FringeReview UK 2018
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under Andrew Manze return to perform another in their Vaughan Williams symphonic cycle, No. 2 ‘The London’ and preface it with Haydn’s final ‘London’ Symphony, No. 104.
Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra famously gave a concert in 2012 of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies 4, 5, and 6. They returned in 2014 for the war-inspired 3rd, given again here on Friday in a superb reading by Martyn Brabbins. Now they’re back with No. 2 ‘a London Symphony’ from 1913 with revisions as late as 1933.
It’s the first London Symphony that we feel Manze ought to be more at home in a pairing that Leonard Slatkin deployed here back in 2003. This is Haydn’s last, 104 in D – though any of his last twelve could have been called ‘London’. Back in the hazy 1990s through to about 2005, Manze was famed as a middle-baroque violinist and then conductor of late-baroque concerti grossi from a but later Haydn’s in fact close to this idiom though Manze’s not yet known for his Haydn.
And he should be. This is the best certainly you can do with a slightly reduced modern symphony orchestra – the original Salomon orchestra was pretty big in London – and the Royal Albert Hall’s famed swimminess. In fact you should reduce the band proportionate to the acoustic which tends to double everything.
That said this is more than a tidy recitation of a late masterpiece, whose idiom eludes us a jot more than Mozart’s or Beethoven’s. Like all lat Haydn symphonies we start of with s spacious Adagio, but strangely it starts in D minor, shading the proceedings with mourning for its abundant life. It’s impressive foreshadowing Beethoven’s Fourth ad perhaps reflecting Mozart’s C minor ‘Dissonant’ Quartet. It leaps off into the playful Allegro, though everything grows out of a single cell, the second subject being fragments of the first – it’s a purposeful cheerfulness, and highly attractive. But it’s the inner movements and finale that otherwise bite.
The Andante walks with a quasi-set of variations, like seeing something from several faceted lights. It owns a tanginess and delicacy that makes it clear why we should hear far more Haydn and tune into his extraordinary vision. The same goes for the infeltions of the grand waltz-style Minuet, which is angular and memorable – and Manze really takes Haydn’s jokes – hesitating before starting the more folk-inflected trio section so you almost think it’s ended. THes two movemtns are utterly memorable.
The finale though is so infectious – a rollicking drone-driven Rondo like Haydn’s 82nd, ‘The bear’ whose dancing role strikes us as cruel now, but can be separated from Haydn’s music. Here the drone’s a popular catchy London thing inflected with the sophistication this symphony-sophisticated audience delighted in.
It’s still a pity about the acoustic drowning a bit of bite, but this is the best Haydn you can expect in the Albert Hall. And Hayden’s not performed elsewhere, so we have to be grateful.
The Vaughan Williams is where Manze’s made his mark of late. In his first outing with No. 2 ‘A London symphony’ he reverts as most do to the revised shorter version. That snap and clarity suits Manze’s wonderfully alert approach. You might say it’s Ravel-like, Vaughan Williams’ last teacher, with whom he worked only five years earlier and who always admired his finest pupil’s works, partly for sounding unlike him. And parallels with Debussy’s symphonic La Mer emerge more clearly than ever.
Manze lets the atmosphere of the opening dawn reverberate but there’s a tightness a French-inflected sharpening of accent and attack that allows the explosive crescendo of the angry motif to come in without trying to soften it. He allows it dispatch and energy, never lingering. The symphony emerges with enormous clarity and in this rendition convinces me in its power and range that it’s the finest symphony before the 6th.
The bustle of the morning is allowed an arc of great power and again a strange anger, subsiding only before the Lento heart of the work, the grey foggy November afternoon, with an agonized climax of loneliness. A quasi-folk-song rises through the texture through shuddering strings, occlusive and strange. A horn sounds the rising fourth of the opening theme of the whole work. Its an aquatint of desolation limned by Turner rather than anything romantic. It’s underscored by the lavender-sellers’ solo viola which also ends the work when everything’s reviewed in reverse. I’ve never heard it drawn out with such clarity and bleakness as here and it changes my view of the work. It’s certainly VW’s bleakest symphonic movement before the 6th 7th and 9th symphonies, decades away. And one of his very best.
The Scherzo’s a nocturne almost a contradiction in terms, but darts and ducks about the evocation of the Thames Embankment and night-life that 1913 mightn’t have mentioned. Everything scurries with as the late Calum MacDonald put it ‘with an almost phosphorescent delicacy’. There’s the clarity and harmonic bite of VW’s friend Holst here too, and though we often hear how VWs’ 6th invokes his friend’s Neptune, we don’t hear how the very end of the 2nd seems to prophesy it (The Planets were performed in 1918 though doubtless VW saw the score a year or so earlier).
Again Manze handles everything with a pointillistic Frenchness almost, a temperament derived from his baroque days that cleanses the sepia palate of VW.
He judges it perfectly in the finale moving from Andate con moto through allegro back to an Andante catches all the melancholy and brio of the work. The anguished cry, a perky memorable G major march, very Holst, , the E minor allegro subverting it with military parodies. Indeed VW’s often burdened with the office of prophet which he grumbled about. How his 4th prophesies war, the 5th peace, the 6th postwar nuclear holocaust. The 2nd seems to prophesy the first war here. As the whole work moves to its flowing Thames of an epilogue the quote form H G Wells’ Tono-Bungay ‘the river passes – London passes – England passes’ seems devastatingly prescient. And not just about the looming war.
The Haydn was excellent and we need more. The Vaughan Williams a revelatory cleansing losing nothing in atmosphere and asserting its stature – which should be international. It’s not only one of the finest British symphonies, but – just a bit – one of the finest French ones too.