Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 2 & 8
RLPO/Andrew Manze (Onyx 4155)
One of the most memorable of Proms concerts in recent years was a trio of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies conducted by Andrew Manze in 2012. He led the BBC Scottish quite brilliantly through the contrasting terrain of Symphonies 4-6, then returned with them in 2014 with a “Lest we forget” World War 1 commemoration which featured a poignant account of the ‘Pastoral’ Third. It’s something of a surprise then that his orchestra for a new recorded cycle of the nine symphonies is not the BBCSSO but the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. It’s an orchestra with an excellent RVW pedigree, of course, setting a remarkably strong cycle on disc under that superb champion of British music, Vernon Handley. This opening disc couples Symphonies 2 and 8 – the same works Handley paired on his 1992 recording.
In the Second, ‘A London Symphony’, Manze generally sets a more leisurely pace than Handley. Onyx’s recording is less gauzy than EMI’s, allowing more detail to peek through the brooding mists of the introduction down by Old Father Thames before the evocative clarinet and harp Westminster chimes. There’s a sprightly bustle to the first movement’s main section, even if it doesn’t quite possess Handley’s swagger. Manze coaxes the tender central section beautifully.
A melancholy cor anglais introduces the slow movement beautifully, depicting Bloomsbury Square on a damp and foggy November afternoon. RVW preferred the work’s subtitle to be ‘Symphony by a Londoner’. This is picturesque rather than programmatic music, like Monet’s Impressionist depictions of London, flecked with the odd detail such as the Hansom cab jingles. In this respect, the close spotlighting of the RLPO woodwinds isn’t always desirable. The Scherzo, with its hints of merrymaking along the Embankment, swings along before the buoyant finale marches in. Wistful Westminster chimes act as an epilogue, as RVW put it himself “Light after light goes down… The river passes, London passes, England passes.” The great city returns to its slumber.
The close recording pays off in the Eighth, highlighting the brilliance of RVW’s orchestration. The shortest of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, it was dedicated to “Glorious John” Barbirolli, who conducted the première. Manze is also more sober in his tempi than Handley, apart from the second movement – all perky woodwinds and jolly brass. The opening movement, mischievously dubbed by RVW as “seven variations in search of a theme”, features some terrific solo playing – particularly from the first flute. The RLPO strings play warmly, but never cloy, in the Cavatina. The exuberant finale – a veritable gamelan of percussion – sees RVW gainfully employ “all the ’phones and ’spiels’ known to the composer”, vivdly captured on this recording.
Onyx has opened this Vaughan Williams cycle with impressive style, whetting appetites for more from Manze and the RLPO.