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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No.7) [42:57]
Symphony No 9 in E minor [40:40]
Timothy West (narrator); Rowan Pierce (soprano)
Graham Eccles (organ)
Ladies of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Andrew Manze
rec. 2018, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
ONYX CLASSICS 4190 [83:26]

This is the fifth and final instalment of Andrew Manze’s cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies which I’ve been following with great interest.

I’m sorry that I have to start on a critical note but I have a serious problem with the presentation of Sinfonia Antartica. In the published score, the composer prefaced each of the five movements with a literary superscription though, as Lewis Foreman points out in his notes, these are not present in the manuscript full score. So far as I know, VW never intended that these inscriptions should be read out before each movement is played. I believe that he wanted the listener to contemplate the words internally. I know of only three recordings that have included the spoken superscriptions. Boult incorporated them into his first, Decca recording, when the words were spoken by Sir John Gielgud (review) although it’s noticeable that when he re-recorded the symphony for EMI some years later only the music was heard (review). André Previn had Sir Ralph Richardson as narrator for his RCA recording of the work (review). I’ve heard both the first Boult and the Previn recording and I dislike the inclusion of the words; it seems to me to be an intrusion which completely disrupts the flow. There’s a third recording which includes the superscriptions. That’s by Kees Bakels (review). I’ve not heard that version but I have read that the superscriptions are tracked separately, and if one must have them that seems to me to be a sensible compromise, allowing people like me to avoid them. No such luck here: you can’t listen to a movement without hearing Timothy West first. I simply can’t understand why it was thought a good idea to include the superscriptions and I’m particularly puzzled because, judging by an online review I read of a performance that Manze gave in Liverpool on 7 June 2018, which was around the time of the sessions for this recording, it doesn’t appear that Timothy West - or any other narrator – was involved. West’s contributions were recorded several months after the symphony itself and in a completely different location, the Watford Colosseum, where it is clear he is speaking in an empty hall. I can’t imagine why this was thought to be appropriate. The readings disrupt the musical flow; furthermore, because movement 4 follows its predecessor attacca, the only solution is for West to speak over the last chord of the third movement. Frankly, the inclusion of these readings was a disastrous decision.

It's all the more regrettable because Manze leads a terrific performance of the symphony, which is presented in marvellous recorded sound. The start of the Prelude is very broad and purposeful: Manze and the RLPO make the music powerful and heroic. When the female voices enter (4:04), the singers are very good but I wonder if their sound is not just a fraction too ‘present’. Referring back to Vernon Handley’s 1990 recording, made with the same orchestra, in the same hall – and with the same producer, Andrew Keener – I have the impression that the ladies were just a little more distanced on that occasion. I learned a few things from Lewis Foreman’s notes, one of which was that an analyst, Lionel Pike, has identified that this first movement is a set of nine variations. I must admit that had never occurred to me before but when you listen, armed with that theory, it makes a lot of sense. Manze’s reading of the Prelude is gripping and potent. It helps, I’m sure, that the engineering is so very good: the percussion is thrillingly reported. The Scherzo is a less weighty movement, affording good contrast with its predecessor. The playful penguins are excellently portrayed here.

The Timothy West narration is a particular irritant when the orchestra – and engineers – make such a wonderful job of the opening of ‘Landscape’. Recording Engineer Phil Rowlands has done marvellous work here and the soft, icy cymbals and muted horns really make a chilling effect. Even the splendid Chandos engineering on the recent Andrew Davis recording is shaded, I think. Manze paces the music spaciously, which I like, and in his hands the music sounds glacial and forbidding with ideal tension. From 7:45 the towering climax has a dread majesty and at 8:29 the immense organ of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral makes a hugely imposing contribution (The same instrument was used on the Tod Handley recording, to equally impressive effect, though the up to date Onyx recording is even more potent than Floating Earth were able to achieve with 1990 technology.) This performance paints a memorable musical picture of the raw might of nature. For all the stunning impact that the engineering makes in the loud passages, I find just as impressive the way the soft passages are so tellingly and atmospherically conveyed.

The fourth movement, Intermezzo, follows its predecessor without a break. So, the only way Timothy West’s narration can be fitted in is for him to speak his words over the last soft chord of ‘Landscape’. I’m not particularly impressed by this and I can imagine it raising hackles among VW devotees. This musical depiction of the doomed explorers’ memories of home is affectionately played by the RLPO. The finale opens with a very sharply defined attack. The first half of the movement is strongly and vigorously delivered until at 4:00 the pace becomes slow and the music ominous just before we hear the voices of the Polar sirens again. When VW reprises the music from the opening of the Prelude (5:04) Manze ensures that there’s weary resignation in the air. The bleak ending is well achieved though, ideally, I’d have liked the ladies’ voices to be just a little less ‘present’. This is a very fine account of Sinfonia Antartica and could have been a prime recommendation for the work had it not been for the unwelcome spoken word intrusions.

The Ninth also receives a performance of stature. Lewis Foreman reminds us that the manuscript shows that VW originally had it in mind to entitle the first movement ‘Wessex Prelude’. At the start of this movement Manze makes the music measured and mysterious. At 1:59 the clarinet second subject is somewhat more relaxed than what we’ve heard so far but even here Manze maintains the mysteriousness. There’s no little strength in the performance as it unfolds and we may marvel at the inventiveness and strength of purpose that VW still demonstrated even into his ninth decade. Thanks to the clarity of the performance and the excellent engineering one is conscious of many textural layers. At 7:27 the sweet solo violin reminds us of the clarinet’s second subject but even though there is surface repose one can sense dark undercurrents, especially when the trio of saxophones is prominent just before the end.

Lewis Foreman’s notes lay stress on the links with Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles in the second movement and his comments are very helpful in setting out how the music may well fit with this Hardy inspiration. Manze brings the various elements of this movement together very well indeed. The Scherzo is a prime illustration of VW’s capacity, even into old age, for invention – and for reinterpreting his musical past. The use of three saxophones – who but VW would use three saxophones fugally? – and tuned percussion shows how the composer remained keen to experiment with new sounds and textures. And yet, as Mr Foreman reminds us, the music calls to mind aspects of some previous works such as the ‘Vanity Fair’ episode from Pilgrim’s Progress. To his list I’d add another example: the third movement of the Sixth symphony. The music is often biting and garish and Manze and the RLPO do it very well indeed.

VW may have thought at one stage of calling the finale ‘Landscape’. At its sparse opening, one is reminded of the last movement of the Sixth but, unlike that desolate creation, the music soon opens out. If indeed the music does depict a landscape it’s not a landscape of contented rusticity – any more than the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony evidences rural contentment of an imagined Golden Age. Here, in the Ninth, Manze conveys atmosphere very well indeed and he ensures that the climaxes have power and strength. I admire the urgency he brings to the lead-up to the last climax. The final couple of minutes (from 13:01) are powerfully projected and the performance brings out all the harmonic tension in the music. Those three final, gauntly majestic chords, with their saxophone and harp interpolations, are superbly brought off. This is a distinguished account of VW’s last symphony.

I’m left with a feeling of what might have been. The performance of the Ninth is memorable, as is the performance of the music of Sinfonia Antartica. When you factor in as well top-quality engineering – probably the best in a very well-recorded cycle – then this could have been the peak of Andrew Manze’s Vaughan Williams cycle. As it is, though, the terribly misguided decision to include the spoken superscriptions severely compromises Sinfonia Antartica. I’m sorry that I can’t, therefore, give an unqualified welcome to the last instalment of what has been a fine VW cycle. Though I believe it to be the last release in the cycle I still entertain a hope that Andrew Manze might yet give us a recording of VW’s orchestral masterpiece, Job. I think I’m right in saying that he’s conducting it in some concerts later this year, so you never know.

John Quinn

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