contoured by Manze. This highlights the tangible rapport between conductor and players, who deliver an exciting and impassioned account of this delightful score. The slow movement depicts ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon’, with the Hansom cab and the cry of the lavender seller. Butterworth’s description seems particularly apt: 'an idyll of grey skies and secluded by-ways.' The calm and stillness of the music has an elegiac quality, and what impresses is how the engineers highlight the various solo contributions from the orchestral players. Once again at 7:32 the strings make an overwhelming impact at the climax. The third movement Scherzo is titled ’Nocturne’, and the performance here has a jaunty rhythmic swagger. We’re on the Thames embankment listening to the sounds of the Strand in the distance. The gleeful dancing woodwinds make a distinctive contribution. The finale has tremendous power. There’s a noble march of great solemnity, conjuring images of the pageantry that London hosts from time to time. Manze steers the players through the powerful climaxes, but eventually the music dies down and we are transported back to where we began with the mists rising from the river.
Never as popular as the Second, the Eighth Symphony, the only one allocated a number by the composer, dates from 1953-1955. It was premiered in 1956 by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, who received the dedication ‘For glorious John with love and admiration’ (review review). Five months later Eugene Ormandy gave the American premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in 1957 Leopold Stokowski gave a performance in the presence of the composer at the Royal Festival Hall in London (review). At just under thirty minutes, it’s the shortest of his symphonies. Although a late work, its focus is on sonority, the work of a composer in his eighties going on twenty-five.
Throughout, this score gives the individual sections of the orchestra a chance to shine and have their moment in the sun. The success of any recorded performance is dependent to a large extent on the balance achieved, and the Onyx engineers have done a sterling job, achieving clarity of texture and definition. I don’t have a score of this work, but everything sounds lightly orchestrated. The first movement the composer described as ‘seven variations in search of a theme’. Winds, strings and percussion each feature in a variation, and the diaphanous woodwinds at 3:54 truly glow. Some performances can meander directionless, but Manze keeps things under a tight rein and the result is a coherent and integrated success. The Scherzo for winds alone is mercurial and buoyant. The strings have their turn in the following Cavatina. One can only marvel at the incandescent playing of the Liverpool string section. I would single out the solo violinist for special mention for ardent playing and nuanced phrasing. The final movement is a Toccata, and the percussion sound as though they’re having the time of their life, such is the energy and thrill Manze injects. Vaughan Williams employs ‘all the 'phones and 'spiels known to the composer’, and the result is a colourful, scintillating firework display.
The performance is well-served by the spacious acoustic of Liverpool’s
Philharmonic Hall. Lewis Foreman has provided the liner-notes. All in all
these are terrific performances and convincing interpretations. Yet, I still
wouldn’t like to be without my Handley cycle, and Barbirolli’s London Symphony on Pye from 1956.
I can’t wait for the next instalment.