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finest Mahler yet
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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Symphony No. 5 in D [37:32]
Symphony No. 6 in E minor [32:35]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 2017, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK ONYX 4184 [70:12]
Andrew Manze’s tempo at the opening of the Fifth Symphony ensures that the first movement does not linger unduly. The music unfolds steadily and patiently. The dynamic range is wide, so you need to set the volume control a little beyond normal in order to hear the quieter details of the score. Vaughan Williams was more sparing than many composers in marking dynamics and other interpretative indications in his scores, leaving some measure of freedom to the interpreter. Here, you may like or you may not like the odd moment when the conductor presses ahead – or the opposite – without waiting for the composer’s sanction, but there is nothing to shock. All the same, there seems little sense of expectancy when the orchestra begins to prepare us for the big ‘tutta forza’ passage in this first movement. It is in that passage, in particular, where I find the some of the conductor’s expressive devices sound studied rather than spontaneous. The faster, central passage is superbly played but the climax seems less hard-won than in other interpretations, and lacks a little impact. The scherzo comes off very well, and Manze, unlike many conductors, encourages his players to considerable expressiveness in the lovely string passage just before the coda. The Romanza is beautifully done, and the finale is also very successful, properly smiling at the outset and radiantly conclusive at the close. Of the many recorded performances of this glorious work on my shelves, there are a number I have not heard for many years, but three I come back to regularly are those by Bryden Thomson, Roger Norrington and Bernard Haitink. All three conductors bring a personal vision to the work that I find rather lacking in this performance. Haitink, in particular, makes passages of the work sound like Bruckner, and brings a sense of gravity even to the sunlit final pages. This kind of approach will not suit every listener, but as I wrote about this work many years ago in another place, “there is more to this symphony than radiant tranquillity”.
The Fifth Symphony received its first performance in June 1943, and the Sixth not quite five years later. Listening to the two works in chronological order – though not one straight after the other! – underlines the shock that many in the audience must have felt during and following that premiere in 1948. One of the best written accounts of that performance, and indeed one of the most enlightening commentaries on the work that I know, is to be found in Deryck Cooke’s classic 1959 book, The Language of Music. Cooke was present at that first performance. In his view “There was clearly more in it than mere notes whatever the composer’s deliberately uncommunicative programme-note might say”. Of these notes, he writes that Vaughan Williams “did not want to be regarded as a … purveyor of a ‘message’, but preferred to let the music speak for itself”. Indeed, in his writings Vaughan Williams repeatedly rejects the notion of message or meaning in his music. The Sixth Symphony, however, a work I find easier to admire than to love, will always be one about which audiences will want to know “what he meant”. The music is just too extreme, too extraordinary, even extra-musical, not to make us wonder what he was driving at.
Particularly successful in this fine performance from Liverpool is the finale, where Manze and his wonderful players maintain the mood – or absence of mood – throughout. There is to be neither crescendo nor diminuendo, no expression, no feeling, and this team succeeds better in this respect than any recorded performance I can remember, and that includes that one I believe to be the finest, that by Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in October 1990 and released on the Teldec label the following year (with, incidentally, more inspirational commentary by the late Christopher Palmer). I think Davis is more successful at one or two key points in the work, in the first movement, for example, when the big, string melody is transformed in the space of seven bars into a repeat of the opening violent gesture. (Defying the composer here, in search for “meaning”, is almost inevitable.) But overall this is a masterly performance from Manze and the players of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, particularly impressive in the third movement scherzo, with a hideously oily saxophone solo that comes second only to Davis’s BBC soloist.
Compared to the first two instalments of Manze’s Vaughan Williams cycle, parts of this one made me a little disappointed. Those who collect the series can hardly go wrong, however, even if other, individual performances are more satisfying. Onyx’s production values are always high and this release lives up to them. The recording team under producer, Andrew Keener, provides faultless sound, and the booklet boasts a typically informative and succinct note by Lewis Foreman.
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