United Kingdom BBC PROMS 22 – Haydn and Vaughan Williams: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, / Andrew Manze (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.7.2018. (AS)
Haydn – Symphony No.104 in D, London
Vaughan Williams – A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)
It wasn’t so long ago that Haydn was completely absent from two Prom seasons, and if this symphony and a brief piece later on in the series seems rather short measure in 2018 at least some progress is being made.
In Andrew Manze, previously a violinist who specialised in historical performance practice and directed both the Academy of Ancient Music and the English Concert, Haydn clearly has a knowledgeable and sympathetic advocate. Johann Salomon, the London-based impresario who commissioned all 12 ‘London’ symphonies, had at his disposal a large orchestra for its time and it was pleasing to see the BBC SSO at something like full strength for this performance of Symphony No.104.
But there was one surprise in store. In the first movement introduction, the natural slow unfolding of the music was held up more than usual by unexpectedly long pauses between phrases. This extra dramatic touch was certainly not at all unwelcome and soon the allegro section of the movement was in full swing at a lively tempo and with an appealing freshness of delivery. Here, and throughout the work, Manze was generous with repeats. The Andante was kept moving fairly briskly, but plenty of room was left for some nice turns of phrase. In the Menuet and Trio Manze phrased the trio section quite carefully and deliberately: the main part of the movement had a cheerful triple-time liveliness. As did the finale, where Manze obeyed the ‘Spiritoso’ direction very happily: he didn’t over-emphasise the underlying drone element in the bass line, as some conductors do. Altogether it was a performance of utterly appropriate charm, wit and optimism. The Prom audience clearly enjoyed listening to Haydn’s well-balanced, warm and humane music, as opposed to some of the tortured creations they’ve recently had to endure.
If Andrew Manze is at home in Haydn’s music, he certainly has made a high reputation as a champion of Vaughan Williams’s music. Six years ago he conducted a Prom programme that consisted of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and he is making commercial recordings of all nine. His performance of The London Symphony was of such an exalted standard that words to describe it are difficult to find. Memories of interpretations by eminent British conductors of the past were for the moment at least eclipsed by this manifestation. The way Manze brought the work to life during the introduction was magical in its evocation of a city slowly coming to life. The release of energy that marks the beginning of following Allegro risoluto section was extraordinarily potent, and the ebb and flow of the material that follows was pointed with great skill, so that the poignantly reflective passages that occur later in the movement made an even more effective contrast than is usually the case. The Lento movement, superbly paced, had a quality of heartbreaking beauty; the Scherzo balanced deliciously quiet, springy rhythms with a infectiously jaunty trio section. A most passionate reading of the main part of the Finale, the big tune robustly assertive, was succeeded by a touchingly tender Epilogue. With superb playing in all departments by the BBC SSO, this was a greatly uplifting experience.