Music joined and separated by La Manche

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ireland, Ravel, Vaughan Williams: BBC Philharmonic / John Wilson (conductor), MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 8.7.2016 (RBa)

John Ireland: Overture – Satyricon (1946)

Maurice Ravel: Suite Ma Mère l’Oye (1908-11)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 8 (1956)

These short afternoon concerts in Salford Quays’ MediaCity are well worth knowing about.

This one was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and featured two British composers who were contemporaries if not closely associated. They were separated or, if you like, linked by Ravel with whom RVW studied in Paris during 1907–08. No doubt the two British items will be re-broadcast during BBC Radio 3’s impending major British Music season (Sept 2016-Easter 2017). In that connection we should note an interesting Summer Invitation series of British music programmes with the Ulster Orchestra including Parry’s Third Symphony.

Ireland’s post-World-War II concert overture, Satyricon, ripped, roared and swooned. Ireland’s music can be a bit thin-lipped but not in Wilson’s hands; he used a baton throughout this concert. I was actually caught by surprise;  mind you this was the first time I had heard the overture live. I ‘knew’ the piece from recordings and was less surprised by the crackling energy than by its romance and nostalgia. As the piece progressed, Wilson, who clearly loved the music, brought out its Big Screen romantic swoon and Errol Flynn swashbuckling moments. He clearly knows the piece inside-out having recorded it with Manchester’s ‘other’ orchestra in 2010 (review). Wilson recorded another John Ireland collection in Manchester’s Western companion city in 2011 (review). While this could never live up to the announcer’s cheekily libidinous introduction, whatever Ireland said about the work’s inspiration, the BBC PO’s and Wilson’s Satyricon cut a dashing figure. Real panache.

After this, Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye suite was the cue for the string benches reducing and the percussion numbers swelling. This has been a long-time ‘heritage track’ of mine. I heard it first, unprepared, in Bristol’s Colston Hall where the CBSO were conducted by Louis Frémaux in about 1973. Wilson played this with pointilliste enchantment, each tinkling and drowsily sigh detail clarified. There was no suggestion of gabble. It seemed to me that in the last few bars of Le Jardin Féerique Wilson was reluctant to let go and held on to the note values longer than usual. If he did, who can blame him.

Vaughan Williams’ Eighth Symphony already has Manchester connections. After all it was premiered by the Hallé conducted by its dedicatee, Sir John Barbirolli, in Manchester. OK, today’s concert was in the Borough of Salford but that was close enough. The symmetry of the occasion was enriched by the fact that the first performance had taken place in 1956, sixty years ago. The same forces recorded the work for Pye a year later (review). The orchestra more than expanded to its Satyricon scale with all the expected ‘spiels and ‘phones – about a dozen players in that rank. It was fascinating and sometimes very moving to hear this music properly. For me it remains a diffuse symphony; it feels diffuse; more of a concerto for orchestra than a symphony. Even so there was symphonic substance in the first movement which I have never heard done with such emotional weight. Towards the end of that movement there is one of RVW’s moments “of notable ecstasy” (where does that quote come from?) and Wilson played it for all it was worth. I had already noticed this in the other two works but at such moments Wilson beaming a smile, almost crouched, rocks back on his heels as if absorbing the power of the moment. Wilson clearly knows his Vaughan Williams. He has an RVW symphony cycle in hand with the Philharmonia and last month includied A London Symphony in a programme with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Wilson’s concert with the CBSO on 10 May 2017 is worth putting in your diary now.

Rob Barnett

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