Vaughan Williams, As If Played By Angels

United StatesUnited States Purcell, Mozart, and Vaughan Williams: Andrew Manze (conductor), Simone Dinnerstein (piano), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 10.10.2013 (BJ)

Purcell: Suite: March for the Funeral of Queen Mary, Z. 860; Rondeau from the incidental music to Abdelazar, Z. 570; Pavan in B-flat major; Chacony, Z. 730
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 in D major


I love paradox. Very often, it can be a crucial factor contributing to the pleasure we derive from art that rises above the merely simplistic.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony is a great work, but there is nothing paradoxical about its power. Its grinding dissonances and the uncompromising violence of its conclusion—it is one of only two Vaughan Williams symphonies to end loudly—must have struck its first audience in 1935 as the nightmare outcome of a strife-torn period, and then, in retrospect, as a prescient warning of the catastrophe that was soon to engulf the world. It was about this work that the composer said later: “I’m not at all sure that I like it myself now. All I know is that it’s what I wanted to do at the time.”

Then, in 1943, came No. 5. And this time the impact it made on listeners, in the darkest days of World War II, was of a benison, a dream-like evocation of seemingly unimaginable peace. About a decade later, hearing Vaughan Williams himself conduct it was one of the most unforgettable experiences in my time as a teen-age concertgoer. In physical terms, he was an awkward, even clumsy, conductor, but the orchestras of the day loved him, and so they played like angels.

The Fifth is probably the greatest of Vaughan Williams’s nine symphonies, and certainly the most magically lyrical. But this is where paradox comes in. With all its pastoral calm, the gentleness of its sonorities, the abiding quietness of its characteristic die-away ending, there is in it nothing inevitable about those qualities. The most remarkable of Vaughan Williams’s achievements here is to create such deep tranquillity without ever letting us lose sight of “Yes, but what if . . . ?” The work epitomizes the paradox of a man who could yet write some of the most beautiful religious music of the 20th century and serve as co-editor of The English Hymnal, yet remain an agnostic all his life.

Finding as I do questions more interesting than answers, I am naturally drawn to this above all the composer’s other works. On this occasion, it was a joy to hear it with the Seattle Symphony playing, similarly, like angels for Andrew Manze, who I should add is the very reverse of awkward or clumsy. His finely balanced handling of the bitonal opening, with its D-major horn calls underpinned by the resonant C natural of the lower strings—the composer said he was originally unsure whether to call the work “Symphony in D” or “Symphony in G”—set the expressive tone perfectly. The trombone section and timpanist Michael Crusoe touched skillfully in their quirky interruptions of the mostly tiptoeing scherzo. In the visionary Romanza (some of its material shared with Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim’s Progress opera) Stefan Farkas coped well with Manze’s bravely slow tempo, phrasing his cor anglais solo eloquently. The strings’ restatement of his theme a little later caught just the right note of consolatory warmth, echoed by Jeffrey Fair’s delicate horn solo statement of it further into the movement, to which Alexander Velinzon contributed a silvery violin solo. And string textures throughout the work were rich and superbly saturated in tone.

Perhaps, indeed, it was Manze’s sheer meticulousness in giving full weight to inner parts that, in the first movement, deprived the emergence of the E-major second theme from the deliberate preceding C-minor murk from making quite the visionary effect it can have. That, however, is the only small negative point I have to make about a performance that surely came as a revelation to many audience members. This symphony’s quiet ending is hardly calculated to elicit boisterous applause, but it was rewarded by an emphatic standing ovation.

Manze had opened the evening (after one of his trademark witty and engaging spoken introductions) with crisply enunciated readings of four short Purcell pieces, variously arranged by him and by Benjamin Britten. Then came Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. I had heard enthusiastic reports about the soloist, Simone Dinnerstein, whom I was hearing for the first time. Her unhurried delivery of the long notes in the first movement’s main theme did create a welcome sense of amplitude. For the most part, though, secure as her playing was, the only praise I can muster for it is somewhat negative, consisting in the judgment that she didn’t do anything positively wrong. Her tone, I thought, never really sang, and her phrasing was unimaginatively regular and prosaic even in the cadenza, which, like most of Mozart’s pithily allusive cadenzas, surely demands a bit of risky dash and sheer inventiveness from its interpreter.

Andrew Manze is a veteran of the “historically informed” performance practice movement, and a violinist whose own playing reveals a decided taste for vibrato-less tone. So it was interesting to note that, in both Purcell and Mozart, while he was far from demanding total avoidance of vibrato from the string players, most of them used the resource with moderation, often vibrating only on the appropriate longer notes in a phrase. It was just one sign among many that this conductor toes no ideological hard lines. He has, indeed, emerged as one of the most stimulating and stylistically versatile interpreters now before the public.

Bernard Jacobson