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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 5 in D [37:32]
Symphony No. 6 in E minor [32:35]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 2017, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
ONYX 4184 [70:12]

As many of our readers will know, two very fine recorded cycles of the Vaughan Williams symphonies are currently emerging from the north-west of England. Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé have nearly completed their survey while down the M62 motorway in Liverpool Andrew Manze and the RLPO have now reached the third instalment of their cycle.

Not long ago I reviewed Sir Mark Elder’s recording of the Sixth symphony. Though I found a good deal to admire I had some reservations. I felt that the live recording, made in the Bridgewater Hall, didn’t convey the performance with as much impact as I’d have liked. Indeed, a 1994 recording by Vernon Handley seemed to me to have the edge that the Hallé’s own label didn’t quite match. That Handley recording was made with the same orchestra that Manze uses, the RLPO, and was set down in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. Fast forward twenty-three years and we find the RLPO on duty again on their home turf. There’s one other common factor: the producer of Manze’s recording, Andrew Keener, fulfilled the role for ‘Tod’ Handley also. To my ears the Manze recording – as sound per se – has more impact than the Elder recording.

As I listened, and made some comparisons, it seemed to me that Manze’s performance has the edge over Elder’s in a few respects, though on some occasions the tables are turned. Manze starts the symphony off in a very urgent manner – and that’s not just because his opening tempo is swifter than Elder’s. The syncopated section (from 1:33) fairly bounds along in his hands. Some may feel that the pace is just a little too hasty – in which case Elder will be your man – though I must say I found myself appreciating Manze’s bright, energetic way with the music. When the syncopated material evolves into that big, generous tune (5:27) the melody unfolds simply and quietly in Manze’s performance and then flowers into a warm restatement on full orchestra.

For me, Manze has a decided advantage in the second movement. I was very disconcerted by the swift tempo set on the Elder recording. The Manze reading is “conventionally” steadier and that steadiness is, I feel, much more in keeping with the spirit of the music. In his notes Lewis Foreman uses the phrase “malevolent threatening” and refers to the “uniquely ominous character” of the music. I find those characteristics absent in the Elder reading but Manze conveys them in spades. He sustains the tension very well indeed and he’s backed up by excellent playing from the RLPO. The Liverpool orchestra can summon up all the necessary power when its needed but I’m also greatly impressed by their delivery of the subdued, tense passages, especially the one before (at 5:23) the trumpets begin quietly their insistent, menacing three-note figure. That figure takes us eventually to the movement’s titanic climax (7:32). It’s noteworthy that Elder takes just 7:56 over this movement while Manze requires 9:29.

In the third movement, however, the boot is on the other foot: once again Manze is the swifter of our two conductors. He brings out the garish brilliance of much of VW’s writing and the music, superbly articulated by the RLPO, is very exciting. However, is the approach a bit too hell-for-leather? Elder is a fraction steadier. That allows him to invest the music with more weight - and perhaps that’s why his saxophone sounds a bit more insinuating. I admire Manze’s approach but I think Elder just shades the verdict here. Both conductors lead very fine accounts of the fourth movement. Indeed, I wouldn’t wish to express a preference. Their respective orchestras respond equally well., tone-painting VW’s mysterious aural landscape with great sensitivity.

This new recording of the Sixth by Andrew Manze is a fine achievement. My preference for the recording sound and for his treatment of the second movement inclines me to prefer his version to Elder’s. Fine though Manze’s reading of the Sixth may be, however, his account of the serene Fifth is finer still.

As soon as I heard the opening couple of minutes I sensed that, were this level of performance to be sustained, I was in for something rather special. The very opening is gently yet firmly voiced and the touch of firmness is just right to bring out the tonal ambiguity referenced by Lewis Foreman in his notes. Further evidence of the refinement of the RLPO’s playing – and of the way in which Manze has got them to approach the score – comes at 1:06 where the soft horn parts are played so delicately that the instruments seem to be at a physical distance: this is highly nuanced playing, and so it continues. I mustn’t give the inadvertent impression, though, that this nuancing amounts to micro-management. On the contrary, the spirit of the music is conveyed in abundance and Manze achieves a fine flow. The arrival of the second subject at 3:01 imparts glowing serenity. There’s a change of mood at 4:30, however, when a three-note motif introduces the development section. This motif, like so much else in this score, has its roots in what was at the time the unfinished ‘morality’ Pilgrim’s Progress. A good deal of the Pilgrim material in the symphony is warm and serene but this motif is not; it’s associated with the Apollyon and Vanity Fair episodes and its arrival introduces a darker mood to the symphony. I like very much the way that Manze has these three notes gently but tellingly emphasised when they first appear: it’s a subtle but perceptive touch. Thereafter, the development has a darker hue – and more urgency – than the music previously heard. But at 6:50 VW returns to his opening material and it’s beautifully achieved here while the movement’s climax (from 7:50) is noble, as it should be. All in all, I think this is a faultless performance of the movement.

In the mercurial scherzo that follows there’s very deft playing to admire. We have the sense that Fairy spirits are abroad at twilight. By contrast with this gossamer-light deftness, VW’s gently rollicking, rather rustic rhythms are given just the right degree of emphasis. The RLPO brass play the slightly heavier passages expertly and suggest to me Rude Mechanicals: might this movement be VW’s evocation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? At the end of the movement the music just vanishes into thin air.

The performance of the Romanza third movement is simply wonderful. The mood is caught at the very outset as a soft carpet of string chords gently cradles the cor anglais melody. All this is right out of Pilgrim’s Progress. The cor anglais player is just the first of a succession of RLPO woodwind principals who distinguish themselves in this movement. At 5:40 the music becomes a bit more troubled and urgent – evoking the Pilgrim’s doubts and worries – but at 7:14 the movement’s opening chords, this time played by the brass section, restore the atmosphere of calm and reassurance. From here to the end Manze and his orchestra achieve deeply satisfying repose and fulfilment.

The passacaglia finale is also based on a theme from Pilgrim’s Progress. Here the music is, for the most part, good-hearted and hopeful. Given that this symphony was composed during the dark days of the Second World War dare one suggest that VW might have been seeking to portray British resilience as well as his Pilgrim’s strength of purpose despite adversity? Manze judges the movement in an ideal fashion, I think. At 6:55 VW returns softly to the symphony’s opening but now ambiguity has been laid to rest and all is serenity and tranquillity, especially since the RLPO plays the closing pages with such sensitivity.

The recording by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé is very fine indeed (review) and I esteem it highly. However, as I listened to Manze’s recording the version which came even more readily to mind is André Previn’s exquisite 1972 recording with the LSO. This was always one of the gems in Previn’s VW cycle, a model of interpretative sensitivity and of refined orchestral playing (review). Manze’s recording is, I think, on the same exalted level. It is, quite simply, one of the best recordings of the Fifth that I can recall hearing – and I’ve had the good fortune to hear several top-notch versions over the years.

The engineering of this disc is by Phil Rowlands and he’s done a fine job. The sound is very pleasing indeed. There’s impact where one wants it – in the Sixth – but the radiant sonorities of the Fifth are just as successfully reported. Lewis Foreman’s notes are excellent.

There are two more instalments to come in this VW cycle and I’m eager to hear them. The previous issues have been excellent but this latest pair of performances, especially that of the Fifth, establishes a new peak.

John Quinn



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