A Splendid Vaughan Williams Evening in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Laurence Jackson (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Manze (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 5.2.2014 (JQ)

Overture, The Wasps
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
The Lark Ascending
Job – A Masque for Dancing

This was a concert that I’d been eagerly anticipating ever since the programme was announced nearly a year ago.  The entire programme was attractive but what drew me especially was the prospect of a live performance of Job. Though I got the RVW ‘bug’ over forty years ago I’ve never had an opportunity to hear the work live; it’s not played in concert all that often, which is disappointing since I consider it to be one of the composer’s greatest scores.

 I was intrigued to experience the conducting of Andrew Manze. He made his name as a virtuoso Baroque violinist and, as a soloist and director, was closely associated with top ensembles such as The Academy of Ancient Music and The English Concert. More recently he has emerged as a conductor of modern symphony orchestras. Currently the principal conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, next season he takes a similar role with the NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Hannover. I seem to recall that a couple of years ago he conducted a well-received programme of the middle three Vaughan Williams symphonies at the Proms.

 The programme was shrewdly chosen, although there was a small price to pay with significant platform rearrangements between each work in the first half. The overture to The Wasps got the evening off to a cracking start. Manze’s sprightly, clear direction paid dividends in the faster sections while the big, generous tune in the middle of the piece was warmly phrased. I wondered if Manze was just a little too expansive in this passage but even if he was the results were still convincing.

 I mentioned that Manze made his name in the field of Historically Informed Performances of Baroque music. By an odd coincidence the last time I experience the Tallis Fantasia live another conductor with similar credentials was on the podium. That was Sir Roger Norrington who, at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival conducted a performance to mark the centenary of the premiere of the work in Gloucester Cathedral. That was a deeply disappointing occasion when Norrington subjected the piece to ‘authentic’ practice with vibrato all but eschewed and the music unfeelingly paced. He gave the impression, no doubt wrongly, that he didn’t ‘get’ the piece (review). Happily, Andrew Manze clearly did ‘get’ the piece and there was no nonsense about reining in the strings’ vibrato. Instead, what we got was an excellent performance in which the players were encouraged to let their lines sing when appropriate and in which there was expert grading of dynamics. The excellent solo quartet played from their usual positions as section leaders while the second string orchestra was placed behind the main body of strings and seated where the woodwind normally sit. Thus they were slightly raised on the tiered staging and this, plus Manze’s careful direction, ensured that the differentiation between the two ensembles was well achieved.

 The only unfortunate aspect of this fine performance was that we had several loud and unwanted assaults on the music from the Bronchial Terrorists. I simply can’t understand why people seem to have no compunction about unleashing loud coughs, usually during passages of soft music. I’m sorry to say that Birmingham audiences seem to be particularly culpable in this respect – and the superb acoustics of Symphony Hall magnify their ‘contributions’. Perhaps the hall authorities could consider broadcasting a pre-concert message urging people to supress coughs at the same time as they ask us to turn off mobile phones?

 The CBSO’s leader, Laurence Jackson was the soloist in the ineffably beautiful The Lark Ascending and he did a splendid job. He played with expert control and no little poetry though even the beauty of his playing couldn’t quite shame the coughers into silence. Andrew Manze accompanied him with all the care and understanding of a fellow violinist and once again his pacing of the music was admirable. The central folk-like section had a nice spring to it and Jackson’s singing tone was a consistent delight. At the end, as the lark spiralled upwards on one final flight of fancy into RVW’s imagined clear summer sky it was possible to forget for a few minutes the gales and rain lashing Birmingham and much of the rest of the UK even as the performance was taking place. I’m sure Laurence Jackson appreciated the sensitive support from his CBSO colleagues; at the end his performance was warmly received – and rightly so.

 Job – A Masque for Dancing was composed between 1927 and 1930. It’s significant that RVW, with his deep appreciation of English cultural heritage, called it a ‘masque’ and not a ‘ballet’; into it he wove several old dance forms such as the Sarabande, the Pavane and the Galliard. The score is compelling on several counts. For one thing the thematic material is memorable – especially such episodes as ‘Sarabande of the Sons of God’, one of RVW’s great, broad tunes. In addition Job demonstrates the composer’s complete command of the resources of a modern symphony orchestra – and here his scoring is lavish, including a large percussion section, two harps, organ and an important saxophone part. Furthermore, it comes from a crucial period in his development. The visionary Sancta Civitas (1925) was just behind him and the Fourth Symphony (1934) and Dona nobis pacem (1936) lay not far in the future. One can hear echoes – or pre-echoes – of all these scores and much else besides in Job which, it seems to me, is a key work in Vaughan Williams’ output.

 This evening’s performance was excellent in every respect. There was a great deal of subtle and sensitive playing to admire, including the persuasive shaping of the Introduction and the Epilogue and the silky strings during ‘Job’s Dream’ (Scene IV). Among many fine solo contributions there was an eloquent oboe solo in the ‘Minuet of Job’s sons and daughters’ (Scene III). The scoring in this episode is marvellously delicate and transparent, recalling Ravel in its pastel colourings; Manze and his players delivered this passage extremely well. A highlight of the entire performance was ‘Elihu’s dance of youth and beauty’ (Scene VII). Restored to his leader’s chair, Laurence Jackson gave a superb account of the radiant violin solo. Here RVW revisits, some 16 years on, the clear blue skies of The Lark Ascending. The relationship between The Lark and this solo was emphasised by the unique opportunity to hear both in such close proximity and played by the same violinist.

 While there is a great deal of beautiful music in Job there are also many passages of great power and even brazen force, the latter chiefly associated with the character of Satan. The moment when, after Job’s patience has snapped under the weight of his trials and he curses God, there is a dread glimpse of Satan sitting on God’s throne (Scene 6) occasions a cataclysmic climax.  The cursing of God was anguished and powerful in this performance but the vision of Satan was overwhelming. Here the organ made a telling impact, pedal reeds deployed, I think, to ram home the point. At the start of this scene RVW’s use of an oily saxophone to represent Job’s comforters is a masterstroke. I think it was bass clarinettist Mark O’Brien who doubled on the saxophone at this point and his wheedling, penetrating playing was just right.

 I thought Andrew Manze handled the entire score expertly. Hs pacing seemed ideal; the only slight cavil I had was that perhaps the music was just a fraction too driven in the ‘Dance of plague’ episode (Scene IV). Otherwise I found his unfolding of the music was completely convincing. Incidentally, I thoroughly approved of the use of the surtitles screen to indication each scene in the score as it began.

 This performance confirmed my high regard for Job. I think it’s a masterpiece and we should hear it more often. This was a performance that did full justice to its stature.

 I don’t know if Andrew Manze has conducted the CBSO before but I hope he’ll be invited back soon. I hope also that he’ll bang the drum for Vaughan Williams in Hannover. On the evidence of this concert he’s a doughty champion of RVW’s music.

 The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard for the next few days by clicking here; it’s well worth catching

John Quinn

Details of forthcoming concerts in the CBSO 2013/14 season here