Prom 46: RVW rediscovered!!!

There are nine Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) symphonies and the idea of laying this particular tritych hasn’t been tried here before, but it has existed in the mind of RVW fans for many years and at last the BBC has realised the potential.

These works are spread over 15 years: these were significant years for RVW in many senses - but they haven't had the exposure they deserve.   Britten and his cronies didn’t much of RVW and sat giggling as they read RVW scores: this may have been a prevailing attitude at the BBC.  The `symphonies have endured - but this has not been thanks to the Proms planners. 
It has been, perhaps, the great advocates of RVW (and the composer himself) that have maintained the presence of these works on Prom programmes rather than fashion and popularity.  From the start Henry Wood, Malcolm Sargent and Basil Cameron were the stalwarts in the 30s, 40s and 50s - Boult steps in more in the 60s and 70s and Colin Davies later still.  But what is remarkable given their early popularity is the their recent absence from programmes: the Sixth Symphony has been given 19 times but of that only four performances since 1976 with no performances at all in the 1980s.  The Fourth has fared slightly worse only 14 performances with only four performances since 1978.  These are, in my view, neglected works at the Proms - significant English symphonies which were very popular abroad - only Elgar’s First had more performances abroad in its first year than Vaughan Williams Sixth.

It might not be hard to find reasons why the symphonies have been relatively unpopular.  Other works by RVW have happier proms histories - the Tallis Fantasia 33 times, the Second Symphony (A London Symphony) 32 times and The Songs of Travel 34 times.  Part of the problem is that the F minor and Sixth symphonies cannot by any measure be classed as genial works. They are not easy to play or easy on the ear.  And it may be that the association (close or otherwise) with the Second World War is enough to warn off the casual listener.  What is certain was that I looked across the stalls and wandered the Albert Hall corridors at the interval - on this occasion the audience was mature on average generally and very old in the section where I was sitting.  If every there was a need of revitalising these works it would seem to be now and a quality offer was in order.

In terms of a review I can be brief - it was a shattering but magnificent experience. Very well played and beautifully conducted by a man who made no concessions to the absence of geniality in the outer symphonies and got right to teh heart of their Englishness (whatever that is) when required.  For those with a appetite for it, here's more....

The Fourth symphony was acutely observed, the movements didn’t have the bite of Berglund or Previn on record but the jocular turned sinister time and time again.  The symphony fair bowled along, fast paced in the Scherzo, marked Allegro molto to great effect, but to even greater effect in the hustling Andante moderato of the second movement - there was no let up in the satire or sarcasm.  This latter would have been the symphony’s highlight but the brass work in the fast, livid, open wound of a finale.  Superb work from low brass particularly.  Manze didn’t once underscore RVW’s points as has become a modern tendency - it all sounded brisk and jolly and when the music stopped the Prommers erupted with what seemed to be euphoria at what they had heard.  Some others, listeners, sat silently - stunned by what they had just witnessed.  I have, elsewhere, describe that last chord as a bullet to the temple. Manze delivered that and more with a clear head, an emphasis on articulation and the vivid sense of what matters in the orchestration: low brass in particular.

It fell silent long before Manze lifted his baton to start the Fifth symphony - that rocking motion far more comforting and familiar to Prommers than the punch on teh nose which starts the Fourth.

The material of the Fifth is beautiful though it is not without undercurrents - who knows what in the composer’s life motivated these great singing gestures.  They are some of his most well known symphonic utterances and closely allied to his opera Pilgrim’s Progress. War, Peace, Bunyan’s Pilgrim - is the answer there? Or in his part at the epicentre of a life where his wife and his future wife were sharing him. Or somewhere else. i’m not minded to step down the path of authorial intent.  The slow movement of this work is as mighty as any written before or since.  It clings to a ancient mode of music and yet seems to have come from our very earth.  I can’t remember a time when this music didn’t provoke me to tears.  Manze pitched this movement with the same steely accuracy as the Fourth but with precisely the opposite effect.  His players responded with astounding sensitivity.  The symphony didn’t roar to a climax: it’s was a performance suffused with quiet dignity.  That proper dignity which was stolen by Elgar and made false and marshall: RVW bears his soul and we find true dignity - rested, peaceful and at one with the world (not just with one’s betters Sir Edward!).

RVW 6 was my first proper symphony - I knew it before Beethoven’s symphonies or Mahler or Bruckner or Mozart.  I truly didn’t know what it meant but like Beecham’s aphoristic Englishman I liked the noise it made.  And how I listened and listened and listened to Vernon Handley’s recording (the first one with the London Philharmonic Orchestra).  I popped into a music shop in Worksop, Nottinghamshire and bought the score and sat trying to see the music in the notes. Every recorded version crossed my path subsequently and yet this was the first time I’d heard it in the flesh.

It still makes a strong impression with me - Manze’s energy redoubled that.  Despite this emotionally arduous programme he leapt into this work with a commendable energy.  And once started this work is unremittingly hard work for the conductor.  Nothing stops until its last note fades.  Manze’s orchestra were by this time feeding off the boundless enthusiasm of the audience who were lapping this prom up movement by movement.  What struck me at teh time and subsequently was the sheer ferocity of this opening and its speed.  The strings figures were spot on so nothing was lost and what was gained was a frenzied character of music as though from a completely different place nothing like the English Pastoral idyll - I often feel that if more people heard this symphony first and not No 2 or No 5 RVW would have more respect.

The movement has the precision of a shark attack - the BBCSSO delivered that. When the music breaks suddenly to a rural interlude using music RVW had written for a wartime film, Flemish Farm, an English idyll in the midsts of savagery; they played that beautifully too.  The scoring of the symphony is hardly exotic adding more percussion, two harps and a saxophone - but RVW uses them to astonishing effect.  Manze raced through the music ideas but didn’t manage to lose any of them.  If I have one ill note for this symphony its was there was an outbreak of phrasing in the musical dead zone the last movement.  Cage would have had it played by a robot to achieve that effect.  Everyone does it - its a folly to assume they can do it.

I left the hall emotionally shattered - overwhelmed by what I had heard and the three trials by music RVW had put us through.  Manze is a very very fine conductor and one hopes these readings find their way into the studio.  The BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra sounded so much more alive to this music than the last I’d heard them playing Bruckner 8 under Runnicles - I found lots not to my taste then, in RVW it seemed they were teaching English colleagues a thing or two about the cosmopolitan fellow in their midsts.  It was in truth a brilliantly conceived and executed programme and I’m so glad for the many RVW admirers in the hall.  Not least the few kids who will have a completely different view of this composer’s power and energy and his place as a striking voice in the history of 20th Century music.  Next we want Sym Nos 7, 8 & 9 Mr Manze - take us to the promised land!


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