BBC Proms #6 – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis: Vaughan Williams & Tippett Fourth Symphonies

Prom 6 – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

Vaughan Williams Symphony no.4 in F minor (1931-4)
Tippett Symphony no.4 (1976-7)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 19 July 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Whether or not the Fourth Symphonies by Vaughan Williams and Tippett had previously been scheduled together, they made for a striking and provocative programme such as was its own justification. Omer Meir Wellber clearly thought so when this concert was planned and, even though indisposition had led to withdrawing from this year’s Proms, the presence of Sir Andrew Davis on the podium could hardly have been more conducive to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra giving performances of the interpretive insight and technical conviction as were evident this evening.

Admittedly the Albert Hall’s opulent acoustic is never the best setting for VW4, the visceral impact of whose opening was inevitably diluted. Allowing for rather more expressive leeway than he might otherwise have done, Davis paced this explosive movement securely with just a slightly listless take on its coda detracting from the whole. The Andante was the highlight here – its fatalistic course exuding gravitas but never dragging, with the tritonal plangency of its main climaxes palpably in evidence and pathos of its final bars enhanced by an affecting contribution from flautist Alex Jakeman. This acoustic may have obscured something of the Scherzo’s contrapuntal ingenuity but not its sardonic humour or, in the trio, didactic coyness. The stealthy transition into the Finale could have had even greater cumulative focus, but what followed had all the requisite impetus – its central interlude raptly delineated, then the drama of its ‘epilogo fugato’ conveying increasing velocity through to the starkly inevitable return of the opening gesture and what is the most unequivocal four-letter ending of any symphony.

Interesting to recall the temporal distance between these pieces is now less than that between the Tippett and the present. Enthusiastically received at its Chicago premiere and one among a handful of his works still revived following his death, Tippett’s Fourth Symphony evinces  a ‘birth to death’ trajectory that differs – crucially so – from its assumed model of Sibelius’s Seventh in not being a cumulative design; its climax being rather the kinetic developmental paragraph at its centre and from where the piece fans out, in a sequence of evolving episodes, back to the launching of its introduction and onward to the passing of its coda. Although he may have directed performances of greater tautness, Davis here secured a persuasive balance between unity and diversity – bringing a metaphysical poise to its ‘slow movement’ then a deft whimsicality to its ‘scherzo’, whose respective qualities underlined the confrontational drama elsewhere. Lavish writing for brass and percussion helps makes this Tippett’s most virtuosic such statement, in which the BBC Philharmonic was rarely to be found wanting.

A less successful component of this reading was the latest attempt to represent the ‘breathing effect’ specified by the score, in which the real-time voice of CJ Neale seemed hardly more successful than those attempts of wind machine, sampler et al to realize Tippett’s speculative imagery. No matter – any such overreaching was part and parcel of this composer’s inherent ambition; an ambition, moreover, which his present-day successors would do well to emulate. Almost a century and half-century on, both these works pose challenges constantly to be met.

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