In concert – Daniel Pioro, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Manze – Vaughan Williams: Symphony no.9, Lark Ascending & Tallis Fantasia; Tom Coult Violin Concerto

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.

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams and Beethoven begin the festivities

The first night of the BBC Proms is a watershed moment in the summer of a classical music lover. Yet increasingly the festival is working on being more inclusive, and some of this year’s BBC Proms Youth Choir (seen above the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner) had not even sung in public before, let alone attended the festival.

Such is the uniting power of one of Britain’s favourite summer institutions, and once again it was off to a flyer with the customary big choral work (John AdamsHarmonium) a world premiere (Tom Coult‘s St John’s Dance) and a high profile solo contribution from Igor Levit, whose account of Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 met and surpassed its heady expectations.

Both Levit and Coult had political undertones to their work. Coult’s new composition depicted the madness of the Middle Ages, people possessed by an all-encompassing dance of death that drove them into dangerous physical and mental situations. A parallel, you might think, for today’s superpowers and the shocking news they bring on a daily basis. Whether these references were intentional or not, it was good to have a new piece that started quietly, with a deliberately fragile violin solo, and built to its bigger moments.

Levit (above, at the piano) also had quiet asides, but his were absolutely spellbinding – the first movement cadenza and slow movement introduction in Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto no.3 both cases in point. Here we could easily have been back at the Wigmore Hall, witnessing a solo sonata performed to a select few, such was the intensity of his communication at a quiet dynamic. When he was with the orchestra the intensity subsided a little, not least because the balance favoured a coarse timpani sound. That said, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra woodwind was particularly beautiful under Edward Gardner’s watchful eye.

Levit had great things to say, his mind clearly at one with Beethoven’s moods and melodic invention. His use of silence was keenly sensitive, the tension evident in a brooding opening movement and deeply thoughtful Largo. The Rondo finale freed itself from the confines, skipping to a more obvious beat – but then Levit delivered a deeply felt encore, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (from the Choral Symphony finale) reduced to first principles and played to emphasise its role as an anthem of European unity. It was a provocative statement of which Leonard Bernstein – who conducted the Choral symphony in the unification concert when the Berlin wall fell in 1989 – would have been proud.

Finally we went for broke, with the 400-strong throng of the BBC Proms Youth Choir, brilliantly drilled and tirelessly rehearsed to deliver a moving and colourful performance of John AdamsHarmonium. Here too there were powerful statements in settings of the poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and Edward Gardner ensured they were delivered with great clarity and breadth. The thrill of Adams’ colourful music as it generated momentum was as strong as ever, and the percussionists of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in particular deserve great credit for their dexterity, rhythmic power and definition.

As a side note, what a shame to lose the ‘Further Listening and Reading’ section from the Proms programme this time around. It has been my ‘go to’ page ever since I started going to the Proms, and to not have it there feels like an unnecessary omission, even with the introduction of a new Listening Service – Tom, that is. Books are important in classical music, and so are recorded statements. To lose them from the programme is disappointing.

That said – how great  it is to have the festival back, confirming the ascent of summer in thrilling style. Eight weeks of great music lie ahead!

Ben Hogwood (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou)

This year Arcana will once again have two different approaches to its coverage of the BBC Proms. There will be a few straight ‘reviewed’ concerts, but the focus of our coverage will be on taking people to the Proms who have not been before.

To that end our reviews will come from first-time punters chosen from a pool of friends and contacts – many of whom will see things that us regulars do not! Most reviews will be from the Arena, which is the ultimate Proms experience – and which to my knowledge is the best part of the Royal Albert Hall for sound quality and atmosphere.

No other source reviews from here as far as I am aware…so stick with Arcana in the weeks ahead, particularly through August. We will look to bring classical music to new audiences on a weekly basis!