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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No 3 ‘A Pastoral Symphony’ (1921) [36:56]
Symphony No 4 in F minor (1934) [31:46]
Andrew Staples (tenor); Rhys Owens (natural trumpet)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 5-7 May, 2016, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
ONYX 4161 [68:49]

Last year I enjoyed very much the first instalment of Andrew Manze’s Merseyside cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, a disc that coupled the ‘London’ and Eighth symphonies (review). Here now is volume two in the series.

I can imagine that for many devotees of Vaughan Williams a point of significant interest will lie in Andrew Manze’s decision to use a solo tenor in the finale of the ‘Pastoral’. To the best of my knowledge it’s unprecedented in a recording and, indeed, I’ve only heard this option used once before in a live concert. That was in 2014 when Manze conducted the work in a very moving BBC Prom (review). Though it’s most unusual to encounter a tenor in this work it is a fully authorised alternative to the more usual soprano. The Catalogue of VW’s works specifically states in the scoring for the work “soprano or tenor voice”. Furthermore, VW also sanctioned the use of a clarinet in the absence of a singer and I understand that the clarinettist Frederick Thurston played the cantilena not only in rehearsals prior to the first performance but also in the second performances of the symphony. That was given at the Royal College of Music on 17 February 1922 by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. I’m grateful to John Francis of Albion Records for giving me this information about the Catalogue. Though I think that the clarinet, no matter how well played, would be a poor substitute for the voice, a tenor provides a most interesting alternative.

The title ‘Pastoral’ conjures up images of bucolic idylls. However, while there is considerable beauty in the score and an abundance of modal harmonies there are many dark undercurrents in Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony. In his valuable notes Lewis Foreman quotes a 1938 letter from VW to his future wife, Ursula in which the composer explicitly states “It is really wartime music…” Early on in the first movement, for example, there is a brief passage (3:14-3:23) which contains some extraordinarily subtle and ambiguous harmonic shifts. This is typical of the harmonic undercurrents that ebb and flow beneath even the most innocent modal surfaces in this score. Andrew Manze lets the music of the first movement flow in a very persuasive manner and he obtains playing of great sensitivity and finesse from the RLPO.

Among my comparisons were two recordings also made in the northwest of England: by Vernon Handley and Sir Mark Elder. Handley’s recording was made in 1991, also with the RLPO and in the same hall (review). The Elder is a much more recent version, set down in September 2013 in Hallé St Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester (review). I had remembered that Andrew Keener, the producer of this Andrew Manze disc, had also produced the Handley version. However, it was not until I took the Elder disc down from the shelves that I realised that Keener had acted in the same capacity for that recording also. I noticed that Manze’s timing for the first movement is longer than either of his two colleagues, especially Handley, but I should say that at no time did I feel the music was hanging fire in his hands. As for the quality of the respective recordings – all of which are good – I have the impression, perhaps wrongly, that the Handley sounds fractionally more distant than the Manze; the Elder recording, possibly made in a smaller hall, sounds a bit more present than the two Liverpool versions.

The RLPO’s principal horn contributes a lovely solo at the start of the second movement and a little later the solo cellist also impresses. One of the most striking features of the movement – indeed of the whole symphony – is the haunting section featuring a solo trumpet (4:01-5:13). This was inspired by VW frequently hearing, while he was on wartime service in France, a lone bugler practicing in the early morning. Here Rhys Owens plays on a natural trumpet and surely gets just the effect that the composer wanted. His playing is beautifully distanced in the recorking. Michael Kennedy has spoken of the stillness of the music in this passage and commented that “surely this is dusk turned into notes”. That’s what’s achieved here. Alan Stringer is similarly evocative on the Handley recording – I bet Andrew Keener arranged for him to play from the same spot as Rhys Owens. Elder’s unnamed trumpeter also does very well, as does the trumpeter on André Previn’s beautiful account of the symphony with the LSO (review) – how odd that RCA credit nine other LSO soloists in the booklet but omit the trumpeter. I rather suspect, however, that all the other trumpeters use conventional modern trumpets – certainly their instruments sound brighter in tone than Owens’ instrument. Equally successful in this Manze performance is the melancholic passage (7:22-8:10) where the solo horn revisits the trumpet threnody but this time with the addition of a pensive clarinet counter-melody.

The scherzo is the only quick movement in the work; here are mixed galumphing brass passages and material that sounds like a folk-dance. The movement comes off well, especially the closing section (from 4:48) where the RLPO’s strings and woodwind display considerable delicacy in delivering the gossamer-light ending. And so to the finale which opens with the unaccustomed sound of a male voice intoning the wordless cantilena over a soft drum roll. The effect is haunting – Andrew Staples sings very atmospherically. I wondered how I would react to the gender change but I’m completely won over. Given that he was, apparently, content with either a male or female voice I’m unsure exactly what VW meant to suggest here and when the voice returns at the very end of the symphony. For me, the use of a gently plangent tenor voice produces definite battlefield connotations which are as explicit as the echo of the bugle in the second movement. As an ambulance man VW must have carried from the field of battle countless young men who were broken in mind or body – or both – and corpses, too. Do we not hear in this music the lament of a soldier sounding across the years? The elegiac poignancy continues when the orchestra takes over from the singer. At 4:13 the music becomes more agitated and eventually achieves a climax during which the violins revisit the cantilena. All this is done more eloquently by Manze and the RLPO. The close, with the tenor singing gently over sustained high violins, is most affecting. Michael Kennedy has written that in this symphony “the emotions of war are recollected in tranquillity free from complacency.” Manze reinforces that verdict, and not just in the finale.

Among the rival versions, Handley’s soprano (Alison Barlow) is excellent and, like Andrew Staples, her voice is heard at a similarly evocative distance: I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Andrew Keener reprised his experience of the Handley recording this time round. Previn has Heather Harper who has a fuller voice than Miss Barlow but is no less fine. The Previn version, it should be said, is among his very best Vaughan Williams recordings; the LSO’s playing is radiant. Sadly, Elder’s otherwise excellent recording is somewhat compromised by the singing of Sarah Fox. I suspect she was recorded more closely than the other singers I’ve mentioned but even so her delivery is too full-voiced and, frankly, too loud: the cantilena is devoid of magic.

Andrew Manze faces stiff competition from the three versions I’ve discussed – to say nothing of others such as Boult – but I think that both as a performance and recording his reading comes out of the comparisons very well.

There’s a huge contrast between the ‘Pastoral’ and the Fourth Symphony: in the latter all the dissonance that was subtly kept in the undergrowth during the ‘Pastoral’ is now blatantly on view. It was once thought that in this symphony VW was looking forward to the dangers of a Second Word War but, as Lewis Foreman points out, the composer disavowed any such meaning. When I first encountered the work I thought it was an exciting but angry score. I still think it’s exciting but I’m now less sure about the anger.

The grinding dissonances at the start of the work are strongly projected here and throughout the first movement the powerful passages, of which there are many, come off very well. There are several less choleric sections, however, and Manze gives them full value too. There’s a good deal of angularity in the slow movement and Manze ensures that this is accurately portrayed, especially as the music grows in power. This is taut, intense music - even in those stretches where the dynamics are soft Vaughan Williams doesn’t relax the tension. Perhaps, though, he does when we reach the lovely short flute solo (8:44); here it seems that the skies lighten a little. This is a very fine performance of the movement.

Jagged rhythms and huge energy characterise the scherzo and the RLPO are well up for the challenge. Is this demonic writing or bluff humour? Initially I thought the former but over the years I’ve come to think the music wears a rather more friendly countenance. The trio, with its ‘oompah’ brass figures, rather tilts the balance in favour of a benign view of the music. After the scherzo’s return the transition to the finale has echoes of the similar passage in Beethoven’s Fifth. In this performance of the finale I think Andrew Manze brings out the boisterous side of the music. It’s a real tour de force for the orchestra with precious few moments of respite but the RLPO seem to revel in the challenges, especially the brass. There is a break in the tumult in the shape of a soft meditative passage for the strings (2:27-4:03). That’s sensitively done. After that the music erupts again and from here until the end the performance has great dynamism – the brass are terrific from about 7:30 to the end. The grinding dissonances with which the symphony opened reappear at the very end before Vaughan Williams ends with the musical equivalent of a defiant slam.

This is a very fine performance of the Fourth. It was interesting to revert to Vernon Handley’s 1991 performance, which coincidentally was coupled on its original release with the ‘Pastoral’ (review). My goodness, Mike Hatch’s engineering and Tod’s conducting conspire to produce results that are still vivid more than 25 years later. Handley is very fine indeed in the first two movements, both of which are gripping in his hands, and his scherzo has real bite and vigour. It’s in the finale where, to my ears at least, his approach differs significantly from Manze’s. Handley’s performance is superb but I think it’s weightier and more dramatic than Manze’s and less inclined to high spirits. I’m not suggesting that one is “right” and the other “wrong”; I find the contrast interesting and stimulating. I noticed also that in the reflective string passage Handley moves the music on a bit more than Manze. The RLPO of 1991 were in just as fine fettle as their present day successors. Both performances have many merits and whilst warmly welcoming the newcomer I’m definitely not minded to discard Handley.

With excellent sound and valuable notes to complement the fine performances this second instalment of Andrew Manze’s Vaughan Williams cycle lives up to the promise of volume 1. If the succeeding discs prove to be as good in due course then this will be a notable series.

John Quinn

 

 




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