Vaughan Williams may not have held it dear but there is much to like about his Symphony No, 4 in F minor. It has not the beauty of No. 5 nor the momentum of No. 6, but this early 1930s work conveys a sense of anxiety. It can be plausibly argued that it reflects the British pre-war collective consciousness of fear and confusion, despite the composer’s insistence that he did not intend such a reflection. It’s not an elegant piece, the opening Allegro laden with relatively aggressive dissonance and sometimes disjointed phrases which seem hesitant or fearful. Yet it does hold allure in its range of moods and use of the large orchestra to create different atmospheres.
The orchestra captured the unsettled tone well and carried it through the Andante Moderato and a darkly humorous Scherzo. Here the syncopated rhythms Heavy use of lively symcopated rhythms created unease rather than lightening the mood, leading into the complex final movement which refuses to allow the satisfaction of a fully resolved ending. Symphony No. 5, composed over the five years up to 1943, is quite a contrast to its predecessor in many ways. It begins not angrily but with horns - only three of them in this instance – in the home key of D. It’s moody like the Fourth, but dares to sound optimistic at moments, eventually breaking into tunes with a choral ebullience. When they emerged, the melodies woven into the orchestration sounded exquisite, executed delicately by the orchestra. The Scherzo, Romanza and generally calmer Passacaglia (climax excepted) returned to the tempestuous, uneven nature of all three of tonight’s Symphonies.
After an interval, another slight change of tone to adjust to: written between 1944 and 1947, Symphony No. 6 feels like the work of a composer more comfortable in his musical skin. It’s a highly charged bold statement of powerful emotion hitherto kept hidden. A crushing opening Allegro is reminiscent of Symohony No. 4 in all but scale – it’s louder, angrier and packs a sharper punch. The Sixth just gets better as it goes along, undergoing a series of mood changes including moments of sweeping strings and prominent brass before rhythm takes hold to guide towards the finale. A hypnotic three note pattern is repeated in trumpets and drums, which seems to die away but keeps coming back to life. In a well-paced interpretation, the BBC SSO allowed this motif to grow slowly, increasing the emphasis on the third note until it dominated everything, finally giving way to a lonely cor anglais. Manze pushed the sharply contrasting Scherzo and eerily pianissimo Epilogue through the Albert Hall’s vast space and the Symphony disappeared into a haunting silence.
The most imminent threat to this all-Vaughan Williams programme was reaching saturation point. All three of these symphonies are unrelenting and richly scored. You’d have to be a big enthusiast not to feel the fatigue slightly. But for lovers of the composer’s heart-on-sleeve style, the programme presented an interesting portrait of a composer undergoing a journey of musical growth and self-discovery through the Second World War, sensitively brought to life by Andrew Manze and the BBC SSO.
directs all nine Vaughan Williams symphonies
with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra,
of which he is Associate Guest Conductor:
‘Vaughan Williams is one of those composers
some people have fixed ideas about … I’m on a
bit of a mission to rehabilitate him in people’s
minds as an important figure in the musicmaking
of this country.’ Tonight he tackles three
works of the 1930s
and 1940s, which,
whatever their own
stories, may still be
seen as chronicling
our national life in
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP