fri 21/06/2024

Hallé Choir, BBC Philharmonic, Davis, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - celebrating Vaughan Williams | reviews, news & interviews

Hallé Choir, BBC Philharmonic, Davis, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - celebrating Vaughan Williams

Hallé Choir, BBC Philharmonic, Davis, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - celebrating Vaughan Williams

Three big works from the English visionary of the 20th century

Blazing forth: the Hallé Choir and BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Andrew DavisJenny Whitham, BBC Philharmonic

Continuing the joint BBC Philharmonic/Hallé celebration of Vaughan Williams, Sir Andrew Davis took on the job of presenting three substantial works on Saturday.

Toward the Unknown Region has given its title to the entire series, not a bad choice of phrase for the career of a composer whose intellectual curiosity and visionary capacity never left him: the phrase is that of the poet Walt Whitman, and the piece itself is a setting of a five-stanza poem for chorus, orchestra and organ.

It's early Vaughan Williams, written when he was working on the music of The English Hymnal, and in many ways it breathes the spirit of Anglican services of Evensong (it even has a bit of the chromatic slither that VW himself dismissed as “like the curate improvising” in reference to another composer). But it’s beautifully and harmoniously written for choir and imaginatively scored, and includes that favourite VW melodic motif most widely known as the opening of his tune to "For all the saints" – in this case blazing out, the first note lengthened, to the words “Then we burst forth”.

BBC Philharmonic and Sir Andrew Davis credit Jenny Whitham, BBC PhilharmonicThat provides the affirmative, optimistic ending to the piece, which works up to a grand climax near its finish: in effect not quite as rhythmically precise as it might have been at that point, but nonetheless, under direction by Sir Andrew (pictured right), building on beautiful and transparent textures before it, and making considerable impact helped by the resonant boom of the Bridgewater Hall organ (played by Darius Battiwalla). 

Jumping forward in time, the 1930s-written Fourth Symphony came next. With a world war in between, the music is very different from the positivity of the first two symphonies, or even the ambiguously nostalgic aspects of the “Pastoral”. VW himself said it reflected “unbeautiful times”, and its dissonances and nervous energy can hardly be separated from its context of political events in Europe. 

This reading drew clear attention to its contrasts of agitation and seemingly unreal calm, such as the concluding bars of the first movement, where the BBC Philharmonic strings, led by Yuri Torchinsky, caught the bitter-sweetness of the moment exactly.

The slow movement (one of Vaughan Williams’ longer ones) brought more of the same eerie peace, and the Scherzo, with clean and disciplined playing on all fronts, was incisive and colourful. The sting in this symphony is in the tail. In some ways it follows the structural model of Beethoven’s Fifth (even using a reiterated drumbeat to transition from the third movement to the finale), but the spirit of its conclusion is miles away from C major optimism. Under Davis’s hands, the brass and wind produced both insinuatingly pleasant oom-pah rhythms and biting stabs as its atmosphere grew heavier and the tone darker.

Job: A Masque for Dancing was a ballet score completed in 1930 (when perhaps the world’s future prospects looked more cheerful than five years later) for Ninette de Valois’ up-and-coming Vic-Wells Ballet, later The Royal. It was written for a large orchestra: first given as a concert piece, it had to be reduced by the company’s Constant Lambert for a theatre-size band, but it sounds vivid, almost film score-like, in its original dress, and ranges through a succession of sound pictures of scenes in the biblical story.

We meet the pastoral/spiritual VW in the opening as well as later, depicting the faithful, prosperous Job before Satan is allowed to get at him, and also in the account of Job’s initial calm acceptance of bad news, but the music for the diabolical antagonist is a precursor of the vicious, heartless sounds in the Fourth Symphony. The impact of “Satan’s Dance” may have been slightly underplayed in its first appearance in Davis’s reading, but the scenes of horror that followed hit home all the more devastatingly soon after.

The shocking episode of Satan usurping God’s throne (introduced to the story by the librettist) brought out graphic effects in the orchestra (with the organ again: deranged baddies always suit a bit of organ tutti), and then Torchinsky’s playing of the almost Lark-like violin solo, representing Elihu, was sweet and lovely. Once right has been restored, with folksong tunes, noble brass and VW-trademark triads of triumph, peace returns – and at the last there was a tantalising fade-out, magically drawn by Davis through to final, breathless silence.

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