Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Tom Coult Pleasure Garden: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2020) (London premiere)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914-20); Symphony no.9 in E minor (1956-57)
Daniel Pioro (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Manze
Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 26 October 2022
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Concert pictures with thanks to the London Philharmonic Orchestra; picture of Andrew Manze (c) Benjamin Ealovega
Subtitled Visions of England, this concert from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Andrew Manze was a celebration of Vaughan Williams, marking 150 years since the composer’s birth. As part of an extremely full conducting CV, Manze has a recently recorded cycle of the composer’s nine symphonies under his belt with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and clearly holds a special affection for his music.
Two of RVW’s most popular pieces began each half of the concert, but the main act was a relatively rare encounter with composer’s final symphony, completed a year before his death. The Ninth Symphony is a work needing repeated listening before its treasures can be fully revealed, but more recently it has started to get the performances it needs to make an impact. As Manze himself told us from the platform, it also has a deep resonance for the London Philharmonic Orchestra themselves. On the morning of 26 August 1958 they were rehearsing with the composer’s friend and advocate, Sir Adrian Boult, when news came through that Vaughan Williams had died.
This performance delved into the spidery textures that seem to provide a link to the afterlife itself, rather like one of Holst’s later Planets. Also evident were a series of cloudy, watery vistas, such as those found in Debussy’s Nocturnes. Manze probed deeply into the first movement, helped by the baleful colouring of three saxophones, beautifully managed by Martin Robertson, Tim Holmes and Shaun Thompson to enhance the unusual orchestral textures. The tension between the ‘home’ note of E and its immediate neighbour F was ideally weighted, the thoughtful mood tinged with a sense of foreboding.
These emotions underpinned a convincing performance, with references to earlier, angrier music from the Sixth symphony sharply noted and delivered. There were also moments of calm acceptance, as though the composer was reappraising his life with some satisfaction, the darkness held at bay by silvery strings and consoling woodwind.
The second movement, with its curious rhythmic profile, had nicely balanced syncopations, while the scherzo danced as though in an empty room, the music never quite leaving the leash on which it was held. Segueing directly to the finale, Manze’s control and passion could be felt in equal measure, a sense of resolution hard to come by but ultimately found as the music headed for its final three chords, the ‘E’ and ‘F’ finally resolving their dispute. This beautiful symphonic ending offered genuine light in the darkness, a similar sensation to Shostakovich’s final symphonic statement if seen through very different eyes.
The concert opened with the ubiquitous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, less elusive music perhaps but equally profound when casting its eyes back over time. This ideal concert opener speaks as loudly as it surely did in 1910, providing consolation for the fevered brow through subtle but far-reaching statements. On this occasion the performance did not quite have the ‘tingle’ factor, but it did feature beautiful string playing and finely wrought balance between the ‘choir’ of ten instruments, elevated a little at the back of the stage. Meanwhile the main orchestra could boast excellent contributions from four section principals, Pieter Schoeman and Tania Mazzetti (violins), Richard Waters (viola) and Pei-Jee Ng (cello).
The Lark Ascending holds a similarly treasured status among lovers of Vaughan Williams, remaining one of the calling cards of 20th century English music. In the right performance it creates a magical evocation of George Meredith’s lark, as it ‘drops the silver chain of sound’. Daniel Pioro played the solo part with great sensitivity and more than a little panache, choosing not to overindulge in a relatively straightforward opening sequence, but appearing to add a few extra ‘blue’ notes as the violin warmed to its characterisation, ‘lost on his aerial wings’. Manze’s pacing, initially quite fast, settled to a satisfying pace, with ideal balance between soloist and orchestra. The hall responded with commendable silence to the absolute quiet at the end.
A busy evening for Pioro included a role as soloist in the first London performance of Tom Coult’s Pleasure Garden. A four-movement concerto for violin and carefully chosen orchestra, it is effectively a compilation of four very distinct tableaus, taking its lead from constructed ‘natural spaces’ in and around congested living areas.
The first movement, Starting to rain – Zennyo Ryuo appears, found as vivid a portrayal of rain as you could wish to hear – in my mind I was checking the roof for a leak! Throughout the concerto Coult’s keen ear for orchestral colour was evident at every turn, as was his assured writing for violin, brilliantly played by Pioro. The coloristic effects were enjoyable and easy on the ear, harmonies largely consonant but never over-simplified, and the description of events in Dyeing the lake blue for Queen Victoria, Francesco Landini serenades the birds and The art of setting stones was easy to follow. The birds in particular were vividly portrayed by the soloist.
There was however a fragmented feel to the green spaces, as though they had not fully germinated, and this was exaggerated by the stopping of each movement to pause the descriptive process. When the piece did finally finish there was still an element of unfinished business, in spite of its 27-minute length. Repeated hearing would be welcome to give a more thorough appraisal and understanding, as the warm reception would suggest Coult hit the mark for the vast majority of listeners. His music has many attractive traits and he is a gifted orchestrator, so his is most definitely a space to keep under watch.