VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphonies Nos 5 & 6 (Manze)
This is the third recording in the cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies that Andrew Manze has made with Onyx and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The first two, featuring Symphonies Nos 2, 3, 4 and 8, demonstrated not only Manze’s versatility and insight into these monuments of 20th-century British symphonic music but also a real affection and sympathy for the composer’s fecund understanding of form, architecture and scoring. This new recording continues that insight with panache. The clarity of the orchestral sound, especially in the pointillistic orchestration of the Fifth, is compelling (the Scherzo in particular, whose tempo Manze gives an extra injection of adrenalin).
The first movement of the Fifth is also an exciting interpretation, notably in the way that the development is allowed to accelerate naturally. Yet, at the same time, the ‘golden’ second subject in E major is given space and luxuriance in its intended contrast to the more restive, mysterious first subject. The Romanze, too, has an opulence which is finely graded. The opening, for example, is almost chamber music-like in the lower strings, a sound which is then permitted to grow incrementally throughout Vaughan Williams’s long, lyrical paragraph. Its reprise, replete with gently nuanced countermelody, is deeply moving, as are the radiant closing bars of the Passacaglia, where the counterpoint of the composer’s redemptive ‘alleluias’ brings the work to a tender, heartfelt conclusion, stunningly executed by the strings of the RLPO.
The contrast of the violent gestures of the Sixth Symphony is always going to be a stark one after the diatonic peace of the Fifth, but there is no less clarity in the bigger orchestral textures or rapid string passagework at the opening, or the second subject which belies the obvious ‘galumphing’ character in other recordings. Its recapitulation with harp has a visionary quality – a real high point of this recording.
The broad architecture of the more ominous second movement, with its foreboding brass and side drum, is carefully judged so that the cortège-like figures in the trumpets have a disturbing sense of menace when they recur. This almost intimidating mood continues in the demonic Scherzo. Here one is truly able to appreciate the brilliance of Vaughan Williams as a contrapuntist and as an orchestrator; this is virtuoso stuff, splendidly handled by conductor and orchestra. The impressionable shadow of the probing second movement finds its natural conclusion in the unremittingly bleak finale, where Manze’s control of the eerily hushed dynamics (not a little reminiscent of Holst’s ‘Neptune’) is consummately managed. Any lover of Vaughan Williams as a symphonist will find this recording exceptionally rewarding.