tue 13/11/2018

BBC Proms: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Manze | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Manze

BBC Proms: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Manze

Three Vaughan Williams symphonies don't prove too much, but Manze should have watched the speedometer

Andrew Manze and baton in a rare moment of repose

One chocolate bar, OK. But eating three in a row? Is that altogether wise? Some may feel the same about a concert containing three symphonies by Vaughan Williams: a third of his output in the form. Even the most committed lover of this visionary and still under-appreciated British composer might worry a little at the prospect, as we might at a heavy night of Beethoven or Brahms. Each symphony, to be sure, is coloured with different forms and emotions. But similar harmonies, intervals and rhythmic figurations still recur. "Variety is the spice of life" isn’t a popular saying for nothing.

At the same time, and hearteningly, the prospect of Andrew Manze’s Vaughan Williams bonanza clearly put few people off. The Albert Hall was packed, the audience concentration considerable, the enthusiasm wide and warm. A period instrument violinist no longer – pity, that, he was damned good – Manze is now the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Associate Conductor, and he planned this experience to make a point. He’s on a mission, he says, to rehabilitate Vaughan Williams (pictured below) in people’s minds, to position him not as a parochial figure, cowpat at hand, sucking on a straw, but as a major international force in 20th-century music.

If ever Manze offers you a lift in his car, I’d strongly advise you to say noManze certainly chose his symphonies wisely: numbers four, five and six, the best of the set, written during the troubled times of the 1930s and 1940s, with some of the troubles reflected in the music. Whether he always conducted them wisely is another matter. If ever Manze offers you a lift in his car, I’d strongly advise you to say no. For this man’s an absolute speed demon. In each of Vaughan Williams’ allegros he regularly exceeded the speed limit, forcing the orchestra to hurtle through material that needed a little more space and breadth to make an impact and bare its teeth. He did it in front of BBC Four’s cameras too, so he’s bound to get a ticket.  

Vaughan Williams listening in old ageThe raging and angry Fourth, beneficiary in 1937 of an astonishingly volcanic recording by Vaughan Williams himself, was a particular victim of Manze’s impatience. Grinding dissonances, demonic rhythms, sarcastic snarls: they passed us by almost in a blur. The Sixth, written in the mid 1940s and pockmarked with the kind of martial rattle and eerie desolation usually associated with Shostakovich, was also damaged by hurtling. Only the Fifth, the concert’s high point and the most serene and affirmative of the symphonies, consistently kept its cool, nagging away gently at harmonic tensions before resolving its argument in a shimmering radiance gorgeous to behold.

Manze and his players were very good at shimmering; good, too, at tapering down the dynamics to a velvet whisper, with strings at times suggesting the radiance of VW’s Tallis Fantasia. The Fourth’s first movement had its succulent moments of reflection; the Fifth was full of them; while the BBCSSO’s finesse playing pianissimo created much desolate splendour in the disembodied epilogue of the Sixth.

At such times, Manze seemed the perfect man for rehabilitating Vaughan Williams, revealing the music’s originality and beauty, fit for audiences everywhere, and quashing any qualms that three chocolate bars were too much. If only he hadn’t scrambled and squashed chunks of these symphonies by pressing down so hard on the accelerator. Take your time, Mr Manze! The world’s not going to end tomorrow. Or do you know something we don’t?

He’s on a mission to rehabilitate Vaughan Williams in people’s minds, to position him not as a parochial figure, cowpat at hand, sucking on a straw, but as a major international force in 20th century music

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